Taiwanese Cuisine — Hong Zao Zha Zhupai: Jujube-Marinated Pork Cutlet

Japanese colonization of Taiwan (from 1895 to 1945) left a lasting impression on Taiwanese culture.  Loan words from Japanese pepper the Taiwanese dialect, and like Japan, Taiwan has had a more Western-friendly attitude than some of its neighbors.  Food traditions, of course, were also left behind by the Japanese, and today a hungry visitor to Taiwan is about as likely to find sushi or ramen noodles as he or she is more traditional Taiwanese fare.

More Taiwanese features on The World Cup of Food:

One such Japanese import is based on the tonkatsu, a Japanese breaded pork cutlet.  Fried pork cutlets are the feature in the Taiwanese favorite pai gu fan (pork chop rice), in which the preparation is very similar to the Japanese version.  An April 2010 article in Saveur tipped us to another way the Taiwanese like their pork cutlets — marinated in a rich, savory, reddish paste of fermented rice called hong zao.  Hong zao paste is unavailable in any of our local Olympia, Washington markets, but we were able to improvise.  Hong zao is named, it happens, after the Chinese word for the jujube, a small, date-like tree fruit, because of its similar color and sweet-tart flavor profile.  Lucky for us, a local Asian market carries jujubes in a whole, dried form (labeled as “Chinese dates,” another name for the fruit).  All we were missing was a little fermented funk.  For that, we turned to one of our refrigerator mainstays, the fermented white soybean paste miso.  Without having to scour the state for the elusive hong zao, we think we’ve come up with a pretty good facsimile of our own.

Hong Zao Zha Zhupai

adapted from the April 2010 Saveur and from the Taiwan Duck recipe for pai gu fan

SERVES 4

For the marinade:

  • 5 brown mushrooms
  • 1/2 cup dried jujubes
  • 1/4 cup water
  • 2 Tbs cider vinegar
  • 2 Tbs miso
  • 1 lb pork loin chops, sliced horizontally to about 1/4 inch thickness
  • 12 ounces potato starch
  • about 1 cup vegetable oil

First, we’d like to show our package of jujubes to help the reader know what to look for:

jujubees

The first step was to make our marinade.  All the ingredients were put into our food processor:

marinadeingredients

…and processed for about three minutes, scraping material off the sides and lid of the bowl as needed, until a smooth paste formed:

marinadeunstrained

The jujubes had small, hard seeds about the size of large sunflower kernels inside.  These stayed intact in the food processor, bouncing around while the mixture was pureed.  To remove the seeds, the processed marinade was forced through a strainer:

marinadestraining

…leaving the seeds behind:

seeds

Next, using a meat mallet we pounded our pork slices until they were about an eighth of an inch thick:

cutletsstacked

…and placed them in a shallow bowl, covering them completely with the marinade.  After about eight hours or so of the pork and marinade getting to know each other, we were ready to proceed:

cutletsmarinated

The potato starch (available at Asian markets) was placed on a large dinner plate to dredge the pork cutlets.  Each cutlet had most of the excess marinade scraped off by hand (leaving a little to adhere to the potato starch) and was placed in the plate of potato starch:

dredgingthecutlet

Turning over a couple of times, each cutlet was completely covered in potato starch:

cutletdredged

To cook, we heated about half a cup of oil over medium-high heat in one of our trusty cast-iron skillets and placed as many cutlets in the pan as would fit without crowding, usually two medium-sized ones at a time:

cutletfrying

The cutlet was turned after about two minutes:

cutletflipped

…and after another two minutes or so, once it had achieved a golden-brown color on both sides, was removed from the oil and placed on a wire rack over a cookie sheet to drain any excess oil:

cutletresting

After each batch of cutlets was put on the rack to drain, the rack and baking sheet was held in a 200 degree oven to keep warm while we worked on the other batches.  Once they were all fried, we served our zha zhupai sliced into about one inch strips with plenty of white rice and bowls on soy sauce and Sriracha for dipping:

cutletserved

Our pork cutlets, pounded thin before cooking, were very tender, with a sweet, sour, crispy crust.  The high cooking temperature helped prevent them from being too greasy, and the crispy pork, soft rice, and dipping sauces provided a nice contrast of textures and flavors in each bite.

 

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