Generically East Asian Pork Shoulder

It’s not uncommon that I am inspired by something I eat at a restaurant or café and try to recreate it at home. Sometimes these attempts are spot on and I make a fair to incredibly close approximation of the original. But other times the end result is almost unrecognizable from the initial inspiration and I don’t even bother saying what I was trying to imitate. (Or I do and everyone eating gives me a quizzical look as if to say, how did you get from that to this?) The funny thing is that when I stray that far from the original flavor, that’s often when I get the best recipes. Such was the case with this roast pork which was originally intended to create a homemade bahn mi.

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Bahn mi, if you haven’t experienced one, is a Vietnamese sandwich made with fresh French bread, pickled carrots and daikon, ciltantro, jalapenos, mayonnaise, and generally some variety of pork although I had a several year-long love affair with a tofu bahn mi. It’s an amazing combination of fatty, acidic, crunchy, and soft and I love them. But I don’t find myself near my favorite bahn mi place in San Francisco as often as I used to, so in order to get my fix I needed to make it myself.

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And I tried. Ok, I didn’t have a recipe but I did assemble all the other ingredients – homemade mayo, pickled jalapenos, cilantro, and carrot and daikon that I quick-pickled in some rice vinegar. The only thing missing was the pork. So I threw together a braising liquid for a pork shoulder. The end result … did not taste like a bahn mi. But it was amazingly good. So good that it was gone within a day.

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The only thing really Vietnamese about this pork is the fish sauce I added to the braising liquid so I can’t really call this Bahn Mi pork. The end result is not particularly anything; it’s just generically East Asian. But that is sort of irrelevant if the end result tastes this good. I still ate it with the traditional bahn mi flavors although I didn’t worry about using French bread since I knew the end result wouldn’t taste like a bahn mi. Layered in the pita, it is still a delicious combination of flavors if not really reminiscent of the traditional sandwich. I included the recipe for the carrot-daikon pickle not because it is so important to make the two elements together, but because the interplay of flavors is delicious if you choose to go that direction.

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I would encourage you to make this pork because it is really good and we were still talking about it a few days after it disappeared. But more importantly, take the lesson that just because the dish doesn’t turn out how you expected does not mean it will turn out badly. It was not what I had envisioned in the beginning, but this may be the best pork shoulder I’ve made in a while.

Generically East Asian Pork Shoulder

2-3 lb bone-in, skin on pork shoulder*
2-3 tsp kosher salt
1 tbs fish sauce
1 tbs sugar
3 tbs soy sauce
½-3/4 cup water
2 inches raw ginger, peeled and cut into ¼ inch slices
3 garlic cloves, smashed

Preheat oven to 225F. Sprinkle the pork shoulder with salt, about 1 tsp per pound. Make sure the salt is evenly distributed and rub it into the meat a little.

In a wide bottomed oven safe dish with a lid add the fish sauce, sugar, and soy and whisk gently to combine. Add the seasoned pork shoulder and then add water until the liquid comes about an inch up the side of the pork. Scatter the ginger and garlic into the liquid and turn the pork once or twice to coat it.

Bake for 2-3 hours, turning it once every 45 minutes or so to ensure that each side gets coated in sauce. When it’s done, the pork should be 150F in the middle and if you cut into it the interior should only be slightly pink and the juice should run clear.**

Allow the pork to rest, covered loosely with foil, for at least 15 minutes before you cut into it. You can either serve it immediately or slice it and return it to the sauce. If you choose the second choice, refrigerate the meat and sauce overnight and then reheat before eating. Leftover, the sauce thickens and coats all the slices for an even better flavor.

*You can of course opt for the boneless and/or skinless variety but for a long slow braise like this one, I prefer to have both since it adds a lot of flavor to the finished product and it’s easy to remove after such a long cooking time.
**The USDA recommends cooking pork to 160F for medium but I find this is too dry. I know where my meat comes from so I’m comfortable cooking it to a lower temperature but if you are unsure, cook it longer.

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Carrot and Daikon Quick Pickle

½ lb carrots, peeled and sliced into 3 inch long batons (cut the carrots into ¼ inch slices from stem to root, then line up the slices and cut them into ¼ inch pieces the long way)
½ daikon radish, peeled and sliced into 3 inch long batons
2 tsp kosher salt
1 cup rice vinegar
2 tbs sugar

Toss carrot and daikon batons with 2 tsp of salt and place in a strainer over the sink. Let sit for 15 minutes while some water drains out. After 15 minutes, press the pieces to extrude as much water as possible. Rinse and drain again. Place the vegetable sticks into a container with a lid, preferably glass to it won’t absorb the vinegar smell.

In the meantime, add the rice vinegar and sugar to a medium saucepan and heat to a simmer, stirring to dissolve the sugar. When the mixture is simmering, pour it carefully over the vegetable sticks. Let this cool to room temperature, then refrigerate for at least 30 minutes before using.* These will last in the fridge for up to two weeks.

*You can of course eat the slightly warm pickles once the vinegar has cooled to room temperature but I prefer my pickles cold.

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