Crispy roast pork belly is, for me, the Holy Grail of pork dishes. Known as siu yuk or shao rou, it’s a staple in the pantheon of Cantonese roasts. Give me large slabs of it, dripping in its own fatty juices, its skin blistered and golden.
I grew up in Malaysia stuffing myself silly with siu yuk any chance I got (which probably explains why I was such a chubby kid), so I consider myself quite the connoisseur. The very best siu yuk has three distinct characteristics: a spoon-tender layer of meat, well-rendered fat, and, the pièce de résistance, shatteringly crispy skin. Like chicharrón and pork crackling, Cantonese roast pork belly has an almost Cheeto-like skin, all golden and puffed up, and crunches satisfyingly with each bite. But unlike chicharrón and pork crackling, siu yuk isn’t just a snack; it often stars as the crux of many Chinese meals, making it all the more addictively grand.
The ingredients needed to make siu yuk are straightforward enough: pork belly and a few simple seasonings like salt, pepper, five-spice powder, and for a truly authentic taste (though entirely optional), fermented red bean curd, better known as lam yu in Cantonese.
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The real test here, though, is getting the skin right. My mom, in her quest for the ultimate siu yuk and that elusive crispy skin, has tried nearly every single online recipe and technique there is. From using baking soda to vinegar rubs to strangely cathartic meat massages, most of what she found left much to be desired, either resulting in floppy porcine leather or, at the other end of the spectrum, tough, tooth-breaking rind. After countless failures (all of which I lapped up anyway), my mom has finally cracked the code.
The premise is simple. For the skin to blister into crispy golden goodness, it needs to be very dry. Patting the pork down with a dry towel helps; so does drying it out in the refrigerator. The kicker, though, is to coat the skin in a salt crust as it roasts. What happens then, is that all of the fat and moisture trapped within the skin itself will be drawn out towards the outer layer of salt as it roasts, allowing the outside to blister up. The salt crust, having done its job, is then cracked and removed, and the pork belly continues to roast over high heat to crisp up thoroughly, resulting in perfect skin every time.
While the salt crust technique isn’t exactly groundbreaking (blogs like The Woks of Life and The Burning Kitchen have used some variation of this technique), my mom has adapted and tweaked it to near-perfection. So much so that she’s shared the recipe with her sisters and friends, who now also swear by it. And they’ve shared it with their relatives and friends, and legend has it that those people have in turn spread it further yet. And here I am now, sharing it with you.
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