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.
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.
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 (多芯) and leafy (多葉). Use the stemmy kind for this dish.
1 pound (450g) minced pork - not 100% lean, naturally
1/2 tsp salt
2 tsp sugar
1 tsp oil
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|
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.