The first time I came across Szechuan kourou, or a version of it, was in one of the food stations in Yiwu’s International Trade City on a work trip to China some years ago. The set-up of these food stations isn’t so much about menus, and is instead more about assuming the diner knows what it is that they’re looking at and what it is they’re wanting to order.
When you’re a foreigner that doesn’t speak any Chinese dialects, things can become a bit of a guessing game.
So there I was, as hungry as they come, peering at a multitude of pre-made edibles and wondering which one to choose. There were the obvious pulled noodles, dumplings and fried bits and pieces, but some of the others were a tasty surprise.
I’m up for anything that I can remotely recognise. I knew what I as eyeing off was pork belly, it looked appealing enough, yet I had no idea what that vegetable was that it concealed. Bugger it. I chose it, anyway.
The mystery dish I ate is the simple-yet-complex steamed pork belly with mustard leaves – or meicai. Not fresh mustard leaves, but instead ones that need to be rehydrated after many rinses in water. They may be slightly rinsed before they’re processed and packaged for the consumer, but there’s always grit in this stuff.
I found out the Chinese name of this dish after I was contacted by a guy that noticed I’d been in Yiwu on a work trip. He basically wanted to show me a few dishes that are unique to the area his family is from – the Szechuan Province. I immediately recognised one of them, and once I was armed with this text – 烧白 – I let Google lead me to a bunch of traditional recipes.
After looking at and translating dozens of recipes, and watching a couple of YouTubes, I took notes and came up with the one I’m showing you now. My favourite discovery was putting a piece of Szechuan pepper-topped muslin on the dish before it goes into the steamer. This was something I came across in one recipe from someones grandmother; a trick that none of the other recipes used.
I’ve got to be honest, this is a fairly laborious meal to make, so I can understand why it’s often only seen at festivals and special occasions.
The trick is getting a burnished and dimpled texture on the skin of the pork, and making sure it’s steamed long enough to help render the fat.
Szechuan kourou wouldn’t be Szechuan kourou without those preserved leaves, either. The ones I found in the Asian grocer are semi-dried and slightly flavoured with soy. Soaking them removed the seasoning – and of course the grit that’s in there. The flavour of the mustard leaves is what makes this dish. It’s grassy and has a vague black tea flavour – something that permeates through the pork as it all steams together.
So if you’d like to make a Chinese dish that has a little more technique than tossing ingredients into a wok, this may be one for you.
Adapted from here.