A few years ago, I had the world’s best pork knuckle in Barcelona. It wasn’t long after the Great Portuguese Custard Tart Fight of 2007, in which Mr Lemur and I nearly came to blows in Lisbon after the ill-advised scoffing of the last custard tart by persons who shall remain nameless. Suffice it to say, I was aggrieved and ready for some revenge in the world of Iberian eating. Sweet sweet justice came along when we arrived in Barcelona and went to lunch in an unassuming bar that had been recommended to us. Sadly, I can’t remember the name of the bar, which was fairly central and nothing at all to look at, but filled up with locals at lunchtime. There were a few specials but the one that stood out immediately to me was pork knuckle in garlic.
Long-cooked meats are one of my favourite things and something about the phrase ‘pork knuckle’ just tells you it’s going to be good. Pork knuckle. Even saying it is appealing. Go on. Pork knuckle. Mr Lemur, however, did not share my enthusiasm because he hates eating meat on a bone if he thinks it might be finicky or that he’ll have to use his fingers. For him, the phrase ‘pork knuckle’ conjured up horrifying prospects of trying to wrest shards of meat from a giant bone without getting his fingers messy, and in public no less. He opted for the stuffed aubergine. I don’t think I have to tell you who won. My pork knuckle was sublime, with tender meat and a rich covering of very garlicky braising liquid. The meat fell away from the bone at the slightest touch. Mr Lemur was pissed off and the Custard Tart injustice was avenged. But ever since, pork knuckle has exerted a powerful force on my culinary imagination.
Of course, the problem is that I can never ever make pork knuckle that good. I haven’t even tried to replicate the Catalan dish because that way disappointment lies. But I often see pork knuckles at my local butcher and this weekend I decided to try something else to take advantage of all that piggy potential. Rather than a straight up braise, I cooked the meat propped up in a moat of flavouring liquid: that way, the meat gets imbued subtly with the flavour of the sauce while still remaining dry enough to produce crackling. Meanwhile, the liquid becomes intensely flavoured with rendered pork fat – you can skim most of it off at the end, but you still get a lovely rich sauce to soak the meat. After the success of the Nyonya braised beef I made a couple of months back, I thought I’d try some similar aromatic flavours for this rich pork dish.
Malaysian roast pork knuckle
- 1 pork knuckle, on the bone
- 4 shallots
- 6 cloves of garlic
- a thumb sized piece of ginger
- 3 star anise
- 3 cloves
- a chunk of cinnamon bark
- 6 dried red chilies
- 2 tbsp rice vinegar
- 2 tbsp dark soy sauce
- 1 tbsp palm sugar
- 1-2 cups water
- 4 tbsp oil
Chop the shallots in a mini prep until they become a paste. Fry in a large oven-friendly pot in the oil. It seems like a lot of oil but the shallots drink it up and you’ll be getting rid of it later anyway. Chop the garlic and ginger finely. When the shallots are beginning to colour, add them and sauté for a couple of minutes. Add the star anise, cloves, cinnamon and dried chilies and fry for just a minute until the spices release their aromas. Now add the vinegar, soy sauce and sugar, along with water to about 2 inches up the pot and stir well.
Score the skin of the pork (or have your butcher do this) and pat it carefully till very dry. Rub salt and pepper generously into the skin. Add the pork to the braising liquid, meat-side down so that all the skin remains dry. Bring the liquid to the boil and then transfer (uncovered) to an oven set very high at first (to help crisp up the crackling) and, after 15 minutes on high, turned down to gas mark 4 / 350 F / 180 C. Cook for about three hours, checking occasionally to make sure the liquid isn’t drying up.
When it comes out of the oven, the skin should already be nicely golden and fairly crispy. However, to finish the cracking, cut the skin off the meat and pop it back in the oven on a baking tray and turn the temperature right up until the skin really crisps up. (I should say that I didn’t plan this dish around crackling – if it’s your main objective, you’re probably better with pork belly and straight-up roasting it. The crackling on this dish wasn’t perfect but it was pretty good all the same.) While the meat is resting and the crackling crisping, skim most of the fat off the sauce with a spoon. Finally, cut the meat up roughly and serve pork, crackling and rich sauce along with rice and greens.