This Sichuan dish of pork belly and shaved cucumbers with a spicy sauce is a delicious appetiser that whets the palate. If you don't mind mixing different Chinese regional cuisines, you can serve it with a whole array of cold dishes such as Shanghai-style chicken with mung bean noodles, Chiu Chow-style cockles, geoduck with Chinese celery and fresh coriander, and Chinese steamed eggplant.
Restaurants usually serve the thinly sliced pork belly wrapped around a piece of cucumber, but that’s a little too fussy for a homestyle meal. This presentation is simpler and faster.
There is a lot of pork belly, but many of the slices won’t be perfectly thin. Use the prettiest pieces to serve, and save the trimmings for another dish. Or cut the trimmings into bite-sized pieces, mix with some of the sauce and chopped cucumbers, and serve in a bowl with rice, for a more casual meal.
Choose a nicely trimmed rectangular piece of pork belly – this will make it much easier to cut into neat pieces later. The cooked pork belly needs to be weighted down in the fridge for several hours. If you like, start this dish the day before and chill the meat overnight.
Bring a large pot of water to the boil, add the pork belly and simmer for about three minutes. Drain the pork belly then rinse out the pot, fill it with fresh water and bring to the boil. While the water is heating, rinse the pork belly to remove any scum. When the water boils again, repeat the process of blanching and rinsing the pork belly. Wash out the pot.
Whack the chunk of ginger with the side of a cleaver, to crush it lightly. Put it in the pot with the Sichuan peppercorns, star anise, garlic cloves, spring onions, rice wine and two litres (2 quarts) of water. Bring to the boil then add the pork belly, skin-side down. Bring to the boil, then lower the heat, cover the pot with the lid and simmer for about an hour, or until the meat is cooked – you can test by poking it through the skin into the flesh with a metal skewer or thin-bladed, sharp knife; if it pierces easily, it is done.
Take the pork belly from the water, plunge it into a bowl of iced water and leave it for several minutes. Take the pork belly out of the iced water and dry it with paper towels. Wrap it in fresh paper towels, then place it skin-side down on a small tray, cover it with another tray and weigh it down (with canned goods or something similar) so the belly cools into a firm block. Refrigerate for several hours.
Make the sauce while the pork belly is chilling. Put the light soy sauce and dark soy sauce in a jar with a tight-fitting lid, then add the vinegar, sugar and chilli oil. Mince the garlic cloves and thinly slice the chillies, shaking out and discarding the seeds as you go, then put them in the jar, screw on the lid and shake vigorously. Leave at room temperature for at least two hours so the flavours have time to infuse.
When it's time to serve the meal, bring a pot of water to the boil. Unwrap the pork belly and place it skin-side down on the cutting board. Use a very sharp knife to cut the pork belly into slices as thin as possible. They should be bite-size; if they're too long, cut them in half. You will need about 24 slices. Add the pork slices to the boiling water and simmer them for about 30 seconds, to take off the chill and soften the fat. Drain them in a colander, then place the pieces on paper towels.
Wash the cucumbers and dry them. Use a vegetable peeler to shave the cucumber into wide, thin pieces. Toast the peanuts in an unoiled skillet, shaking it almost constantly. Roughly chop the peanuts. Cut the spring onions into 5mm (¼in) pieces. Shake the jar of sauce, then taste it and adjust the seasonings, if necessary.
Arrange the cucumber and pork belly slices on a serving dish. Shake the jar of sauce and spoon it over the ingredients. Add the peanuts, spring onion and sprigs of fresh coriander, then serve, with more of the sauce on the side. Serves four to six as an appetiser.