For the second time in a decade, I fried the lechon kawali that we had for dinner last night instead of roasting it in the oven. Speedy had been hankering for it since we had bandeja paisa but I thought I’d make him sweat a little by saying that the meat had to rest for half an hour before it could be cut.
Of course, I was just kidding but he didn’t know that. Isn’t there a sadder face in the world?
Alex, who was taking photos with my iPhone, captured Speedy’s love for lechon kawali perfectly.
Speedy sat there by the kitchen island staring at that slab of meat and, I bet, imagining biting into it. So, about 10 minutes after the pork belly was laid on the chopping board, I started to cut it.
Into two-inch thick slices. Can you see how moist the meat was and how perfectly puffed the rind of the belly? Perfectly cooked. And, as I said earlier, the lechon kawali was fried. Deep fried.
Why did I go back to frying lechon kawali after I had perfected the technique of cooking roast pork belly with crispy and puffy skin in the oven? It’s quite a story.
It is DANGEROUS to use an oven with a busted thermostat function
We have two ovens in the house (there used to be three but we sold the smallest one). One runs on gas (an Elba gas range); the other on electricity (an Ariston built-in oven).
The Ariston oven we brought over from our old house. A year or so after we moved into our current house, we built an outdoor kitchen and installed the Ariston oven and cooking hob there.
But the set-up didn’t work out and, after a few months, the oven and cooking hob ended up in storage. When we tried using the oven again after a couple of years, we discovered that the thermostat function was no longer working and the temperature just kept going up and up and up. Well, we didn’t want it to blow up and take the house with it so back into storage it went. We used the Elba range exclusively for years.
Then, Alex finished her culinary course and the next logical step was to go into the food selling business. We decided to give the Ariston oven another try so she could use it.
Speedy called up the service center, people came over, we were told that the mechanism that controls the thermostat function was already busted. They would have to order the part from Italy and would give us a call when it was available so that the installation could be scheduled.
The ordering process took less than two weeks. The service center people came back, installed the thermostat thingy and told Speedy that the part carried a 30-day warranty (or is it 60 days?). Anyway, Speedy had been telling us to use the oven to test if the thermostat function was working correctly.
The back story is that he was hoping we could cook lechon kawali in it. The Ariston oven preheats faster, it is fan-assisted and has top and bottom heat. If only the top heat is turned on, it works as a broiler (or what TV chefs fancily refer to as a salamander). You can understand why it is the ideal oven for roasting pork belly.
On the other hand, the much larger Elba gas range oven takes forever to preheat.
Use a separate oven thermometer to test if the thermostat function is working
So, last night, we were finally going to put the newly-fixed Ariston oven to test. We turned it on, I set the temperature initially to 180C and Alex put an independent oven thermometer inside for, you know, like a second opinion.
The Ariston oven has a little red light on the control panel that turns on once the temperature is set. When the desired internal temperature is reached, the light goes off. When the temperature drops, the light turns on to indicate that the oven is building up heat again to reach the temperature setting. So, in the course of cooking anything in the oven, that little light goes on and off several times. But ONLY IF the thermostat function is working.
Last night, the little red light never went off. We checked the oven thermometer and when it went past the 180C mark, we turned the temperature knob to lower the setting to see if the little red light would go off. It didn’t. When the thermometer reading was nearing the 260C mark, we turned the oven off. Speedy looked crestfallen as he mumbled that he would have to call up the service center people again.
What the heck was I going to do with the slab of pork belly that I had earlier boiled and which had been resting on a rack for over an hour? Should I preheat the gas oven? Preheating alone would take half an hour and roasting the pork belly in it would take another hour. It was almost 8.00 p.m. and we were already hungry. I said I would fry the thing instead.
How to deep fry pork belly with no oil spatters
I poured enough oil into a wok until it reached a depth of three inches. I placed the wok on the stove and waited until fine wisps of smoke were floating on the surface. Then, I TURNED OFF the heat.
With one hand holding the wok cover, I picked up the pork belly with my other hand using extra-long tongs. Working with exact precision (because I am so scared of oil spatters), I slipped the pork belly into the hot oil skin side down then immediately covered the wok. To make sure that it wouldn’t fly off (lightweight pan covers do that when oil spatters with rage as it does when frying anything that has moisture in it), I weighed it down with a mortar (yes, the bowl of the mortar and pestle) placed upside down on the cover. Who wants to clean up oil spatter on the stove, floor and everywhere else within spitting distance of the wok with the pork in it, right?
I turned on the heat, set it on high and, in a matter of seconds, the popping sounds signaling that the pork rind is turning into crackling began. I waited until the interval between popping sounds grew longer and longer. It took about seven minutes. Maybe eight.
When no popping sounds came for 30 seconds, I knew that the pork rind had already turned to crackling. I turned off the heat, removed the mortar and the wok cover. Using the tongs, I partially lifted the slab of pork to check the condition of the rind. Satisfied, I flipped the meat over. Time to fry the opposite side.
Frying the meaty side of the pork belly took two minutes. There’s no rind to turn into crackling on that side so the cooking time is shorter. And there was no need to wait for popping sounds to subside either. There are no popping sounds when frying the meaty side of the pork belly. All the surface moisture of the meat (which causes the oil to spatter and make popping sounds) had dissipated at the same time that the rind turned into crackling. But, to be on the safe side, I covered the wok just the same and weighed down the cover as I did when frying the side of the pork belly with the rind before turning on the heat again.
Never overfill the pan with oil
Note that flipping the meat is unnecessary if it is totally submerged in oil during frying. You’ll need a deep pan for that. My wok could only accommodate three inches of oil. Had I used more, the probability that the oil would overflow during frying was almost certain.
How do you know if there’s too much oil in the pan? Consider two things:
1. The height of the pan; and
2. The weight of the food you’re going to fry.
If frying something that doesn’t weigh much and especially when frying in batches (like ebi tempura), I find it quite alright to fill the pan with oil until two-thirds full.
But when frying a whole slab of pork belly, I never allow the oil to reach the halfway mark. Never mind the added work of flipping the meat. Better safe than sorry.
There is always the option of roasting the pork in the oven
If you’re a lover of pork belly with crispy skin, you can now deep fry your pre-boiled pork belly with less chance of injury and mess using all the tips outlined above. And remember to cool the boiled pork belly on a rack for at least an hour before frying. Pulling it out of the cooking liquid and putting it immediately into a pan of hot oil is a recipe for injury, mess and total disaster.
Or, if you’re okay with the longer cooking time, place your pre-boiled pork belly in a roasting pan, put it in a preheated oven, follow the instructions for roasting pork belly my way or the Chinese way, and let the oven heat turn the rind into crackling. If using the oven, there is no need to rest the meat after boiling. Just take it out of the cooking liquid, transfer to a rack set on a roasting pan and pop into the oven.
There are few things in life that are more satisfying then crispy pork belly. Enjoy yours. We certainly had a blast with ours.