The Belly Of The Beast
Nigel Slater, the celebrated British cook book author and food columnist for The Observer, is known to have said that if given the choice of only one piece of meat, he would pick pork belly. He is, it would appear, not alone. In New York, pork belly helped reverse the fortunes of chef wunderkind David Chang, while in Mumbai, chefs are slowly introducing the fatty piece of pork into a variety of dishes.
“For its flavour, texture and versatility, I would say it’s every chef’s pick,” says Gresham Fernandes, the group executive chef of Impresario Entertainment and Hospitality, the company that owns Salt Water Cafe, Smoke House Deli and the Mocha chain of coffee shops. Pork belly is essentially a thick slab of alternating layers of tender meat and silky fat, which is cut from the same part of the pig that is cured and smoked for bacon. When cooked correctly, it offers a velvety melt-in-your-mouth explosion of texture and flavour.
Fernandes has been the champion of not just the belly, but of the pig as a whole. In March 2011, he initiated the monthly Swine Dining dinners at Salt Water Cafe, a sumptuous feast for pork lovers, where he focuses on different cuts of the pig (including offal) that are otherwise undervalued in India. Pork belly is served in the form of a burger with radish kimchi at Salt Water Cafe, and is either braised or served crackling at the Swine Dining dinners for small groups of pork lovers.
The buzz around pork belly began a few weeks into the June 2011 launch of the Mumbai outpost of London-based Michelin-starred Chinese restaurant Hakkasan. Several reviews, including our own, heaped praise on Hakkasan’s signature braised pork belly with pickled lotus root, for its gummy richness. Alex Sanchez, the chef at The Table in Colaba, introduced pork belly on the restaurant’s dinner menu two months ago. He serves a South-East Asia-inspired pork belly, which is braised, then fried and served with cubed watermelon, pickled watermelon rind, and a tart coriander root, jaggery and lime juice vinaigrette with Thai basil and sesame seeds. “If treated properly, pork belly tastes better than pork loin,” says Sanchez.
As a versatile cut, pork belly lends itself to a number of preparation styles, the most common of which are braising, grilling, roasting and frying. However, cooking it is a labourious process. Most often, pork belly has to be pressed and cured in seasoned salt and curing spices for many hours, and braised for a couple more, to make it tender enough for consumption. Viraf Patel, the chef at the recently-opened all-day restaurant Cafe Zoe in Lower Parel, serves pork belly braised and shredded in carbonara and also as a pulled pork brioche with caramelised white onions. You will also find pulled pork belly in a sandwich with char siu glaze, crispy sprouts and blueberry balsamic sauce at the Cafe at the NCPA in Nariman Point. Stewing is another fairly common way of preparing pork belly, which is how Ling’s Pavilion, the Chinese restaurant in Colaba, makes and serves it, along with mushrooms and tofu. When asked to pick one ingredient that best complements pork belly, most chefs we spoke to picked fruits, ranging from oranges and kumquats to apples, cranberries, melons and pears.
Both Hakkasan and The Table import pork belly “as pigs bred abroad tend to have a good meat-to-fat ratio as opposed to locally procured pork belly, which is generally lean,” says Sanchez. According to Patel, local butchers aren’t yet entirely familiar with cuts such as tenderloin, loin, short ribs, belly and so on, which is why these cuts are still undervalued here. However, both Patel and Fernandes have worked out arrangements with local pork vendors to sell them the belly along with other coveted parts. While Fernandes orders large quantities of it from the Fresh Pork Market in Chapel Road in Bandra West, Patel personally frequents markets in Bandra, Dadar and Byculla so that he can instruct butchers to sell him desired cuts of the pig. “Pork belly is a chef’s delight,” Fernandes says. “And as such, it’s worth all the effort.”
Gresham Fernandes, group executive chef of Impresario Entertainment and Hospitality, which owns Salt Water Cafe, Smoke House Deli and the Mocha chain of coffee shops, shares a recipe for torresmo, a popular Brazilian snack of crispy pork.
• 1 kg pork belly with the skin on
• 5 grams salt
• 5 grams baking soda
• 100 ml vegetable oil
• Finishing salt (mix 5 grams smoked paprika and 5 grams salt and keep aside)
• Lime wedges
• Cut the pork into 1 cm by 4 cms strips.
• Marinate with salt and baking soda and refrigerate for 6 hours.
• After you remove it from the fridge, wipe the pork with a dry cloth to remove excess moisture.
• In a heavy-bottomed sauce pan, add the pork belly and the vegetable oil. Do not overcrowd the pan.
• Cook on low heat until the fat begins to render. Keep rendering until the pork is submerged in its own oil. The colour of the pork should be light blonde.
• Remove the pork with a wire mesh spoon and keep aside.
• Keep cooking the oil until all the moisture has evaporated. The oil is moisture-free when there is no sputtering sound and no bubbles are formed.
• Strain the oil and reheat. Add the pork belly and fry it until it puffs like popcorn. Remove it with a wire mesh spoon once it has turned golden brown.
• Strain it on an absorbent paper towel and season with the finishing salt.
• Serve with a wedge of lime. The dish tastes best with beer.