FamilyStream of Consciousness

In the Palm of My Hand

Braised pork

I’m an intuitive cook. Most immigrant cooks and great chefs are intuitive cooks. Growing up watching my Mang cook, I never once saw her use a measuring cup or measuring spoons. A cup of water was one rice bowl full of water. She used dinnerware for tablespoons and teaspoons. The most important measuring utensil in our house was her hand. I would pour whatever spice or salt into the palm of her hand and she would tell me when to stop just by eyeballing the amount. Liquid measurements were poured into a ladle or large cooking spoon. It was important to know what ingredients went into the recipe, but there was never any precise measurement.

To make Chinese-style braised pork, Mang would buy a 3 to 4 lbs of pork butt, a dozen eggs, and bunches of green onions. When she got home I would be enlisted to be her clean hands as she gleefully butchered the pork butt and washed it with salt. Meanwhile, my job was to boil the eggs and clean the onions. In a metal bowl, I would dump in the cut scallions and Mang would go to town pounding them with the non-business end of a hammer that was solely used for that purpose. No fancy mortar and pestle in our house, we used what was at hand. I would peel the boiled eggs and set them aside as Mang would start the meat cooking in the pot. To this day, my Mang uses only stainless steel pots. She never upgraded from the ones we bought in the 80s. They are Farberware and were bought at Linen and Things (now defunct) for the very expensive price of $40.00. In those days, that was a fortune in my house. Those freaking pots have stood the test of time, surviving 2 moves, various burned food incidents, my fledgling cooking attempts, and one or two of the pots may have even gone airborne a few times yet they still conduct heat evenly and are easy to clean. They don’t make pots like these anymore.

Once Mang had rubbed the pork butt with a mixture of smashed green onions, salt, pepper, sugar, and garlic powder, all measured into the palm of her hand, it would be placed into a large steel dutch oven, along with the boiled eggs. Water would be added with fish sauce and caramel sauce and all would be brought to a boil. Once again, no measuring utensils were used. The water needed to cover the meat and eggs while Mang would put in enough caramel coloring and fish sauce to make the liquid the correct color, with consideration for evaporation and absorption during the cooking time. What is the magic formula’s color? Depending on the age of both caramel coloring and fish sauce, it could be a very light tepid honey gold color, or it could be the dark smoky brown of whiskey. No matter what color it started out at the beginning the braising sauce – once having cooked for at least an hour – would turn into the color of oolong tea left overnight. The eggs and meat are a smooth beige-brown having absorbed all the flavors from the liquid. The longer it was braised, the softer the pork would become, to the point of shredding at the touch of chopsticks.

This dish is a must at Lunar New Year, and is served with pickled Chinese mustard greens, and is eaten with rice or Vietnamese Bánh Chưng
(molded sticky rice, pork belly, and mung bean cake). I love the way the pork butt melts in your mouth, and how when you cut the eggs and pour some sauce over them, the yolk is creamy and rich with the slightly sweet and salty taste of the braising sauce. Kids will sometimes just make a meal of the eggs and sauce on top of rice.

It has taken me a lot of trial and error to come up with actual measurement for my recipes. However, I want my sauces to be used intuitively as well. It is up to you to decide how much or how little of the Caramel Braising Sauce you will use when cooking. It has all the basic ingredients that you need, but you can add whatever you like to make it your own dish because my sauces were made to be easy, authentic, delicious.

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