Chinese bacon is one of the most delicious things you can eat – a brilliant way of using a really small amount of meat to transform a dish of noodles or a plate of greens, in the much the same way that you can use a bit of smoked bacon in a tomato sauce to create a great pasta amatriciana. With a cure heavy on star anise and Szechuan pepper, it’s a brilliant mix of savoury, sweet, salt and smoke flavour.
So Chinese bacon: good. Chinese pork farming, however: not so good. Even if it were possible to tell which packets of bacon were from good sources, shipping meat around the world is unsustainable, and much of the available Chinese bacon uses heavy amounts of MSG.
The solution to this problem: have a go at curing some bacon myself. I ordered a Pro-Q Cold Smoke Generator from Sous Chef, armed myself with bacon curing salt, star anise, cinnamon, Szechuan peppercorns, cinnamon, cloves, sugar, soy sauce and shaoxing wine (Sous Chef can help you out with some of these ingredients too).
Bacon starts with a pork belly – in this case from Old Hall Farm at the Marylebone Farmers Market. I followed this recipe from Hunter Angler Gardener Cook, except I didn’t use the garlic powder, and I added in a little dark soy sauce. As long as you use the right quantity of curing salt for the meat you have, feel free to alter the balance of other flavourings. The recipe above links on to some good articles about the safety of curing.
Separate the seeds from the star anise, and grind these with the other spices. Mix with the sugar and salt, and a tablespoon or two of the soy sauce. Moisten the pork belly, with the rind still on, with the shaoxing wine, and rub the spices into it, working it into slits in the rind. It will look like this:
Put it in an airtight bag, with any remaining spices, and seal. Place it in the fridge, and then turn it over every day. I left it in the fridge for six days – the recipe says between five and seven days, until it feels firm all the way through.
When you take it out, wipe it dry and leave it on a rack to air for an hour or two, and then prepare the smoker. The Pro-Q produces up to ten hours of smoke. I was using it in a Weber kettle barbecue, and had a bit of trouble getting the airflow right for it to stay alight.
After a bit of manoeuvring I got the smoker lit and the meat on top of it on a rack, where it stayed for 4-5 hours.
After smoking, I cut it into three pieces (so I could freeze two) and kept one to use over the next few days. The recipe says that it should be fine in the fridge for a couple of weeks, but our first piece didn’t last that long…
Unlike the Chinese bacon I’ve previously bought from Asian grocers, this doesn’t need soaking before use. Just slice off the rind and cut into lardons.
The first dish we made was a simple dish of noodles so as to taste the flavour of the bacon as much as possible. The lardons were cooked in a hot wok until the fat rendered, when a couple of sliced spring onions were added…
…and then the cooked noodles – along with a splash of shaoxing wine and soy sauce.
A couple of days later, the remainder of the first piece was sliced and cooked with two big handfuls of pak choi, tatsoi and flower sprouts, finished with just a dash of soy sauce, to create the dish at the top of the page.
So a combination of exotic spices with English pork and some oak smoke creates Chinese bacon made right here in London. If the initial motivation was a more sustainable way of enjoying Chinese bacon, the reason to make it again will be that it was just so good.