Story of a Plate: Pork Belly at Black Sheep Restaurant

On the menu: Chinese 5 spice-hoisin Pork Belly w/sweet potato purée, Chinese cabbage & crackling

There seems to always be pork belly on the Black Sheep menu, suggesting it’s one of those dishes diners would start complaining about not being available if you ever took it off. How did it become one of your “signature” dishes, and what’s the story of this particular iteration?

Chef Jonathan Japha: When you’re cooking for a restaurant of this volume, you’ve got to have some food that’s pre-done, and organised, and fully cooked, and there’s no reason why you can’t make things that are suited specifically to that purpose. Pork belly is one of those meats that really works better when you cook it very slowly for a long period of time, and because it’s already cooked, it’s perfect to have sitting in a bain marie. We keep it in the oven, with the glaze on top, with water on the bottom of the pan, so that it actually continues to cook as service progresses, and it just gets better and better as it sits.

When we hit on doing this particular version, I remember I was somewhere eating char siu bao (a hoisin sauce and pork belly dumpling), which for me is a really good combination, because it’s sweet and sticky, and just delicious. Our version wasn’t yet anywhere near that, but we eventually got to the idea that if you glaze the belly with the hoisin sauce, you get that sticky caramelised, slightly blackened result, like a lacquer, which delivers that excellent sweet, sticky, Chinese taste sensation.

We have in the past served that pork belly dish with a much more Western spin, with braised cabbage, and apple compote, and Cumberland sauce, and the dish works perfectly well. But I think that this is the best of them: it hits every single one of those easy eating childhood fantasy pork dishes that you could possibly want. It’s not overly challenging; the belly is really soft; the flavours of the dish are the sweet and savoury that you find in the Asian world, and the whole combination really does work very well.

A final thing about the pork belly is the importance of the sprouts, and the weird musky, earth-like flavour that works off the sweet and the salty. The dish is not nearly as interesting or cool without the sprouts – [Like the rug in The Big Lebowski] they really tie the dish together.

*Want to try some Black Sheep-style pork belly at home? Follow Chef Japha’s tips below for the ultimate slow-cooked goodness:

The specific flavours are completely up to you,* but the technique for cooking the pork belly has to be right. So we put the pork belly onto a trivet, which is basically a lot of vegetables that have been very roughly cut, like the tops of the fennel and celery that nobody’s using for anything else (carrots and other root veggies work equally well), and big chunky pieces of onion – anything that will raise the meat off the bottom of the tray. Then we add water (or wine, or beer, or cider if you like!) so that the bottom of the pork belly touches the level of the liquid, and then it’s covered in tinfoil and put into the oven at 100C. Cook that slowly for 6-8 hours – overnight is ideal, and then the following morning it’s about perfect to sit in the fridge for the day.

The beauty of that is that if you were doing it at home for a dinner party, you could do everything in advance. You then just put it back in a low oven (100-120C, with the strained juices from the trivet) for an hour and a half before your guests arrive, sit and have a glass of wine, and the longer you sit and drink wine – [Ed’s note – and the more of it you drink!] – the better the pork belly’s going to taste.

Serve with your favourite sides, to your favourite people.

*One fantastic thing about a piece of pork belly is how versatile it is. If you fancy Asian flavours, just add some ginger, star anise and soya sauce to the mix, and maybe a nice rub of five-spice directly onto the meat. Otherwise a good sprinkle of salt and pepper will do nicely to season the meat before cooking.

Where to get it: Black Sheep Restaurant, 104 Kloof Str., Cape Town. 021 426 2661

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