As Celine Chan was going into her junior year of high school, she knew that she was going to have to cook for herself soon in college. She also knew the first dish she would ask her mom to teach her: braised pork belly. Or, as her dad called it when she was younger, little meat. She never knew it was actually known as braised pork belly until much later, but regardless, she knew that her mom made it the best.
Getting straight to work, Celine began rendering out the fat from the chunks of pork belly. Disliking the mouth feel of the fat, she used to pick it off to give to her dad, but now she appreciates all the flavor it adds to the dish. As the pork began to brown, she threw in dark soy sauce, which she claimed gave the pork most of its color. She soon followed with some Chinese cooking wine to reduce the gaminess of the meat. The spice mix of star anise, bay leaf, cinnamon sticks, ginger, sugar and scallions followed. Next came dried chilis, and although Celine’s grandmother prefers throwing them in whole for less spice, Celine snapped them in half and sprinkled the seeds in for us. After all the spices were added, the last step was to simply add enough water to cover half the pork, leaving the pot lid ajar. While the stew typically simmers for an hour, Celine expedited the cooking time by boiling on a higher heat after one look at our hungry faces.
As an accompaniment to the meal, Celine decided to make scallion pancakes as well. Although she was born in Hong Kong, growing up in northern China influenced her preference for starches, instead of rice. She got the dough started quickly, eyeballing the amount of flour and water until she was left with a sticky dough.
After letting the dough rest for a bit, the real work began, with us watching attentively. She rolled out a third of the dough into a thin layer, which she oiled, salted and sprinkled scallions onto. She then folded the dough into thirds, like an envelope, turning before folding into thirds again. All the while, the pork belly kept stewing away, and the aroma of all those wonderful spices filled our kitchen.
When there was only a bit more time left on the pork, Celine began to fry the scallion pancakes, making sure there was enough oil on the hot pan to properly let the pancakes develop a golden brown color. This left us novices to fold remaining dough into more pancakes.
At last, both dishes were fully prepared, and we were ready to eat — with some sticky rice and some pickled radishes that were hiding in the back of our fridge adding some pink flair. While some chose to dip their scallion pancakes into soy sauce, if one salts their dough enough then the soy sauce is unnecessary.
And now, years after her mom initially taught her the recipe, Celine makes the dish for her family back at home.