Like all the cooks of her generation, my grandmother Leila Chu (Young), or Po Po to me, rarely consulted a recipe. For each of us five grandkids she made a favourite dish and so the dishes on the kitchen table changed depending on who was coming to dinner. For a big family get together she’d work for days to make all the favourites, among them dried boy choy soup, garlic beef and broccoli, tofu and roast pork belly in a ketchup sauce, steamed egg with pork and salty duck egg, and crunchy rice. (We did our best to beg for our favourite dishes in Chinese – see the glossary below for the terms.)
When I was older, I asked Po Po to show me how to make some of these dishes. I might have been asking a dolphin to show me how to swim. How could she, cooking by sure touch and instinct, teach her granddaughter who cooked by hesitant measurement and recipes? She didn’t use timers: she popped the lids and looked inside. She used phrases like a pinch, a touch, a handful, and when it looks ready.
Her tools would have been recognizable to her grandmother: a tree trunk slab for chopping, a heavy cleaver for bones, a light cleaver for vegetables, a che gung (soup spoon) for measuring, an iron skillet, a small pot for rice, and a massive iron pot for steaming. She sharpened her cleavers on the unglazed bottoms of dishes.
We loved her stir fried dishes, and would often request several for the same meal. She was a master at the mise en place – the French term for having all the ingredients washed, measured, chopped, and ready to go in advance of cooking – because Chinese cooking features a lot of ingredients cooked in a short amount of time. She started preparing dinner right after lunch, filling bowl after bowl with marinating proteins and chopped vegetables, all covered with a muslin cloth until it was time to cook. She often said it was easy, and took no time to make Chinese food, deliberately ignoring the hours spent preparing.
Dinner was ready at 5:30 pm every night. She timed everything to the minute. She was the conductor and orchestra rolled into one, simultaneously boiling, frying, and steaming on all four burners. When everything was ready, she would call us to the table, saying, “Sik faan lah!” (“Come eat!”) Grandfather (Gung Gung to me) would dish out the rice while Po Po ferried hot dishes from the stove to the table.
She did this every day of her life, except for Chinese New Year when she did more.
Po Po’s Kow Yuk (芋头扣肉) – Pork Belly with Taro and Potato
Sadly, I don’t have a photo of the dish on a plate, like an upside down meat cake, where the full glory of the pork / potato / taro layers may be seen.
This is a celebratory dish for New Year’s feasting. It makes four good sized dishes. We called it kow yuk but the full name is wu tao kow yuk.
Important: See the cooking notes before attempting this recipe.
7 lbs pork – cut in half
9-10 potatoes/ taro root – cut into rectangles 1.5 inches by 1.0 inch by 1/4 inch
3 lrg pieces of dry orange peel, chopped fine
14 squares (more or less) Nam ye (red bean curd)
3 che gungs (Chinese soup spoon) vinegar
2 heaping che gungs sugar
2 che gungs dark soy sauce
1 che gung Chinese tea in a tea ball
Soy sauce for coating
Put meat in cold water, bring to a boil. Turn heat down to simmer. Cook for 1 hour.
Deep fry potato/taro slices in small batches until slightly crispy, about 10-12 minutes. Drain on paper towels.
Mush the curd into paste. Add orange peel, sugar, soy sauce. Set aside.
Remove meat from the water. Poke holes in the skin. Save the water for soup stock. Coat the pieces with extra soy.
Deep fry each piece of meat until brown, taking care to avoid explosive spatter burns. Cover the pot with a wire screen and a wet cloth to prevent oil splatters. When the pork is done, remove from the oil. Rinse under cold running water. Drain.
Slice the meat into the same sized slices as the potato slices. Run cold water over the meat for 10- 15 minutes. Put into a pot and cover with water. Add vinegar, the tea leaf ball, sugar. Bring to a boil and cook for 5-7 minutes. Drain the pork, toss out the tea. Rinse with cold water.
Pour the extra soy sauce into the bean curd mixture.
Put the bean curd paste into the pot. Add meat and bring to boil. Cook for 5 mins. Remove from heat and let cool. Add a little bit of water to the pot and bring to boil. Add to meat.
Arrange the meat and potato slices, alternating, on a shallow plate. Make sure the skin side of the meat is on the bottom. Pour remaining sauce on top. Place remainder of potato slices on the top.
Steam for 45 minutes.
To serve, flip over onto a new plate, so that the skin side of the meat is on top.
Click on the photos to see them larger.
This is the recipe as it was taught to us by Po Po, and as I read it again, I realize there are some important details missing. For example, the pork must be fatty pork belly, the fattier the better. There are no notes for what the right proportion of potato and taro should be. This is, in short, a recipe for a cook who knows what they are doing (and that cook is not me!). If you would like to try it, I highly recommend first consulting the recipe Hakka Steamed Pork Belly with Taro at Woks of Life for detailed instructions.
Food and genealogy
I originally wrote up this recipe with the idea of sharing it in the Facebook group “Hoisan Home Style Cooking,” which is a group that celebrates food and culture from the Taishan District of Guangdong Province, but when I looked further, I realized kow yuk comes from somewhere else.
Where does kow yuk come from?
In the link above, the wo tao kow yuk recipe suggested the dish is Hakka in origin. Were Po Po‘s people Hakka or was it just that she loved pork belly? I’ve heard arguments for and against, and I can’t say yet without more information. She said she was from Sam Yup (the Three Counties, or 三邑), and wouldn’t say more. Her grave marker said she was from Panyu (番禺区), one of the three counties of Sam Yup, but but both the terms Sam Yup and Panyu are geographic descriptions which say nothing about ethnicity. It’s like if you asked me if I was Chinese and I said I was from Vancouver, in British Columbia.
I had a look on the Chinese site baidu.com and it looks like wo tao kow yuk is a regional dish of the Guangxi Region (廣西) of China. If you are familiar with the location of Guangdong, Guangxi is the region on Guangdong’s north-western border, and historically it was the home of a diversity of ethic minorities ( including the Hakka).
On Chinese New Year, we eat like royalty
What I do know is that in our house we celebrated fat – pork fat, beef fat, chicken fat – no fat went to waste. Po Po had known poverty growing up in Vancouver, and nothing screamed wealth on a dinner table like fat. A fatty dish coats your tongue in splendour, and is the reason why we say that a fatty meal is “rich.”
Now we can order wo tao kow yuk any day of the week, but this New Year’s dish made from a pig’s belly was meant to be a once-a-year treat: the ultimate marriage of layers and layers of pig fat with two starches to soak up all the yummy goodness.
To me, wo tao kow yuk is a declaration that we may have gone hungry in the past but today we eat like royalty.
When I first wrote this piece, I wrote the Chinese and English for every term. This sounded good in theory but in practise was too choppy to read. Here are the English and Chinese terms used in this post.
|Cantonese||What it meant||Chinese|
|che gung||soup spoon||匙羹|
|coi gon tong||dried vegetable soup||菜乾湯|
|dau fu||bean curd cake, or tofu||豆腐|
|daan zing zyu juk||smooth steamed egg w/ pork & salted duck egg||滑蛋蒸豬肉|
|fan zil||crunchy rice||飯焦)|
|foy yuk||roast pork belly||脆皮烧肉|
|Guangxi||Guangxi Region, China||廣西|
|Gung Gung||Mother’s father||公公|
|lap cheong||dried sausage||臘腸|
|Po Po||Mother’s mother||婆婆|
|Sam Yup||Three Counties||三邑|
|Sik faan lah!||Come eat!||食飯|
|wo tao kow yuk||steamed pork belly with potato and taro||芋头扣肉|
Baidu.com – Think of it as being like Google, but bigger and in Chinese. I used it with Google Chrome loaded with the Google Translate extension.
Bill, “Hakka Steamed Pork Belly with Taro (Wu Tau Kau Yuk),” The Woks of Life (blog), February 4, 2021, https://thewoksoflife.com/steamed-pork-belly-with-taro/.
“Guangxi,” in Wikipedia, January 23, 2022, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Guangxi&oldid=1067419596.
Hoisan (Toisan) 台山 Home Style Cooking & Cultural Traditions | Facebook,” accessed February 2, 2022, https://www.facebook.com/groups/310137419439050.
To Po Po and Gung Gung. I miss you.
To my sister Selena for helping identify the CNY spread.
And to K. Hong for trying the recipe and giving it the thumb’s up!