Melt-in-the-mouth pork belly steamed over richly flavored preserved mustard, Mei Cai Kou Rou makes a centerpiece for any celebratory Chinese meal.
From Red Cooked Pork Belly and Hunan Pork Stir-fry to Sichuan Twice-cooked Pork Belly, Chinese people’s appreciation for pork belly is obvious. Today’s recipe, Mei Cai Kou Rou (aka steamed pork belly with preserved mustard), shows you yet another way to cook this delicious ingredient.
What is Mei Cai Kou Rou
Like Lion’s Head Meatballs, Mei Cai Kou Rou (梅菜扣肉) is a banquet-style dish that brings any special food gathering to the next level.
One of the most popular Chinese New Year dishes, it consists of slices of pork belly steamed to a melt-in-the-mouth texture and served over a bed of richly flavored preserved mustard (Known as Mei Cai/梅菜).
Another highlight is that this dish is presented in a neatly packed, upside-down bowl shape. This eye-catching look makes it a perfect centerpiece for a feast.
Why this recipe
There are many variations of Mei Cai Kou Rou across different regions of China. The general cooking method and appearance are similar, but they differ in seasonings. Some use soy sauce to provide the key flavor, while others add fermented ingredients like Fu Ru (fermented bean curd), spicy condiments like Doubanjiang (like what I cooked for a fund-raising supper club in London), etc.
This recipe uses a few common Chinese condiments making it very accessible. Its neutral flavor suits young and old. That said, please feel free to add your own twists to alter the taste.
No deep-frying required
Traditional recipes for Mei Cai Kou Rou involve deep frying par-cooked pork belly to achieve a wrinkly effect on the skin known as “tiger skin/虎皮”.
Like how I alter the traditional recipe for Dim Sum Chicken Feet, I skip the deep-frying process which leads to hot oil splashes and the unnecessary addition of fat. Without the “tiger skin” look, the dish tastes equally delicious.
Before I explain the recipe in detail, here are some top tips to bear in mind:
- Marinate the pork longer for a better taste.
- Always check the saltiness of the Mei Cai.
- Allow adequate time to steam for the best texture.
- Prepare a big batch then freeze. Steam any time you wish.
You’ll need a block of skin-on pork belly which has a certain thickness. Choose a leaner piece when possible (You’d need some fat for this dish so I don’t recommend you use other cuts of pork).
If the butcher didn’t remove all the hair on the skin, you can burn it off by pressing the skin over the surface of a very hot wok/skillet.
Mei Cai/梅菜 (or Mei Gan Cai/梅干菜) refers to preserved mustard which is used in many regional cuisines of China. It comes in different forms and saltiness.
The dried one from Shanghai and Jiangnan cuisine requires rehydration. The Cantonese version is fresh and can be consumed directly (I still soak it though to reduce the saltiness). Also, the former has a chewier texture while the latter taste crunchier.
Both types work well for this dish. I used the Cantonese version for shooting this recipe.
Aromatics & spices
You’ll need garlic, ginger, star anise and Chinese cinnamon (aka cassia cinnamon). I also add a few dried chilies which give the dish a mild hint of spiciness. Skip them if you have a very low tolerance for hot food.
The cooking procedure can be broken down into three parts:
- Simmer and marinate the pork belly;
- Soak and braise the Mei Cai;
- Combine the two and steam.
Even though the recipe is written in this sequence, you should multitask during the first two sessions to be time efficient. For example, while waiting for the pork to simmer, soak and braise the Mei Cai.
Simmer the pork
Put a block of pork belly into a pot/saucepan filled with cold water. Add scallions and ginger. Bring the water to a boil then turn the heat to low. Leave to gently simmer for 45 minutes.
Turn off the heat. Let the pork sit for a further 30 minutes. Then remove from the pot. Rub a layer of dark soy sauce over the skin while it’s still hot. This is to give it an appetizing brown look.
Marinate the pork
Once the pork belly cools and becomes firmer, use a sharp knife to cut it into slices. I like them to be around ¼ inch/0.7cm thick. If too thin, they fall apart easily after steaming. If too thick, it’ll take longer to cook them to a melt-in-the-mouth texture.
Marinate the pork slices with dark soy sauce, light soy sauce, oyster sauce, Shaoxing rice wine, sugar and white pepper for 1 hour or overnight for an even better taste.
Soak the Mei Cai
No matter which type of Mei Cai you use, rinse it under running water to remove any salt and dirt on the surface. Then soak it in plenty of water to either rehydrate (for the dried version) or to reduce the saltiness.
Then bite a small piece to test the saltiness. If it still tastes overly salty, change the soaking water and leave for longer.
Use your hands to squeeze the Mei Cai to remove the water as much as possible. Then chop it into small pieces.
Braise the Mei Cai
Fry minced garlic, ginger and spices in a little oil until fragrant (do not burn). Add the chopped Mei Cai, dark soy sauce, sesame oil, white pepper, sugar and some water. Cover and leave to braise for 5 minutes or so.
Taste the Mei Cai and add a little light soy sauce if you think it needs more saltiness (at this stage, it can be a little on the salty side).
Steam the dish
Once both the pork belly and Mei Cai are prepared, you’re ready to combine and steam them together.
Choose a large, deep bowl. Neatly lay the pork slice (with the skin side facing down) one by one over the bottom of the bowl. Use the extra pieces to fill the sides. Then top with the fried Mei Cai. Make sure to also pour in any leftover marinade and cooking liquid from the braised Mei Cai.
Place the bowl into a steamer basket, or over a steamer rack. Add water to the wok/pot that you use for steaming. Bring the water to a full boil then turn the heat to medium-low. Leave to steam, covered with a lid, for about 2 hours (Don’t forget to check the water level every half an hour in case it dries out).
The last step is to transfer the dish neatly onto a serving plate. Like how you deal with steamed Eight Treasure Rice Pudding, put a plate over the bowl then hold both tightly and quickly flip over so the content in the bowl lands on the plate.
You may find the flipping a little scary. Follow these tips:
- Wear protective gloves to avoid burning.
- Make sure there aren’t gaps between the plate and the rim of the bowl.
- If they aren’t tightly joined, gently pour out most of the liquid from the bowl. Then perform the flip and pour the liquid into the plate afterwards.
- Remember to flip quickly and without hesitation.
Serve the dish
Enjoy Mei Cai Kou Rou while it’s warm with steamed rice. If serving it as a centerpiece of a meal, pair it with dishes featuring other types of ingredients. For example, Steamed Fish, Ginger Chicken, Garlic Bok Choy, Mushroom Stir-fry, etc.
If you have any leftovers, store them in the fridge for up to 3 days. Steam for 10 minutes until piping hot.
This is a great dish to make in big batches. Chinese home cooks would gift their family and friends with bowls of homemade Mei Cai Kou Rou for special occasions like New Year, Mid-Autumn Festival, Dragon Boat festival, etc.
- Freeze the marinated pork belly slices and the braised Mei Cai in portions. Whenever you wish to serve it, simply defrost both in the fridge then assemble the bowl and steam.
- Alternatively, assemble a few bowlful and steam them all at once. Then store them in the freezer once cooled completely (cover the bowls tightly with cling film). Defrost and steam for 10 minutes to reheat.
Other festive dishes
Looking for more ideas for special feasts? Here are some popular recipes:
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Mei Cai Kou Rou (Steamed Pork Belly/梅菜扣肉)
For the pork belly
For the Mei Cai
- 7 oz ready-to-use Mei Cai - or half of the amount if using the dried one (see note 1)
- 1 tablespoon neutral cooking oil
- 2 tablespoon minced garlic
- 1 tablespoon minced ginger
- 1 piece star anise
- 1 piece Chinese cinnamon - aka cassia cinnamon
- 4 dried chilies - optional
- 2 teaspoon dark soy sauce
- ½ teaspoon sesame oil
- ½ teaspoon sugar
- 1 pinch ground white pepper
- 1 cup hot water - or unsalted chicken stock
- Light soy sauce - to taste (see note 2)
Prepare the pork belly
- Put the block of pork belly into a small pot. Fill with water just enough to cover the meat. Add scallions and ginger. Bring the water to a boil then turn the heat down to the lowest. Cover with a lid and leave to simmer for 45 minutes.
- Turn off the heat. Let the meat sit in the pot for a further 30 minutes then take it out. While still hot, rub a good layer of dark soy sauce over the skin to darken it. Leave it to cool completely.
- Then cut the pork into slices (about ¼ inch/0.7cm thick). Put them into a bowl, along with dark soy sauce, light soy sauce, oyster sauce, Shaoxing rice wine, sugar and white pepper. Leave to marinate for 1 hour or overnight.
Prepare the Mei Cai
- Rinse Mei Cai very well under running water to remove surface salt and any dirt. Then leave it to soak in water for 1 hour. Taste a bit to check the saltiness. Extend the soaking time if it’s too salty. Rinse again then squeeze out as much water as possible. Chop it into small pieces.
- Heat oil in a wok/skillet. Briefly fry minced garlic, ginger, star anise, cinnamon and dried chili (if using). Add the chopped Mei Cai, along with dark soy sauce, sugar, white pepper, sesame oil and a cup of water (or stock).
- Cover and braise for about 5 minutes before you taste the saltiness. Add a little light soy sauce if necessary (it’s fine to be a little on the salty side at this stage).
Steam the dish
- In a large deep bowl, place the pork belly slices one by one in a domino pattern, with the skin facing down. Fill the sides with a few pieces too. Put any remaining pieces over (and the marinade too). Top the bowl with the braised Mei Cai, along with all the liquid.
- Put the bowl into a steamer basket (or over a steamer rack). Bring the water in the pot/wok to a full boil then turn the heat to medium-low. Leave to steam for 2 hours. Make sure to check the water level every half an hour and top up when necessary.
- Carefully take the bowl out. Cover it tightly with a serving plate. Hold the bowl against the plate tightly (using protective gloves to avoid burning) then quickly flip over so that the content in the bowl lands on the plate. Serve warm with steamed rice.
- Prepare a big batch of pork belly (simmered & marinated) and Mei Cai (braised) at a time. Freeze them in portions. Defrost then assemble and steam a bowlful any time you wish.
NUTRITION DISCLOSURE: Nutritional information on this website is provided as a courtesy to readers. It should be considered estimates. Please use your own brand nutritional values or your preferred nutrition calculator to double check against our estimates.