Whilst Nick was at Vinexpo in Hong Kong one of the dishes that he really enjoyed was Roast Suckling Pig at the East Ocean Seafood Restaurant. Roast Suckling Pig brings up visions of medieval banquets here in the UK and likewise in China it is a speciality for weddings and parties.
It has been a famous dish in China for at least 2,500 years and the pig was one of the first animals domesticated by human beings. Archaeological evidence suggests that pigs were domesticated in the Middle East and Mediterranean region between 7000 and 5000 years ago. The old Chinese ideogram for the word ‘home’ is a combination of the ideograms for ‘pig’ and ‘roof’ indicates how far back and how important the roots of Chinese domestication of pigs.
As part of Chinese wedding custom, sucking pig is considered to represent the bride’s purity and the red crackling symbolises good fortune. The suckling pig is 2 - 6 weeks of age and has only fed on its mother's milk. They are roasted on a spit at high temperature in charcoal ovens with a generous rub of five spice powder, red and white vinegar, Chinese rice wine, garlic and maltose (malt sugar).
I thought I would have a go at this at home and have adapted the recipe to use Belly Pork rather than a piglet! Szechuan peppercorns are used in this recipe and if you are unable to source this from a supermarket you could try an Oriental supplier. If you are really stuck then you can use ground black pepper, or chillies, as an alternative but it is difficult to re-create the 'hot and numbing' flavour of this special ingredient.
Despite the name Szechuan peppers are not related to black pepper or to chili peppers. It is a native spice to the province of Szechuan, China and is widely used in the local cuisine where it is known by the name of huajiao, meaning 'flower pepper'. The spice is made from the dried outer casings of the berries of the Chinese Prickly Ash. This pepper is quite aromatic but not very hot. Before Asian cultures were introduced to chilli peppers, Szechuan pepper was used along with ginger to give heat to many dishes.
The local farmers harvest the berries to be sold at the markets at the foot of the mountains. A berry consists of a black seed enclosed by a red casing. To prepare the actual spice used in cooking, the berries are dried; the black seeds, which have a bitter flavour, are removed. The red casings are then heated over a medium heat until smoking but not burnt. This process brings out the tantalisingly spicy flavour of the peppercorns. While these are still hot, they are ground into powder.
Szechuan pepper has slight lemony overtones and creates a tingly numbness in the mouth and it is one of the ingredients in Chinese Five Spice powder. In China spiciness is believed to rid the body of internal dampness and overcome the cold according to the traditional Chinese doctrine. Therefore, with the climate of the Szechuan province being wet and damp overall, while it can be cold where it rises into the surrounding mountain ranges, the peppercorn forms an essential part of Szechuan cuisine.
Chinese Roast Pork
1.5kg belly pork
I tbp Szechuan peppercorns
1 tsp black peppercorns
2 tbps sea salt
2 tsp five spice powder
2 tsp caster sugar
Spike the skin all over with a fine skewer, piercing the fat but not going so deep as to pierce the meat. Then pour about 1-2 pints of boiling water over the skin and then dry well.
Heat a heavy-based frying pan over a high heat & add the szechuan and black peppercorns and dry fry until you can smell the aromatics. Tip them into a pestle and mortar and paste until you get a fine powder. Then add to a bowl with the sea salt, five spice powder and sugar.
Turn the pork flesh side up and rub all the flesh with the spice mixture. Set aside somewhere cool for at least 8hrs or overnight.
Preheat the oven to 200ºC/400ºF/gas mark 6. Turn the pork skin side up and place on a rack, resting on top of a roasting tin of water. Roast the pork for 15 mins and then lower the oven temp to 180ºC/350ºF/gas mark 4 and roast for a further 2 hrs, topping up the water in the roasting tin when it starts to get low.
After the 2hrs of roasting increase the oven temp once more to 230ºC/450ºF/gas mark 8 and continue to roast the pork for a further 15 mins, then remove from the oven and serve.