If you ask me, pulled pork is the best filling for any sandwich, but these are actually a big deviation from what I was going for. Traditional rou jia mo are flatbreads filled with finely minced pork, lamb, beef, or chicken, but when making my own version this weekend, I made a mistake: I taste-tested before chopping. A single bite later, impatience won; I skipped the mincing, haphazardly sliced and stuffed the buns, snapped a few shots and proceeded to stuff my face. Total lack of self-control is dangerous in any scenario, and never more than when wielding a hefty Chinese cleaver over long lines of pork belly saturated in their own scalding juices. This little mise-en-scène could’ve ended in tragedy – but thankfully the only negative outcome here was that these photos do not do the rou jia mo justice.
Most often, rou jia mo is referred to in English as "Chinese hamburgers", but unlike their American counterparts they require no fillers beyond the meat to pack a flavor punch. I added cucumber and raw chili pepper for crunch and heat, but the braised pork belly is infused with so many gorgeous complex spices that it can completely stand alone. When I was little, my dad used to cook pork belly using this method; half of it would make it to the dinner table, the rest picked apart by eager fingers straight from the cutting board, brought to lips slick and shiny with fat. (Clearly, I haven't matured much in the early sampling department.) It's the deep, darkly fragrant bath the meat steeps in for hours that makes the final product so irresistible.
The spice mix is similar to the one used for braised pork leg I posted earlier - honestly, one could be substituted for the other with not much consequence. Red-braising and lu rou cooking are very adaptable based on what you have on hand. The critical dry spice elements are the Szechuan peppercorns, star anise, scallion, ginger, garlic, and sugar cane; otherwise, there are endless permutations and combinations that work well. All this is to bring scope and shape to the blend of soy sauces (light and dark, one sharp and the other sticky-sweet), vinegar, and rice wine that seeps into every thread of meat.
Four hours later: Chinese street food at its best. Strips of meat with just enough fat clinging to each piece, crammed into the warm grasp of a crusty flatbread. Stinging chili flakes and pepper add a heat that is almost incandescent, tempered slightly by crisp slices of cucumber. No utensils needed, napkins absolutely necessary.
Pulled Pork Belly Rou Jia Mo Recipe (makes 8, serves 2-3)
Ingredients: pork belly braise
- 2 1/2 - 3 lbs of pork belly
- 1/4 cup light soy sauce
- 1/4 cup dark soy sauce
- 3 tbsp shaoxing wine
- 2 tbsp vinegar
- 4-5 cups of water
- 3 scallions
- 4 cloves of garlic
- 1 thumb-sized piece of ginger
- 1/2 tsp Szechuan peppercorns
- 1/2 tsp cumin
- 1 candlenut
- 2 star anise
- 3 cloves
- 1 small bunch of ba wang hua
- 1 cao guo (Chinese black cardamom)
- 3 shan zha (Chinese dried hawthorn fruit)
- 2 sugar canes
- 2 cups of bread flour, plus up to another 1/4 cup
- 1 cup of water, heated to 100-110 degrees
- 1 tbsp of sugar
- 1.5 tsp yeast
- 0.5 tsp salt
- 2 tsp vegetable oil
- 1/2 cucumber, sliced thinly
- 1 hot pepper, sliced thinly
- Lao gan ma chili flakes
Make the pork braise: Rinse the pork belly under cold running water. Combine all other ingredients into a large stockpot and add the cleaned pork belly. Cover the pot and bring to a boil for 1 minute. Lower heat to a simmer, the lowest heat possible - the mixture should be lightly bubbling. Keep the pork belly covered. For the first hour, skim the fat and scum off the surface of the braise every 20 minutes. Let simmer for 4 hours (check periodically, may be done after 3 hours); the meat should start falling apart easily.
Meanwhile, make the flatbreads.
Proof the yeast: add yeast and sugar to the warm water and let stand for 5-10 minutes until lightly foamy.
Make the dough: Combine the flour and salt in a large bowl and add the warm yeast mixture. Stir until a sticky dough forms, then turn out onto a lightly oiled or floured board to knead. Knead until the dough turns tacky and smooth, about 10 minutes, adding flour as needed (but no more than 1/4 cup. I added about 2 tbsp.) At this point, knead in the oil. Transfer the dough ball to a lightly oiled bowl, cover, and let it rise for 1 hour or until doubled in size.
Form the flatbreads: Once the dough has doubled in size, punch out all the air and transfer to the board. Knead for 5 more minutes to completely remove the air. Divide into 8 equal pieces. Cover them with a lightly floured piece of plastic wrap to prevent from drying. To shape, roll each into a rectangular strip, then roll up the strip. Turn the roll 90 degrees so the spiral faces up. Flatten gently with your hand, and roll out from the center, turning the dough piece as you go. Roll to 1/4 inch thickness. Set aside on a piece of floured parchment paper, in the order that you rolled them. Let rise again for ~20 minutes, until a little puffy.
Pan-fry: To get a nice crust, heat vegetable oil over medium heat in a large pan. In the order you shaped the flatbreads, pan-fry each for 2-3 minutes on each side until browned. Set aside the fried flatbreads onto a large baking tray.
Bake: 10 minutes before the pork is done braising, bake the flatbreads in a 325 degree oven for 7-8 minutes to finish cooking.
Assembly: Remove the pork from the braising liquid. Separate the lean meat and fat, and chop into small pieces. Traditional rou jia mo is very finely minced but the texture is up to you. Choose your preferred mix of fat and lean meat. Slice an opening in the flatbreads, not all the way through - just cut a pocket. Stuff the opening with cucumber, hot pepper, pork belly mince and add chili flakes if desired.