28 February 2011

braised pork belly in soya sauce (tau yew bak)

My blogposts so far has been on sweets, so I've been wanting to post this recipe up for ages.  One of my all time favourite dishes to cook and eat at home is 'Tau Yew Bak'.  'Tau Yew Bak' in Hokkien (a chinese dialect) basically translates directly into Soya Sauce Pork.

I don't think that this dish originated from China.  With the use of spices such as cinnamon, star anise and cloves, I think its more likely that the dish was invented by Chinese people who had settled in South East Asia (namely Malaysia and Singapore) and influenced by the spices that the Malay people used in their cooking.  And I've also noticed that only Hokkien households and the odd Hainanese one ever make this dish.

What's this Hokkien and Hainanese? Quick lesson - they're Chinese dialect groups, depending on which region in China you (or your ancestors) come from.  And each region has its own dialect (this is in addition to Mandarin). So those who immigrated to South East Asia came from all over China, which is why there is a whole range of dialect groups amongst the Chinese in countries like Malaysia and Singapore.

Tau Yew Bak is not a dish you'd find in any Asian restaurant or cafe - at least not any that I've ever seen.  It doesn't follow a strict recipe or cooking method either. There are base ingredients that most households would use, like soya sauces, garlic and pork.  And its always and only a pork dish.  But the spices, liquidity of the sauce (some gravy-ish, some more soupy) and cooking method can defer from household to household.  Some like me, include eggs in the dish as well.

Most, if not all of us, would learn this dish from our mothers or grandmothers.  Some grow up only ever liking Tau Yew Bak cooked the way their mothers made it.  Some of us (like moi) tinkle with the recipe so that it fits our personal taste.

Oh.  One more thing.  This is best made with a cut of pork called pork belly.  Its the same cut that bacon is often made from.  The dish needs the fat from the pork belly.  Making it from lean pork will not give you the same result, or even taste really.  If you must, you could go half - half pork belly, half lean pork.  But really.  If you're the type that watches your weight, count calories and only eat anything that's labeled 'trim' or 'light', move on.  This dish is not for you.  Alternatively, make this dish and then you can diet for the rest of the week, if that makes you feel better!

If you like trying out Asian dishes, you should try this one.  Its hard to get wrong because there really are not strict set rules as long as you follow some basic ingredients (kinda like muffins).  Once you've cooked it once, you'll find yourself tinkering with the ingredients and cooking methods the next time to suit your taste better!

Here's how I like mine...

Tau Yew Bak (Braised Pork Belly in Soya Sauce)

Pork Belly, 500g-700g is enough for 3-4 people
Cooking oil (Use canola, vegetable or soy, not olive oil or peanut oil)
1 onion, roughly chopped chunks
Ginger, finely chopped (I use appx 5cm of ginger but its up to you how much you like to use)
Garlic cloves, skinned and left whole (I use 5-6 garlic cloves but you can use as much or as little as you want)
1 long stick of cinnamon (don't use powdered cinnamon)
2 star anise
6 cloves
4-5 tablespoons sweet thick soya sauce (kecap manis) (The texture of this sauce is almost as thick as molasses)
4-5 tablespoons dark salty soya sauce (This is watery like regular soya sauce but much darker - be careful to get the right type as there is also a dark sweet soya sauce)
Sesame oil, a few drops
Ground white pepper
4 eggs, hard boiled, shelled and left whole

  1. Put some water to boil whilst you cut up the pork belly.
  2. If the pork belly you have still has its skin on, slice it off, but leave some of that top layer of fat on the pork.  Cut the pork belly up into bite sizes - as small or large as you prefer.
  3. Place pork into boiling water, cook (medium heat) for 5 minutes and drain.  Be careful not to fully cook the pork pieces.  Whilst the pork is cooking the the boiling water, you'll notice some grey scum at the surface of the water.  Skim the scum off.
  4. In a large pan or work, fry the onions in a bit of oil on medium heat until soft (but not brown).
  5. Add the garlic and ginger and fry for another 2 minutes.
  6. Add pork pieces, spices and sauces to the pan, and mix.
  7. Then add enough water to the pan so that it covers the pork pieces.  Let it come to a boil.
  8. Transfer everything from the pan/wok into a heavy bottom pot and make sure that there's enough liquid to just cover the meat. Add a bit more water if required.  Bring the braising liquid up to boil again.
  9. Then lower the heat down to a medium-low.  Cover the pot and simmer for  2 to 2 1/2 hours. Remember to stir occasionally.
  10. The whole idea is to cook the pork until the meat is super tender and fat is so soft that it melts in your mouth.
  11. Add the shelled whole hard boiled eggs to the pot during the last 1/2 hour of cooking and try to cover the eggs entirely with the braising liquid. Be gentle so that you don't break the eggs up.
  12. Once the pork is super tender, turn the heat up to medium high and reduce the braising liquid (with lid off) by about 2/3s, or until the braising liquid is thickened and slightly syrupy.
  13. Serve with steamed white rice (Jasmine is best) and some stir fried vegetables on the side.

Spices - you can increase or decrease the spices and sauces based on your taste.  If you don't want the dish too heavily spiced, you could decrease the star anise to one and half the number of cloves.

Sauces - You can adjust the sweet thick soya sauce and dark salty soya sauce to your taste.  But keep in mind that this dish is meant to be both sweet and salty, and that the flavour will deepen quite a bit once the braising liquid is reduced.

Other cooking methods - You can use other cooking methods from step 8 onwards, either in a slow cooker or in the oven in an oven proof casserole pot with a lid.  A slow cooker may take up to 5 hours (or more).  For the oven method, cook at 180-200 degrees celsius with the casserole lid on, for 1 to 1 1/2 hours.

Reduction of braising liquid - If you use the oven method, once the pork is cooked and super tender, take it out from the oven, and drain the liquid into a pot.  Reduce the braising liquid over a medium-high heat.  Once reduced, put the pork pieces back into the thickened braising liquid and heat the meat until hot.


  1. Wow. That looks delectable. I like the eggs-- I can imagine that they soak up the sauce well. I have never seen that thick soya sauce. I'll have to look for it now!

  2. Hey Mariko
    You should be able to find the thick sweet soya sauce in Asian food stores. Its pretty stock standard stuff. But the ones from either Indonesia, Malaysia or Singapore. They're a whole lot nicer tasting and better quality than the ones from China.
    Happy cooking!


  3. Soya sauce really brings out the flavor of pork.


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