Let's get cracklin'
Pork - it's the quintessential Cantonese meat. In a typical roast meats (siu mei) store, you'll find not only chicken, duck and geese, but at least two types of pork - sweetish barbecued char siu and salty roast siu yuk. Many outlets will also sell suckling pigs (yu ju) or roast to order. Both siu yuk and yu ju are roasted skin-on, forming a crispy layer the colour of burned caramel, atop moist, tender, pinkish flesh that oozes with juice.
But who makes Hong Kong's best roast pork, and which cut is the best? Barbecue head chef Li Ying-ki of two-Michelin-star Ming Court at Langham Place Hotel votes for the belly and ribs. Food lovers agree.
'The layers of fat in the belly make the pork crispy and juicy at the same time,' says Patrick Chan, a sales executive who eats siu mei at least once a week.
Wing Hing Roast Meats Experts in Tuen Mun is the last roaster in Hong Kong to have wood-fired, underground barbecue pits. 'The ovens get up to about 230 degrees Celsius,' says owner Lee Kuen-sun. 'But before we put the pigs in, we splash water on the fire to lower the temperature to just over 180 degrees.' Just two pigs are sold per day at their shop in Tuen Mun's Sam Shing Estate, so go early to get the belly cut, which comes with ribs. The rest of the 30 or so roasted pigs go to shops around the city. While the skin isn't the crispiest, Lee says their roast pork has a unique smoky flavour from the wood fire. This gives it depth and a mellowness that is hard to find anywhere else. The fat is well-proportioned, in thin parallel streaks; the meat is relaxed and tender, and the amount of juice it retains is incredible.
Charcoal is the name of the game at Prince Edward's Wing Hap Lung Restaurant, where it's not uncommon to see queues winding around the block. Every few hours, a 30kg pig with finely blistered skin is unceremoniously hauled out from the back kitchen to the siu mei masters behind their glassed-in station at the front. This is your last chance to place your order for belly. Blink and it will be gone. Like most restaurants that specialise in siu mei, Wing Hap Lung's pork belly is served on the bone, which gives it an extra edge when it comes to taste. Unlike most, however, it's not cut into neat cubes. Rather, it looks like a jumble of scraggly odds and ends. The skin is brittle and breaks into shards. The flesh has a bit of bounce and can taste a little too strongly of the five spice powder marinade at times, but it's a strong contender.
Joy Hing Roasted Meat in Wan Chai invariably crops up in talk about siu mei. The shop is always bustling, but I found the siu yuk dry and salty, with an unexciting crackling.
Next up is Yung Kee in Sham Shui Po. Despite the similar sounding name, it isn't related to the famed roast goose restaurant in Central, but in the neighbourhood this Kowloon restaurant is no less famous. With three shopfronts taking up almost an entire block, it's a favourite for traditional Cantonese fare. In Chinese the restaurant name adds the phrase siu chau wong, which means the 'king of stir-fries'.
While most certainly not a stir-fry, its roast pork belly is wildly popular. When the plate arrives, it's not hard to see why. Neatly lined up like dominos, the skin on the cubes of meat is roasted to a dark caramel, the flesh moist and gleaming, and it has a substantial amount of fat. The flavours are incredibly intense, maybe too much so, because some of the pieces carried a faint whiff of a pig farm. Towards the end of my plate, some pieces were just fat and skin, thus lacking balance.
'Twenty to 30 per cent fat is the best,' says Mandy Cheng, pork lover and marketing executive.
The Chinese kitchen at Langham Place Hotel serves not only Ming Court but also the many banquets held at the hotels, at which a suckling pig for each table is almost mandatory. 'On the busiest nights, we roast more than 100 suckling pigs,' says Li, who has a team of four dedicated to roasting them on roaring open fires.
Li has both roast pork belly and suckling pig on the menu. For pork bellies, the section is cut away from the rest of the pig before it's roasted. During the roasting process, chefs use a knife to scrape the skin, smoothing out any bumps and also creating scratches, which become extremely crispy after being barbecued.
The eating experience - and it has every right to be called an experience, it's so transcendent - is like biting into a stack of just-fried micro-crisps, and finishes with the meaty, crystal-clear juices of a perfect roast.
The suckling pig's skin is slightly darker, redder and thinner than the belly roast. It has a more brittle crunch, and tastes as though it's been smeared with warm butter or lard. It comes with a dab of hoisin sauce between the delicate slice of tender meat and the skin to perk up the flavours. One of the secrets to crispy skin, Li says, is 'vinegar and lemon juice. The acidity makes the skin more layered and crisp'.
For those not attending banquets, suckling pig can also be enjoyed a la carte. The ribs and belly are still the best, as 'it's the thinnest part of the pig, so the marinade penetrates most thoroughly,' says Li. 'It's not the most fatty portion, but has the fragrance from the rib bones.'
Single portions of suckling pig crackling are also served with foie gras and deep-fried lotus root crisp, a dish that Li created. 'The oils of the foie gras go very well with the crackling,' he says.
The suckling pig at Manor Seafood Restaurant - pork is a speciality despite the name - can be ordered a day in advance and goes through a final roasting when the party arrives for lunch or dinner. While the piglets at Ming Court take just 10 to 13 minutes to roast, Manor's pigs are slightly larger and require up to 20 minutes. The dish looks more rustic, featuring other parts of the pig, such as the trotters. The usual rib sections are delicious, but a larger pig also means that the hind leg thighs are bigger, and therefore have more meat. Roast suckling pigs aren't always about quantity, but for those looking for a bit more to chew on, the pig at Manor does make a scrumptious meal.
Don't forget to bring at least half a dozen of your pork-fancying friends. At just under 3kg, this piggy is not so little.
Snout and about
Some of the city's best spots to sample classic roast pork
Wing Hing Shop S7, G/F Sam Sing Commercial Centre, Tuen Mun, tel: 2450 5082
Wing Hap Lung 392 Portland St, Prince Edward, tel: 2380 8511
Joy Hing Roasted Meat 265-267 Hennessy Rd, Wan Chai, tel: 2519 6639
Yung Kee 118-120 Fuk Wah St, Sham Shui Po, tel: 2387 1051
Ming Court 6/F, Langham Place Hotel, 555 Shanghai St, Mong Kok, tel: 3552 3300
Manor Seafood Restaurant F-G Lockhart House, 440 Jaffe Rd, Causeway Bay, tel: 2836 9999