Beer-Braised Pork Trotters (Zhuti, 猪蹄) ft. Dried Tofu Skin
Pig Feet, a Lip-Smacking Delicacy~~
I took braised pork trotters for granted, once. This delicious phantasm of a previous life startled me into remembrance after an estranged adulthood. Its irreplicable mouthfeel transported me somewhere: that barely-there bite through gelatinized skin; the TempurPedic-like fat layers, soft and plushy yet bouncy with just a little give; oozing with juices and draped in a coat of dark, sticky soy sauce. Lip-smacking, if lip-smacking were a single dish. But where had I eaten it? Who made it? When? For the life of me, I couldn’t remember the specific instances.
As I stole a bite from my friend’s takeout box many moons ago, all this familiarity and strangeness flooded over me. And the trotters were so, so good. I was irked that I had ordered noodles (sorry to that soup, it was good too). I couldn’t remember the last time I had trotters. For the next year and a half, I thought of those pork trotters and the fact that I must have them again.
It took making them myself to get there, of course. And they are so worth it. They practically cook themselves, too: A novice cook could achieve these results. Braised pork trotters melt into a mouthgasm with only patience and fire.
How to order trotters from English- or Chinese-speaking butchers
In Chinese, we call this dish 猪蹄 (zhūtí), which effectively translates to “pig hooves”—what English-speaking butchers call trotters. This is identified and cooked separately from the knuckles, 猪肘子 (zhūzhǒuzi), which butchers here call hocks.
However, Chinese people distinguish between the animal’s front “hands” (猪手, zhūshǒu) and back “feet” (猪脚, zhūjiǎo). The front “hands” are where the leaner and meatier hooves come from, popular for braising, while the back feet are bonier with thinner skinned hooves, popular for soups. If you’re placing an order for the hoof meat cut, identified separately from the animal’s physical characteristics, a Chinese butcher will refer to them as 前蹄 (qiántí) in the front and 后蹄 (hòutí) in the back.
Sometimes, however, they may not be labeled. It’s helpful to know that the qianti front trotters are larger, meatier, more flexible/wrinkled/bent and have a big tendon in them. Houti back trotters are straighter and tougher, and what you may get if you don’t specify. They are priced accordingly, with front trotters the more expensive of the two.
For non-Chinese butchers in America, you can specifically request front trotters vs. back trotters. Ask the butcher to slice them in quartered or chopped crosscut sections. They will be easier to eat this way, and to suck all the delicious marrow out.
Front feet/hands are understandably the popular cut. However, lots of people prefer the back feet, where there’s more collagen anyway! I made this dish using the back feet to demonstrate you can really go either way. Personally, the defining characteristic of braised pork trotters to me is that mouthwatering skin and fat layer, and back trotters have plenty of both.
Cooking pig feet—for your health
Pig feet are rich in collagen protein from all the tendons, ligaments and connective tissue. Collagen sources are beloved for their age-delaying anti-wrinkle qualities and promotion of skin elasticity (our skin is 70-80% collagen!). Studies have shown that collagen consumption increases bone density, nail strength and improves joint pain. In Traditional Chinese Medicine, pig feet are known to strengthen the waist, knees, and even lactation in pregnant women.
When cooking trotters, one of the main priorities is dispelling its gamey odors. Pigs don’t wear shoes, so inevitably their feet see a lot of wear and tear. They will usually come pretty clean from the butcher. (Although, if your pig feet are super white and pink instead of their natural yellowing, it can be a sign of unnecessary chemical processing by factories that artificially lighten the skin for consumers who think whiter is cleaner.) If there is still hair on the skin, burn it over an open flame and scrub away the burnt skin under running water.
The key to cooking trotters that don’t smell: cleaning/blanching, temperature control, and deodorizing aromatics. The chopped trotters need to be scrubbed and soaked in a couple changes of cold water, until it runs clear of blood. Adding a handful of flour while scrubbing is an old trick that helps draw off any slime or gunk on the raw meat. Then, you’ll need to blanch it with ginger, scallion and rice cooking wine, starting in cold water*. If you cook a lot of Chinese or Asian meat recipes, you may notice there’s often a pre-cooking blanching step. This step helps deodorize the meat and clean away blood foam, which is especially important in making clear, flavorful soups (consider your favorite beef pho). *See further discussion in next section.
As for aromatics, ginger and scallion are used in part because they’re delicious, but most importantly because of their ability to neutralize unpleasant odors in the form of volatile compounds. Spices like Sichuan pepper, coriander, cloves, star anise, cassia bark etc. have a similar effect. Rice wine for cooking also helps deodorize odors by evaporating them. The beer-braise for this recipe relies on the same principals.
These long-simmering braised pork trotters are the perfect introduction to The Mala Market’s new dried sand ginger, Kaempferia galanga—a welcome niche spice. Uncommon but used across portions of China, sand ginger is known as 山柰 (shānnài) in Sichuan. In fact, I only knew the one name for sand ginger until recently. When I mentioned its Guangdong name “沙姜 (shājiāng)” to my parents, both of whom grew up and lived outside Sichuan’s two biggest cities, neither of them had any idea what I was talking about. So if you see a mention of a spicy camphor-y “aromatic ginger” in Sichuan cooking under a different name, that’s sand ginger!
Shannai/shajiang is great in aromatic chili oil and long, complex braises with other deodorizing spices like star anise, cassia bark, Sichuan pepper, bay leaves, cloves and fennel seeds. So it’s perfect for hotpot, stews, and long braises such as pork trotters. In this recipe, I add sand ginger with the spices in the braising step (after blanching).
Why do Chinese cooks blanch meat starting from cold water?
Blood foam (the scum that rises when blanching meat) occurs when myofibrillar muscle proteins in solution unwind at 30-32°C. Uncoiled reactive groups denature as temperature increases and form larger insoluble molecules within the muscle fiber. This type of tissue containing a lot of collagen shrinks and contracts with heat, pushing out the myoglobin-containing juices. (Although iron-binding myoglobin is red at normal temperatures, the protein degrades with heat into grey scum.) To prevent premature contraction of surface muscle fibers, the meat temperature must be relatively consistent from inside-out, so internal juices can be evenly pushed out. When raw meat is added to hot water, external muscle fibers contract first. The internal heating is insufficient, and the end result is still gamey. Blanching starting from cold water is therefore easiest to expel myoglobin, the source of foam, than hot water.
Lastly, at surface level, as the internal oils gradually separate out with increasing water temperature, it mixes with the denatured protein tissue, increasing surface tension and entraining air and water vapor to form clumps that float on the hot soup.
After blanching, it’s important to wash and clean the surface scum from the cooked meat in/under warm water. Cold water introduced immediately after the cooking process will cause the meat to tighten up.
(If you’re curious, you don’t need to blanch marinated meat because marinating already deodorizes the gamey smell. Furthermore, the addition of salt changes the osmotic pressure of meat so that blood water is not as easily precipitated during the cooking process. No salting when blanching meat!)
There are some good reasons to blanch meat in hot water. For instance, if you want the skin to rapidly contract (it loses less moisture during cooking, for a softer mouthfeel, allegedly). However, cooks that use this method also rely on the principle above: They marinate the meat for an hour before blanching, to ensure the results are still clean and not stinky.
For more braised soups and stews, try Mala Mama’s favorite Clarified Old Hen Soup (Dunjitang) and the weeknight-friendly Sichuan Chestnut Braised Chicken (Banli Shaoji) or Taylor’s Sichuan Red-Braised Ribs and Radish.
Beer-Braised Pork Trotters (猪蹄, Zhuti) ft. Dried Tofu Skin
- 8-10 strips dried tofu skin/beancurd sheets of choice
- 3 pounds cross-cut pork trotters, chopped/quartered see note
- handful flour any kind
- splash Shaoxing wine or other liaojiu (rice cooking wine)
- 2 thumbs fresh ginger, divided: 1 washed and smashed, 1 peeled and roughly sliced
- 1 bundle fresh scallion, washed and knotted
- 6-8 cups hot water, divided
- 1 star anise
- 1 small cassia bark
- 1 piece dried sand ginger
- 2 whole cloves
- 3-4 dried red chili
- 2-3 bay leaf
- ½ tablespoon whole red huajiao (Sichuan pepper)
- 1-2 tablespoons oil, or enough to coat pan
- ¼ cup rock sugar approx. 60 grams. If unavailable, sub dark brown sugar
- 1 can pilsner/pale lager beer, room temperature approx. 12 ounces
- 1½ tablespoons light soy sauce (Zhongba preferred)
- ½ tablespoon dark soy sauce (Zhongba preferred)
- 1/16 teaspoon ground white pepper, to taste
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt (halve for table salt), or to taste
- MSG, to taste
- In any wide container (bowl, loaf pan, Tupperware, etc.) soak the dried tofu skin in room-temperature water according to package instructions, around 1 hour or until soft and tearable. (Denser types like "sticks" may take up to 6 hours, so be sure to check beforehand.)
- In a large bowl, scrub the meat with cold water and a handful of flour to clean it of any sliminess/gunk. Rinse thoroughly, rinsing 2-3 times until the water runs clear of blood. Drain.
- Blanch the cleaned meat by adding it to a pot of cold water over medium-high heat with the smashed ginger, scallion knot and splash of liaojiu. Bring to a boil for 5 minutes, or until most of the scum has been forced out, skimming foam as it appears.Meanwhile, combine the star anise, cassia bark, sand ginger, cloves, bay leaf, dried chili and whole red huajiao in a small bowl. Rinse gently in one change of water and set aside to soak in just enough clean water to cover.
- Retrieve the trotters with a strainer into a bowl with 4-5 cups of hot water prepared ahead. Do not use cold water, or it will tighten the meat. Scrub the trotters of all the scum underwater, then rinse under hot water and drain into a clean bowl. Set aside.
- Make the caramel in a dutch oven, clay pot, wok or similar braising vessel* by melting ¼ cup of rock sugar in 2-3 tablespoons of vegetable oil (enough to coat the pan) over low heat. Stir continuously as it melts, using the back of a spatula/spoon to crush the rock sugar if needed, until color deepens to a dark amber. Be careful that the sugar doesn't burn and turn bitter.Once bubbling rapidly, add parcooked pork trotter. Quickly stir-fry to distribute the color. Add sliced ginger and soaked spices, stir-fry until fragrant. When the edges have browned, add the can of room temp beer down the sides of the pot, so as not to cool the meat too much. Season with the light and dark soy sauces. Then add just enough of the remaining hot (boiling is even better) water until the pork is barely covered. You may not need much. Bring to a boil, then turn the heat low and simmer 1 hour.*See Notes for Instant Pot instructions
- Retrieve the large spices and discard. Tear the soaked tofu skin into bite-size lengths and add to pot. Season with salt and MSG to taste. Continue cooking uncovered, over high heat, to reduce the sauce until thick and glossy (or to your liking). This may take an additional 5-30 minutes depending on the amount of water you added, the shape/size of your pot, and how falling-apart you like your meat. It is largely a matter of preference. You may opt to retrieve the trotters when they are cooked to your liking and continue cooking down the sauce on its own.Serve immediately with veggies and rice on the side, or let cool on its own and reheat the next day to let the flavors continue developing overnight.