Long before I was a butcher, before my musings evolved from why people eat animals to how, I sat in an open-air restaurant in Hanoi, Vietnam, with a young friend named Min. I didn’t consider myself a picky eater at that point, but looking back, I’d say I had a narrow frame of reference for what constituted food. I thought my gastro-ignorance was acceptable — until Min ordered a collection of dishes, none of which I remember very vividly, except for a heaping plate of wobbling cubes of white and clear jelly, which magnetized my curiosity and commanded my full attention.
“What … is that?” I asked Min. She snagged one of the jellies with her chopsticks and gleefully ate it, smiling at me under the turning fans.
“Oh! It’s, uh … fat from a pig. And it has the skin too.” Indeed. The jelly cubes were only held together by the skin attached to them.
I don’t remember my reply. I only remember how that moment changed my outlook on food.
As I’ve journeyed through the world as a butcher and advocate for ethical meat, and as a charcuterie practitioner and educator, I’ve found a great need for the nonmuscle components of hogs: fat to make sausages and salamis and confits, and skin to protect cures from light or to hold moisture. Skin that’s removed gets processed into homemade pork rinds (see my own recipe for this at Mere Leigh Food), and the skins that stay on the cured or smoked meats are later pulled off and used to season vegetables or grains. If I need a huge amount of gelatin in a stock to make it set for a terrine, skins and knuckles are my go-to.
But there are many other ways to use pork skin that allow us to use the whole animal. Asian cuisines use pork skin in ways that amplify texture and flavor, and can also add structure to dishes.
Vietnamese Bi (Shredded Pork Skin)
My Vietnamese friend Thanh taught me how to make a preparation called bi, which lends itself perfectly to the rendering of headcheese or souse.
As we boiled a hog’s head with herbs and aromatics to make a rich stock, Thanh cleaned the fat from the pork skins by scraping them off firmly with her knife. “It’s really important to get all of the fat off them so they aren’t rubbery,” she said. This led to the skins having a chewy, bouncy, “bite-through” texture, as Thanh described it, for which the Vietnamese have a word: yao. (See “Note” at bottom of article.) She then cut the skins into long, thin strips so they looked like noodles, and then boiled them in the stockpot with the head. “Traditionally, they would be boiled in stock or in water, and then the water [would be] reused as stock for another dish,” Thanh said.
After boiling the pork skins until they reached the proper texture, Thanh set them aside to cool. During that time, she taught me how to toast white rice in a heavy, dry skillet. Then, we ground the toasted rice into a powder using an old coffee grinder and tossed it with the cooled pork skin, as well as crispy sautéed garlic. The result was akin to a noodle salad, with fabulous texture. The firm but chewy texture of the pork skin carried the crunch of the toasted rice and garlic. The flavor was simple, but not one-dimensional. “Bi usually also includes some lean pork meat, sliced thinly, such as a pork chop. The meat will be stir-fried and included with the boiled skin,” Thanh said. Bi is usually served with rice or stuffed into spring rolls.
Taiwanese Lu Rou Fan (Braised Pork Rice)
The textural goals achieved by bi aren’t unique to Vietnamese culture. In Taiwan, the characteristic bouncy chewiness of pork skin is a coveted mouthfeel, according to Tiffany Ran, native Taiwanese chef and owner of the Seattle-based pop-up and meal kit delivery business Babalio. “We produce Blue Apron-style meals for people, but it’s all Taiwanese dishes,” she says.
Ran says pork skin is an important ingredient in one of Babalio’s mainstay dishes, lu rou fan, or braised pork rice. “Many cultural traditions call for frying up pork skin so it’s crunchy, but in Taiwan, we love skin on pork that’s braised or boiled because the skin has a chewy, bouncy, gelatinous texture we love,” she says. “We call this texture ‘Q,’ as in, ‘The soy-braised pork knuckle was delicious and so Q when I bit into it.’” The Taiwanese word “Q” is pronounced just like the English letter.
Ran describes braised pork rice as the ultimate Taiwanese comfort food, which arose from poor cooks who were using scraps and skins instead of whole cuts of pork belly. The recipe combines pork skin or diced skin-on pork belly with black beans, soy sauce, and sugar into a low and slow braise with spices until it all “[falls] apart and [becomes] unctuous, and then you pour it over rice like gravy,” Ran says.
To work with the skin, Ran blanches it in water so it’s easier to work with but is still relatively firm. Dicing the skins can be labor-intensive, but Ran says, “Don’t be precious about it. Just get two sharp cleavers and go at it.” In addition to black beans, soy sauce, and sugar, lu rou fan can be seasoned with star anise, cinnamon, and fennel seed. If you don’t have access to whole spices, Ran suggests Chinese five-spice powder and white pepper.
Ran believes pork skin became a key ingredient in lu rou fan out of necessity, but eventually rose to a matter of preference. “It actually made the stew better. It adds this unctuous sticky decadence to a stew that would otherwise be thin, lean, and kind of dry, so it became a comfort food for us,” she says.
Chinese Xiao Long Bao (Soup Dumplings)
Another comfort food in which pork skin serves as the defining ingredient is xiao long bao, or Chinese soup dumplings. These signature dumplings from Cantonese cooking include pork and scallions along with pork skin, for the express purpose of creating a soup-in-your-mouth feeling. The reason the pork skins achieve this is because they’re chock-full of gelatin. Makers of xiao long bao produce a gelatin-rich stock with the pork skins that’ll solidify when cool and liquefy when hot. They stuff the solidified skin and gelatin (much like the preparation I enjoyed in Hanoi) into a dumpling, and then, when the steamed dumpling hits the palate, the gelatin liquefies, providing a delicious, comforting shot of flavor that envelops the senses.
“It’s one of my favorite things on Earth,” chef J. Chong tells me, as she describes how xiao long bao is produced. Chong curates private dinners and Cantonese pop-ups in Asheville, North Carolina, and also provides classes in Cantonese cooking. Chong admits that the soup dumplings are difficult to make and can take years of practice, so she agreed to let me in on another Cantonese recipe that features pork skin: Cantonese barbecue.
“It’s not like barbecue in the way that a lot of Americans think about pulled pork. It’s actually roasted pork belly with the skin on, and then [the pork belly is] cut into portions,” she says. For this dish, pork belly is seasoned overnight in salt, Chinese five-spice powder, white pepper, and Chinese cooking wine. Before roasting, “You make dimples in the skin of the belly with a needle or sharp object, so the fat bubbles up through it and makes the skin super-crispy as it cooks,” Chong says. It’s not uncommon for Cantonese cooks to barbecue whole hogs using this same roasting technique, creating a crackling skin with plenty of flavor that eaters can enjoy along with the meat. Cantonese barbecue is typically served with a dipping sauce and a green, vegetable-like gai lan, or Chinese broccoli.
The typical Western association with edible pork skin is the airy, fried crunch of a pork rind. But a look into the uses of pork skin through different Asian culinary traditions opens up a wealth of opportunities to try new flavors and textures while using the whole animal and limiting food waste.
Note: Yao is one word in Vietnamese that could describe the bouncy, bite-through texture of pork skin. For our audio article, Thanh suggested another Vietnamese word, dai, the definition of which more closely captures pork skin’s textural description.
Meredith Leigh is the author of The Ethical Meat Handbook and has worked as a butcher and chef. Learn more and follow her at Mere Leigh Food.
Special thanks to Thanh Tran, Tiffany Ran, J Chong, and Meredith Leigh for their help in producing this article for audio. You can follow Chef J Chong on Instagram (@JChong_Eats). You can also check out Tiffany Ran’s business Babalio on their website and Instagram (@BB6TWPopUp).
Since ancient times, people have been putting salt on meat to preserve bounty, improve texture, and concentrate flavor. It’s one of the most ingenious and utilitarian traditions that has endured all over the world. In “The Basics of Curing Meats,” an online workshop presented by author Meredith Leigh, you’ll learn how the process of curing meat has evolved, and how to approach meat-curing in a way that will give you a range of options in the kitchen. Leigh demonstrates the basics, providing you with recipes for a smoky cured leg of lamb, as well as a completely dry-cured ham in the style of prosciutto. You’ll walk away from this class with the ability to cure beef, lamb, venison, mutton, pork, and other meats with ease and confidence. “The Basics of Curing Meats” is part of our “Food Preservation” course. Learn more at Mother Earth News Fair.
Join Meredith Leigh and Gianaclis Caldwell in “Charcuterie in the City,” where they speak on the value of homemade and ethically raised foods, including meat, cheese, and ferments. Listen at Mother Earth News.