'The true cook is the perfect blend, the only perfect blend, of artist and philosopher. He knows his worth: he holds in his palm the happiness of mankind, the welfare of generations yet unborn.'

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Steamed pork patty 簡易蒸肉餅

If you read the title of this dish in English I'm sure you wouldn't find it terribly appetising. If you've lived in Canton, however, I'm sure you'd agree with me that it's a great, great dish. Steamed pork patty or 蒸肉餅 is one of the most well-loved of Cantonese dishes, and its apparent simplicity belies the great sophistication that underlies its preparation. It is essentially hand-minced pork to which a complimentary ingredient - usually intensely savoury and flavourful - is added. After that everything is mixed together until it's the right consistency and steamed. As anyone from the Canton area would tell you, it goes down terribly well with rice. I was told that before the 80's, a familiar sound emerging from the homes across Hong Kong during dinner time was the rhythmic pounding of the cleaver against the chopping board - families hand-mincing pork for preparing 蒸肉餅.

Herein lies the key to an authentic 蒸肉餅 - the pork ought to be hand-minced. Machine-minced pork isn't quite the same because mincing by hand preserves more fibres in the meat and gives a chewier texture; machine-minced versions are comparatively disappointing in texture. To mince pork by hand, you have to slice it thinly first then cut the slices into slivers, you then cut the slivers into tiny cubes of meat (like brunoise) - 切片,後切絲,再切丁. As if this is not enough work already, you then have to use your cleaver like an axe to soften some of the fibres in the meat furiously on a chopping board until everything blends to a sticky, soft, pliable consistency. I'm not sure there's an English term for this procedure - in Chinese it's called 剁. This process can take up to 10 or 15 minutes and anyone who's tried it can tell you how tiring it is. The simplest things are always the most difficult!


The other secret to a great steamed pork patty is that you have to chop solid pork fat - yes, pork fat - into tiny tiny cubes (again, like brunoise) and mix them into into the (lean) pork after it's minced. The pork fat contributes flavour (fat is flavour after all!) and they melt ever so slightly during steaming and moisten the lean meat. Without them the steamed patty will be dry and sad. This takes an awful lot of patience too because you have to freeze the fat first to make it easier to cut and dice. If you mince the pork fat with the meat, too much fat will melt during steaming, and the fat will end up in the sauce rather than in the meat. The meat wouldn't be as moist as a result.

I hope I managed to convey some of the blood, sweat and tears involved in making an authentic 蒸肉餅. For those of us with jobs, children, pets, friends, or a train to catch, it's kind of inevitable (and forgivable?) that we occasionally cheat and use ready-minced pork. It won't be quite the same as an authentic one, but there are steps we can undertake to make the shortcut version worthy of the dinner table.

There're lots of things you can put into steamed pork patties: salted eggs (鹹蛋), shiitake mushrooms and dried scallops (冬菇瑤柱), dried squid (土魷), salted fish (鹹魚), etc. They're usually intensely savoury ingredients that really 'lift' the flavour of the pork. For this reason pickles (醃菜) are a popular addition too, especially 梅菜, which is a classic pickle from 惠州 in the Canton province. It is basically mustard leaf (冬芥菜) pickled with salt and sugar. Notice that this 梅菜 is not the same as 霉乾菜 (sometimes written as 梅乾菜), which is more common in other parts of China. 霉乾菜 is made from another kind of mustard green called 雪裡蕻, and originates from the eastern part of China (江浙). These two pickles have very different looks and flavours, so be sure to use 梅菜 not 霉乾菜 for this dish.

梅菜
霉乾菜

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

梅菜蒸肉餅


A few salient points to bear in mind:

1. Even though the pork comes ready-minced, hand-mincing it for a bit helps add stickiness to the texture in the final dish.

2. Add water to the pork after you've added the flavouring so that the meat absorbs more moisture and 'expands' to a lighter texture.

3. The ideal steamed pork patty should be light yet slightly chewy. A minimum amount of cornflour is added to bind everything together, but not overly so  - you want everything to adhere lightly but not too densely (死實). The addition of oats isn't conventional, but it helps absorb excess liquid so that you don't end up with a soup after steaming. It also separates the pork fibres slightly so that the final dish is sticky yet loose (鬆).

4. After the pork is marinated, you stir the minced pork with a pair of chopsticks in a repeating circulating motion; this is followed by lifting up and throwing the pork back to the bowl. These two Cantonese techniques make the pork adhere better, reduces the gap between the pork fibres and therefore develop further stickiness (起膠). You'll see a transition from pork bits that don't really stick together to a mass that you can lift up in one piece with ease.

5. Ideally you would want to incorporate diced pork fat for this dish, but since I'm making the 'cheat' version I'm doing without it. Oil is added instead for juiciness. If you want to to go full-board, add finely diced pork fat along with the pickled vegetables.

6. There're two kinds of 梅菜 on the market: stemmy (芯) and leafy (葉). Use the stemmy kind for this dish.


INGREDIENTS

1 pound (450g) minced pork - not 100% lean, naturally

75g 梅菜 or other preserved vegetables like 冬菜, 蘿蔔乾

For the preserved vegetables
1/2 tsp salt
2 tsp sugar
1 tsp oil

Marinade
2 tbsp light soya sauce
1 tbsp Shaoxing rice wine
2 tablespoons water
1/4 tsp salt
1 1/2 tsp sugar
Pinch of white pepper
2 tbsp oats, lightly crushed with your hand
1 heaped tsp cornflour
1 tbsp oil
1/4 tsp sesame oil

For the pickled vegetables:

1. Wash the 梅菜 under the tap to wash away the salt on the surface. Use your fingers to flatten out the stems so that they are not clumped up.

2. Now soak the 梅菜 to reconstitute it and make it less salty. Put them in a bowl with water to cover. Add the salt and stir lightly - believe it or not the salt actually makes the vegetable less salty during the soak. Set aside for 30-45 minutes. Don't soak for too long or you'll lose the pungent flavour of the pickle.

Halfway through soaking: notice how the colour lightens up and the vegetable becomes softer  and more pliable compared to the picture above.

3. Lift the vegetables out from the water and rinse under the tap again. Squeeze hard with your hands as if you are drying a towel. Chop the vegetable finely.


4. Now add the sugar and oil to the chopped vegetables in a bowl and mix well. Set aside.

Moistened and sweetened

For the pork:

5. Hand-mince the pork - don't worry, it won't take very long and isn't strenuous. Using a cleaver or a straight-bladed knife, chop (剁) the pork on a chopping board vertically - imagine you're marking parallel lines on the pork. After you're done, do the same horizontally so that the cuts are perpendicular to what you just made. You may want to turn the chopping board at 90 degrees so that you don't have to turn your body to an awkward angle.

Left: unminced. Right: minced

How it should look after you've chopped (剁) vertically as well as horizontally
6. Put the minced pork in a big bowl and add the soya sauce, salt, sugar, white pepper and rice wine. Using a pair of chopsticks, stir in circles (in the same direction) until the pork starts to come together - about 20-30 strokes. Add the water and stir again until it's incorporated. Repeat for another 20 strokes.




7. Add the cornflour, oats, preserved vegetables, sesame oil and oil and mix in the same way as above. The pork will get even sticker as you stir everything together - about another 20-30 strokes.




8. The final step is to lift the vegetable-filled minced pork up high and thrust it back into the bowl. This procedure makes the texture denser (起膠) and therefore yields a chewier texture (彈牙) in the final dish. Repeat this thrusting motion for about 20 times.




9. The pork should feel quite sticky and come together as one mass when it's done - noticeably different from when you started when you wouldn't be able to grab it in one piece.














10. Put the pork in a deep plate, press down, smooth the top and form into a patty with your hand. Set aside for 30 minutes if you can.


11. Set a steaming rack in a roomy wok. Add water to the wok so that the water comes to about an inch beneath the steaming rack. Bring to a boil.














12. When the water has reached a full boil, put the plate onto the steaming rack - be careful of the steam! Put the lid back on and steam on high heat for 15 minutes.














13. Remove the plate carefully from the wok and serve at once.




P.S. In writing this post, I really struggled with finding the right adjectives in English to describe the different sorts of textures I had in mind about this dish. Maybe it's my poor command of the language, or perhaps each language has its own peculiar vocabulary to describe textures and flavours unique to its own cuisine that is in some sense untranslatable?

21 comments:

  1. Valuable information ..I am delighted to read this article..thank you for giving us this useful information. Great walk-through. I value this post.spiritual food
    religion and food

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  2. Thank you for d informative n detailed steps.am stil figuring out how to make d perfect steamed pork patty.:)

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    1. I adore steamed pork patty! Nothing beats hand-minced pork patty, of course...

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  3. ☌ Yes a nice detailed explanation of how to make an authentic pork patty. It would be great to be able to watch a video of it being made as you describe at the beginning. I might have a look around anyway. ☍

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  4. My neighbors are Cantonese and I can hear them making this dish right now through our shared wall... This used to be a favorite of mine as a kid (my Dad made the absolutely best version) so I'm craving it right now hearing those sounds...

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    1. I know! Most of us resort to minced pork these days....

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  5. Thanks for the recipe! It's the closest to tasting like what my parents used to make... I think I'm missing a shitake mushroom... Love the pork throwing, sure makes a difference!

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    1. Sorry for the late reply. The throwing makes the texture a little more gluey and hence a slightly firmer bite!

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  6. Thanks for sharing your recepie . I tried it today using mushroom and water chestnut instead of preserved veg. It is very good. Thanks again.

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  7. Hi
    Many thnaks for your careful and detailed approach to this recipe - and excellent photos. Being a Brit and based near London I can go to Gerrard Street for my ingredients, but the different preseved vegetables (chinese symbols only!) confuse me. Can you provide more detail - e.g. 'english' names as found on packets I may see in Loon Fung or See Woo? I get and use tins of Sechaun preserved veg - mustard stem salty and crunchy, and the brown pots of Tianjin pickled veg, but you are evidently not using either of these. Any guidance would be much apprciated.

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    1. I'm very sorry for the late reply. It's probably called preserved mustard greens in English. The colour is lighter than the darker northern equivalent. Actually you're free to employ other perserved veg - it's the saltiness that gives a kick to the meaty background. Just make sure that you soak them in water first to remove excess saltiness. Not sure if this has helped at all....

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  8. Thanks very much for the info - I'm still trying to get this dish right, I miss it so much from my childhood but I can't quite replicate the texture - I'll give this another go - thanks again!!

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    1. For the most authentic texture one would of course have to start with a whole piece of pork and slice, dice and mince using a cleaver... Passing that I think this method gives a close result. Have fun!

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  9. Thanks for sharing your recipe and technique of making steam pork patty. Appreciated so much.

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  10. Hi! Just wanted to say that your recipe is still awesome now two years later :D the additional steps in the marination process really makes a big difference!

    I'm trying to cut down on the preserved items so I've been using water chestnut which gives great moisture and a nice crunchy texture.

    I ate a really yummy version in a roadside stall once that was drenched in a really good black-ish sauce that was sort of like soy sauce, but not. Pretty sure it's not oyster sauce either cos it was pretty salty. Do you have any idea what that might be?

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    1. Hey! Glad you're still turning to this dish - it's the epitome of comfort food for me!
      In Hong Kong water chestnut is often coupled with dried squid in steamed pork patties. As you can see there's often some sort of preserved ingredient for its umami power. Have you tried the salted egg version?
      For the sauce, I think it may well be a sweet soya sauce which you do see in restaurants in steamed patties. The home version is usually without any additional sauce as the dish is so wonderfully self-saucing.
      Hope this helps!

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  11. My mom used to make a simple version of this. I wanted to give it a try and appreciate your sharing the technique. Throwing the meat was fun. Instead of the pickled greens, I added some minced ginger, and soaked a tablespoon or so of fermented black beans, rinsed and drained and chopped them, and threw them on top with some chopped scallions. Perhaps the sauce the previous poster mentioned was from black beans.

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    1. Your version sounds delicious! Thanks for sharing!

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  12. yummy and delicious recipe! great and meaningful information, and helpful blog. thank you restaurants in south delhi

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  13. Thank you for sharing this recipe! It can be hard to find good, authentic Cantonese recipes written in English (my only language), so I am very grateful. I cooked it with mushroom and water chestnuts and a little ginger. Excellent!

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