Who would have known how popular a localized version of Italian porchetta would become in just 3.5 short years? In Cebu, everyone and their uncle are now claiming theirs is the “original” which is a ludicrous claim considering the Italians have been doing a version of this for eons. Of course adjusting ingredients, using bamboo poles, roasting over charcoal are slight variations on a theme, but when I wrote this post entitled “Liempo on Bamboo a la Marketman” on February 13, 2010, I already suggested it be called a “Boneless Lechon” and it was the pre-cursor for a Zubuliempo or now called Boneless Zubuchon which we offer in our restaurants. Today, hundreds of these pork bellies are sold every week in Cebu by dozens of different purveyors and in outlets sprouting in Manila and elsewhere (including abroad in the U.S., etc.) and I am just truly amazed how something can catch like wildfire… As far as I can tell, this is NOT a terribly important innovation, but I DO KNOW that when I first published my post in 2010, it pre-dated most if not ALL commercially offered versions in the Philippines as far as I can tell…
It’s incredibly simple to do, and you may want to attempt one for your next large family gathering, as a single large boneless pork belly can easily feed 20-25 people. You can even do this in a Vancourver backyard in summer, or in Washington, DC or Stockholm for that matter. Here’s a detailed how-to for all the folks who email me monthly asking how to do it. I have posted similar instructions before, but here it is again, with some other tips and suggestions to make it better than ever. First, go to a reputable butcher and buy a whole pork belly. Actually, that means a HALF pork belly as you only want one side of the stomach/breast of a pig (literally including half of the teats). The last time I made this S&R only had “bone-in” belly and it was frozen solid, so I had to take it home, defrost it in a fridge, and de-bone it myself. I relish every opportunity to butcher meat these days as it’s a skill I do not possess, so I like to practice. But if I were you, save yourself the grief and apprehension of wrestling with the bones and buy this boneless to begin with. Trim the meat so you have a nice rectangular piece; trimmings can be used for your sautés or other dishes.
Next, I brined the meat in a water and salt solution for roughly 4 hours in the fridge. I used a plastic turkey brining bag to do this. You can use a batya or large pan if that fits in your fridge. If you are lazy, don’t bother to brine, but I am telling you, brining makes a tasty difference. Others rely on copious amounts of MSG to fool your tastebuds, but we absolutely do not. Why use a powdered product when natural fresh ingredients are readily available and provide so much wonderful flavor? Every time I make made one of these boneless pork bellies for home consumption, I try a new set of ingredients to stuff it with. This time around, I pulled out lots and lots of FANTASTIC fresh lemongrass delivered by Gejo from his farm just hours before. I used native shallots from the Ilocos region, young garlic from up North, native garlic, white onions, green onions, muscovado sugar, etc.
Peel the garlic and onions, chop up some of the lemongrass, take out some ripe but still sour tamarind paste, kikkoman soy sauce (no MSG), chills, etc. Into a pan or pot, add some vegetable oil, and sauté the various ingredients adding salt and pepper and whatever else you feel like until your kitchen is perfumed with an amazing aroma, then turn the burner off.
Remember to bruise whole stalks of lemongrass to release the oils — resulting in better flavor and aroma. I just think bashing it is a bit therapeutic. :)
Here’s how much stuffing I made for a 6 kilo boneless belly. Be generous with the ingredients, they will perfume the meat. Notice how I have left lots of pieces whole or in large chunks. Once cooked, these will be picked at by diners, and the soft garlic spread on the pork, chilis cut for added spice, sweet onions eaten like a condiment or relish.
Take your pork out of the fridge and the brine an hour or so before you stuff it. Dry the pork WELL with lots of paper towels or a clean cloth kitchen towel. You want the pork to come to room temperature. The cooler your pork, the longer it will take to cook. Spread your cooled stuffing onto the non-skin side of the belly and spread evenly, leaving 2-3 inches from the edge clear all around the outer edge of the belly.
The reason you cool the stuffing is because you want to avoid growing bacteria with hot stuffing, cool meat, and hours before the meat reaches bacteria killing temperatures. So it’s best to cool the stuffing beforehand. Wrong advice. Apparently, it is better to stuff the pork with HOT stuffing rather than cooled sautéed ingredients. So please adjust accordingly.
Place a bamboo pole down the middle of the belly, and with helping hands, sew up the belly, preferably with abaca twine, which miraculously does not BURN despite the intense heat of hot coals. I prefer to use a bamboo pole that doesn’t heat up as much as metal, and which we think this keeps the meat moist and succulent. But feel free to use a metal pole if that’s what you have.
A tight suture is ideal, and here my Chief of Stuff does a particularly good job of sewing this belly up nice, neat and taut. For home cooks, I have done less exacting versions as you can see from previous posts indicated down below, and frankly, they all seem to come out okay, but keep in mind that you don’t want much of the marinade/ingredients to leak out if possible.
The fat at the tightly sewn seam seems to fuse when it is placed over high heat, forming a nice seal of sorts. Yipes, that sentence had too many “s” words — sewn, seam, seems, seal and sorts.
Next, we “prick” the skin for that characteristic blistered look. This helps to crisp up the skin, but it does not result in a smooth lechon like finish many people are accustomed to. If you don’t have a menacing pricker like the one in the photo above ($3 from HK food store suppliers, more expensive in Divisoria), use a razor blade to make shallow slits all around the belly. This will also help the skin crisp more. It will look more like a Nigella or Jamie Oliver version. Massage some olive oil onto the skin and season generously with salt.
Place over hot coals, and rotate slowly for approximately two hours total. Go into zen mode, or arrange for two or three relievers and access to good music nearby so they don’t expire from boredom. Three of us cooked this beast of a belly, though I have to admit I couldn’t have done more than 20-25 minutes of rotating duty out of the two hours cooking time total.
Oddly, I think the key is not a constant pace of rotation. Instead, picking up from dozens of lechoneros I have observed over the years, the key is to adjust the speed of rotation to evenly brown and cook the belly or lechon. So you might linger longer in one area until it evens out, then turn slowly to keep all areas cooking nicely… Don’t be afraid to adjust your coals, moving them closer or further away as necessary. you don’t want to cook the skin too quickly and have the insides raw.
…after 20-25 minutes it looks like this…
…perhaps 45-50 minutes into cooking…
…an hour and a half into cooking…
…and shortly before taking it off the flames. Please note that the skin looks perfect at about 1.5 hours, but unfortunately the meat isn’t cooked through yet at that point. Use a meat thermometer to check that the meat at the thickest part is at 160F before taking it off the heat. Let it rest for 20-25 minutes before slicing. This particular one tasted absolutely DELICIOUS. It could have used a little more of everything stuffed in, but if you took some of the stuffing and spread it onto the meat slices, it was very, very good. I used some of reader Moni’s dried thai chilies and they provided a nice hint of spice wile the tamarind also gave a familiar taste profile but nicely blended with the other ingredients. You too can do this at home. Leave me a comment below if you have further questions.
Here are some previous related posts to help you along if you would like to attempt this on your own…
By the way, you CAN do this in an oven, you just have to adjust cooking times and take care not to burn the skin before the insides are cooked. For a festive meal, this is far more economical and less work than lots of other fiesta dishes I can think of. Enjoy!