Salty Sweet (Thoughts)

Po-Po's Mei Gan Kou Rou, braised pork belly that's both perfectly sweet and salty.

Po-Po's Mei Gan Kou Rou, braised pork belly that's both perfectly sweet and salty.

“I think our faux-breakups makes us closer,” I said to my boyfriend this morning. We had just polished off breakfast – he had fried eggs and leftover pad thai; I had bacon and yogurt – and we were watching this TED Talk about “the secret to desire in a long term relationship.” It’s not unusual that a perfectly monotonous occasion like breakfast would become an event tinged with emotion and deep discussion. That's how we do. Luckily, my epiphany made him chuckle. "You're drama," he responded.  

Our relationship has had some growing pains lately. There's been some yelling and crying, followed by making up and making out.  I think we both relish in a little bit of drama. We occasionally need the long soliloquies in the middle of an empty street, the reflection of moonlight bouncing off of our tears, and the painful exchange of personal hygiene products, keys, or whatever else is symbolic of goodbye. And when the reality of finality hits, we embrace and end up filling the bedroom with loud, desperate but loving grunts. (TMI?) Would I recommend this approach to every couple out there? Not sure. But I do know that nothing is ever boring. For us, we need both the salty and sweet for a palpable sense of aliveness. 

In cooking, a little salt or sugar also helps bring beautiful, otherwise stifled flavors to the surface. Striking a balance between the two extremes is key. This is what Po-Po taught me. This is what I've also learned from my love relationships.

I call this phenomenon “swaltiness.” (Hello, salted caramel!) It's most prevalent in the best chocolate chip cookies, red sauces, or pies. A pinch of sea salt pulls out the butterscotch flavor that brown sugar lends to chocolate chip cookies. And when I make a nice hearty red sauce, the sugar becomes just as important as the salt in lifting up the savory sweetness of the already delicious San Marzano tomatoes. On its own, my pie crust is like a salty shortbread cookie, but it becomes the perfect partner in crime for the cloying apple pie filling. And while my Po-Po specializes in savory foods, she always uses a surprisingly generous amount of sugar in her dishes.

One such dish is Po-Po's Mei Gan Kou Rou [梅乾扣肉]. It’s pork belly braised with preserved mustard greens in a sweet soybean flour paste [甜麵醬]. The main components of the paste include flour, sugar, salt, and fermented soy beans. Along with brown sugar and some fermented sweet rice, the finished pork belly radiates with swaltiness. But it needs rice. The flavor can be so powerful that on its own, it can overwhelm those with sensitive palates. For me, I enjoy it sans rice. After all, I like the intensity. It's how I do, I guess. 

Recipe to come.