Tel Aviv is a transitory city. The people seem to drift in and out more often than stick around. Some of this cannot be controlled. After all, the people from abroad (and those who are not Jewish) have a limited amount of time in which they are allowed to stay here. Israelis are often talking of leaving as well – if they haven’t left already. Since relocating to Tel Aviv 3 years ago (yikes!) many of those I’ve connected with have moved on. Each time someone tells me they are moving away I am struck by how hard it is to actually stick around. But I try to find the silver lining in all things in life, so I suppose there is an upside of having to say goodbye to people I have grown close to… at least they are spread out all over the world! Now I know if I visit France or Germany, South Africa or Australia I will have my people there to greet and treat me right. Perk to living in a transient city? Friends in all the right places.
Perk to being friends with me? PORK freakin’ BUNS. Pork is a kind an underdog here in Israel – well, not an underdog so much as an unkosherdog. Which is rooted in all sorts of this or that about pigs and the fact that when kosher laws were being put into place people were not able to justify eating this particular animal because of their hooves. Or because they didn’t know how to ensure clean meat consumption at the time (ie. pork needs to be cooked to a certain temperature or else it can carry all sorts of parasites). When all is said and done it’s their loss. ‘Cause this belly is full of pork belly and pretty darn happy about it.
When I decided to make my rendition of David Chang’s (yes him AGAIN) pork belly buns I knew I would run into one major problem. Where to get the belly of the pig. While there are shops in Tel Aviv that carry pork, I was unable to find a place that had larger pieces of belly yet to be butchered down to bacon. The dilemma lead me to ask strangers in the oddest of times. Eating next to a couple of foodies at a restaurant I found myself leaning over just to check if maybe, juuuust MAYBE they would know where to get this rare item. No luck. I was barking up the un-kosher tree, and I wasn’t sure that someone would throw me a bone.
That is of course until I asked my good friend Liraz. He is the owner and Chef of my favorite restaurant in Israel, Morel (that is for another drool worthy post – his steaks are out of this world!). He laughed when I asked him about the pork belly and proceeded to call up a friend of his who runs a pork shop in the neighboring Christian village. See, the Christians here in Israel eat pork. I should have thought of that myself – but sometimes I need Liraz to tell me what to do. Finding the butcher was another story, winding through the old tiny streets of Fatsuta looking for an unmarked shop on an unmarked street was no easy task. But find it we did and that day I lugged a massive amount of pork back to my Tel Aviv apartment and shed a single tear of joy for what was about to happen.
I used a steamed bun recipe that I found on Gourmet.com where they talk about Mr. Chang’s pork buns. As for the pork, I followed much of their suggestions and cook times and just added some of this or that when it felt right. The result of making this dish: realizing just how light and airy steamed buns are. They taste the way they look (like an onomonopia of food, maybe?). The pork is sweet and juicy in all the right places. It’s fat cooks to the point of being buttery which makes a perfect match to the salty brined meat it encases. It is a delightful combination of meat soft enough to pull apart with caramelized bits on top. This is an ideal way to eat.
*Inspired by David Chang and a longing for pig
-Place all the ingredients in a bowl and stir until salt and sugar are dissolved.
1 large sealable bag
2-3 pounds pork belly
1/2 kosher salt
1/2 white sugar
3 cups water
1″ piece of ginger kept whole
1 cinnamon stick
couple dashes of good soy sauce
-Place pork in a bag and add brine. Make sure when you seal the bag you get rid of any air.
-Place bag in a shallow dish and pop in the fridge for at least 6 hours (up to 24).
Quick Pickled Cucumbers:
– place all the ingredients n a bowl except cucumbers.
2 cucumbers sliced
2 tablespoon rice wine vinegar
splash of water
1 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon kosher salt
-stir until sugar is dissolved
-add cucumbers and pop in the fridge until ready to eat
an additional 1/2 cup chicken broth and 1/2 water are needed at this stage-Preheat oven 300F. Place the pork in a baking dish FAT side up (no brine).
-Add the chicken broth and water to the dish.
-Cover with foil and cook in the oven for about 2 1/2 hours. After that time the meat will have taken on a nice brown color and the fat will be cooked but have yet to caramelize and soften.
-Remove the foil, crank the heat up to 450 and continue cooking an additional 20 to 30 minutes until the colors have darkened.
-Remove from oven and let cool before doing anything.
-Once the pork has totally cooled you can slice it into 1″ pieces.
STEAMING YOUR BUNS (and no, I am not talking dirty)-Place your Bamboo steamer on top of a pan deep frying pan of the same circumference. The pan should be filled with boiling water up until 1″ of the bottom of the steamer. You do not want water to touch the bottom where the buns will be or you will have wet buns (again, get your mind out of the gutter).
-Keeping your buns on their indivdual squares of baking paper, place them in the steamer and close the lid. I found my steamer lid was not a tight enough seal and chose to use an additional domed lid over the top of the bamboo one. These appeared to help the buns puff up.
– Steam for 2-3 minutes, carefully remove from the steamer onto a tray or plate discarding the baking paper and cover lightly with a non-terrycloth towel.