from one generation to the next
Archeologists have found evidence in the Ukraine of a sophisticated roasting spit dating back to 30,000 BC while in modern day Syria they unearthed rudimentary clay lined pit ovens of a similar age. They were heated by the radiant heat from hot pebbles . The modern day Indian tandoor is based on this ancient but functional design.*
Hunting game forced man to develop tools, weapons and implements to finesse his cunning and develop tactics to outwit and overcome his prey. The hunter ate meat to fill his belly and to nourish his offspring, he wore the animal skins for warmth and soon discovered that bone tools were more efficient than those he made from stone.
The animals prehistoric man hunted varied through the millenia differed with the seasons, climatic conditions, and location. He domesticated animals, he developed new methods of cooking meat, but the basic roasting technique essentially stayed the same.
In his important book “On Food and Cooking” first published in 1984, Harold McGee tells us that browned meat tastes better not because the juices are sealed in, but thanks to the enhancment of natural flavour produced through the caramelization of co existing surface sugars and amino acids. The reaction happens only after the temperature exceeds 154 degrees celsius. This helps explain why we relish the flavour of roasted meat so much and why plain boiled cuts lack intensity.
In modern times the family roast has found a place on the traditional celebration table, turkey at Christmas and Thanksgiving, lamb at Easter, beef on Sunday. My mother’s advice when selecting a suitable partner was to find a man who could carve the roast, an opinion reflecting the reverence in which the roast dinner was regarded mid 20th century.
I have a predilection for roasted meat, especially chicken, pork and lamb. Because of this I’ve buried campfire ovens in hots coals, perfected roast lamb in my charcoal fired kettle barbeque and committed temperatures and times to memory so that crispy skinned chicken from my domestic oven is never dry. My pork roasting prowess however is (was) unspectacular.
I confess to being inspired by a contestant on the recent Australian Masterchef series who slow roasted pork belly to crackling perfection. Through the wonders of TV trickery, it looked as if she simply slashed and seasoned the skin then bunged it in the oven for a couple of hours. I have my doubts.
At worst pork, belly can be fatty and chewy. When cooked with care and precision it’s melt in the mouth tender and sweetly flavoured. The crunchy crackling is a bonus for some while for others it’s the whole reason to eat roast pork. My favourite butcher supplied a small piece of lean pork belly, the roasting was up to me. I wanted perfect roast pork, no compromise.
To ensure blistered crunchy crackling I followed the method described by Kylie Kwong in her book “Simple Chinese Cooking Class.” She stresses that the skin must be dry, very dry. The pork rind is slashed, dried, cured, oiled and salted before it gets to the oven for slow roasting. She recommends a final blast of high heat to give the rind the perfect snap.
I marinated the pork according to Kwong’s recipe but in truth, it was superfluous to the fantastic result. The fat layers of the pork belly had rendered perfectly leaving juicy, tender, sweet tasting roasted meat. The crackling was by far the best I’d ever made. This method was the answer to my roast pork woes.
You need to plan ahead to cook this perfect crispy roast pork belly. The hands on preparation time is minimal, but the pork needs to rest uncovered in the fridge to thoroughly dry out the skin and ensure the success of the crackling.
The flavour profile of the marinade led to an Asian salad accompaniment, but really, all I wanted with my pork was apple sauce. There’s always next time.
Crispy Soy Roasted Pork Belly
1 X 800g piece of free range boneless pork belly
500mls boiling water
1 tablespoon sesame oil
1 tabelspoon salt flakes
2 tablespoons brown rice miso paste
1 tablespoon Chinese 5 spice powder
1 Tabelspoon brown sugar
1 tablespoon light soy sauce
Slash the pork rind through to the fat at 50-100mm intervals. A boning knife will do this effectively.
Place the pork rind side up on a wire rack over the sink. Pour over the boiling water to scald the skin. Pat the pork dry then place it uncovered in the fridge for 2 hours to dry out.
Use a sharp knife and stab the pork skin all over until covered in small holes.
Turn the pork over and slash the meat 2cm apart, 1cm deep.
Mix together the marinade ingredients then massage it into the meat. DO NOT marinate the rind.
Put the pork skin side up onto a wire rack that will fit inside your roasting tin. Put the rack on a tray and refrigerate the pork overnight, uncovered.
The next day return the pork to room temperature.
Preheat the oven to 150C.
Put the wire rack with the pork on it into a roasting pan.
Rub the skin well with the sesame oil and scatter over the salt.
Roast for 1 1/2 – 2 hours or until tender. The meat should offer no resistance when pierced with a skewer.
Increase the oven temperature to 220C and roast for a further 15 minutes. This final blast of heat will turn the skin to crackling.
Remove the pork from the oven and allow to rest for 15 minutes in warm place.
Cut into 1cm thick slices to serve.
* History of Food by Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat