Sichuan Wind-Cured Pork Belly (Larou, 腊肉), Part 1

Sunning the wind-cured pork belly la rou

A Spring Festival Staple

Some of us (namely me, but maybe you) have been planning on making Sichuan-style cured pork belly every winter for years but have been slightly daunted by the process. Even if you haven’t always had this wind-cured pork belly in your sights you will now, after reading this recipe and realizing it’s not as hard as it looks, and that after the moderate effort of curing you will have a long-lasting stash of smoky, savory goodness at the ready. The key is mainly timing. Look for a stretch of one to two weeks where the temperature outside (or in your garage) stays around 50F at all times—whatever time of year that is where you are— and you’re set up for success. 

That’s because you are in the hands of The Mala Market’s new Managing Editor Kathy Yuan and her mother, whom we’ll just call Mala Mama. Both of Kathy’s parents are from Sichuan and have cooked their native dishes for their American daughter her whole life. After a return from college Kathy is now learning the family recipes herself, and with her helming our blog you and I are lucky enough to tag along for the lessons.~~Taylor

Text and photos by Kathy Yuan

Winter is upon us, and that means the season for 腊肉 (làròu), Chinese cured pork belly, is here. Customarily made during 腊月 (làyuè), the 12th and last lunar month, larou and other cured meats—腊味 (làwèi)—are a cultural heritage of southern China that rely on the region’s cool-but-not-freezing winter climate for preserving these staples. Dry-brined, hung outside to wind-cure and then smoked over cypress branches, traditional Sichuan larou is a homemade Lunar New Year specialty rife with memory. 

The history of Chinese cured pork belly dates back over 2,500 years to the Zhou dynasty. Aside from tastily preserving meat sans refrigeration, larou and other “boil and eat” lawei were socially important Spring Festival foods. With lawei, families had a food staple that didn’t require laborious washing, prepping, cooking and serving. Instead, homemakers relaxed and spent time off celebrating the Lunar New Year among friends and family. For many common folk, this was the only such time for both rest and abundance. Kids waited all year for Spring Festival, when they finally got new shoes or clothes and, during the hardest times: meat, glorious meat.

Toasting Sichuan peppercorn in salt brine

Some regions marinate their larou in humble rice wine and soy sauce, but Sichuan larou is rubbed with liquor and dry-brined in a simple toasted salt base that brings out the region’s eponymous peppercorn

Back in the 1960s and ’70s, strict rations made what little food there was even more scarce—meaning larou was a delicacy stretched through the weeks-long Spring Festival celebration, and when that was eaten up, there was sometimes no meat again until next year.

My dad recalls government-issued “tickets” allowing families to purchase one 斤 (jīn), or 500 grams—slightly more than a pound—of meat per person, per month. In a whole year, you were entitled to only 6 kilograms (about 13 pounds) of meat; for context, the average American consumed 177 pounds of meat in 1970 (and 222 pounds per person in 2018). Meat ticketing began with the Great Famine in 1958, but quota restrictions and ticketing existed between 1955-1993 for everything from rice to TVs (once they hit the market).

Chinese wuhuarou from the belly

Traditional cured larou uses well-streaked 五花肉 (wǔhuāròu) from the pork belly, often translated inaccurately as “five flower meat”. The poeticism of Chinese phrasing is largely lost in English.

Rather than use up such a precious allotment willy-nilly, Dad’s family saved all their meat tickets for the New Year. Then, he and his siblings would wake before dawn to claim a spot in line at the butcher stand until it opened, by which time their parents would arrive, replacing the kids to order and pay.

You had to arrive early for the most prized pig cuts: fatty sections like the head and especially 五花肉 (wǔhuāròu) from the belly, “five pattern meat” so-named for the interlayered, well-marbled sections of meat and fat. (Note: If you love 回锅肉 (huíguōròu), it’s wuhuarou you’re eating! See Taylor’s recipe.) 

Fat was especially important because oil was also scarce, and families rendered fat for cooking oil. (Name one self-respecting bacon lover who doesn’t think a dose of sizzling bacon grease makes anything holy. My ancestors were not vegans.)

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Selecting pork belly for larou

To this day, the best part of the belly for curing is the fatty center cut (where you’ll find wuhuarou). We’re not making jerky here, pals. If you have access to pasture-raised pork, even better. But if you’re not yet convinced to seek out top grade pork belly for this project, please watch this dramatic five-minute video by YouTuber Li Ziqi that ends with her cutting slices of the most spectacularly translucent, melt-in-your-mouth larou (4:30). Know that the secret is fat and sunshine. Proceed to manifest.

Traditional strips of well-marbled center-cut pork belly larou marbling

Wuhuarou may be fatty, but it won’t let you down

It’s important to note that traditional cured pork belly (indeed, Chinese pork belly in general) includes the skin/“rind,” while most pork belly cuts I’ve seen selling as “bacon” in U.S. supermarkets are skinless. My family can usually find skin-on pork belly from dedicated Asian supermarkets in big cities with no trouble, but for those lacking a comparable grocer, a good relationship with your local butcher may be key to sourcing skin-on pork belly directly.

We often buy high quality skin-on pork belly from Amish markets, so don’t be afraid to look and ask around.

Once you’ve procured your pork belly, trim clumpy excess fat from the meaty side and divide into long, even strips about 2.5 to 3 inches wide. Using a pointed knife, make a clean incision into one end and out the skin side of each strip. You’ll hang up the strips to dry using this opening later. See above photos for guidance.

The curing process for larou differs by region (and family), so feel free to experiment as you please. Our Sichuan cured pork belly featured in this recipe relies on a 白酒 (báijiǔ) liquor rub, dry-brining, wind-curing and smoking. Baijiu, the national drink of China, translates to “clear alcohol” and generally clocks in around 40% to 60% ABV, but Ma says the higher the alcohol content (>60% ABV, minimum 55%) the better for larou. A cheap, strong Beijing 二锅头 (èrguōtóu, “second distillation”) like Red Star ErGuoTou will do; Allendale Wine Shoppe in NJ ships Red Star to the most states for those without Chinatowns nearby. However, if you’re unable to buy baijiu, 110-120 proof vodka substitutes in a pinch.

Baijiu liquor to prep the meat

Gloved hands help rub in the liquor by not absorbing the liquid as you work

Whatever you do, don’t pre-measure your baijiu and leave it sitting in the kitchen before this step. It will quickly evaporate, not because the alcohol in baijiu is particularly volatile, but because its distinctive perfume will invariably waft over to your dad watching TV in the family room, and then he will know “you got the good stuff,” and you will turn around and the measuring cup will be empty (or conspicuously lower than before). It happens.

Toasting the salt brine in a skillet

Toast the salt base until fragrant and golden—we forgot star anise this time, but usually add it

Would it be an iconic Sichuan recipe without 花椒 (huājiāo), Sichuan pepper? After rubbing in the baijiu, toast whole Sichuan peppercorns with other aromatics and salt until you can smell the spices and the salt yellows. (You do not need to use curing salt with nitrites, as this cured pork will not be eaten raw.) This effectively distributes the huajiao aroma throughout the dry brine in the absence of liquid carriers like soy sauce.

Ma is partial to Hanyuan huajiao for special jobs like larou—so partial, I didn’t even know she kept a secret stash of the stuff until last month. Mala Mama, always with huajiao up her sleeve and hidden away deep in the belly of the pantry.

Dry brining larou

A generous rubdown with the cooled salt mixture protects against spoiling

Dry-brining and wind-curing the meat

Thoroughly coat the pork with the cooled salt mixture. Let brine outside in a loosely covered container for five to seven days, flipping the pieces once daily for even coverage.

To prevent spoiling, outside temperatures must stay below 59F (ideally between 50-55F). However, prolonged exposure below 40F will prevent lingering internal moisture from drying properly. And beware that once the thermometer drops below 30F, you have actually jumped from meat-curing to employing Mother Nature as an extra meat freezer: helpful when intentional, disappointing when not, so best avoided altogether. We leave the meat in the garage for brining but transfer to the refrigerator if cold snaps threaten, waiting for pockets of ideal weather before starting at all.

Finally, tie an 8-inch loop of butcher’s twine or kitchen string through the incisions made previously, threading the meat like the eye of a needle. Your meat is now ready to 风干 (fēnggān), air-dry or “wind-cure” for the next one to two weeks. Bamboo poles work great for hanging, but improvised set-ups such as a long-handled yard tool (e.g., rake) propped between two sturdy chairs, or a portable clothes-drying rack, function just as well.

Set the meat outside in a shaded, well-ventilated spot, returning to a garage or refrigerator at night and during rainy weather. The best locations naturally receive occasional midday sun, but we have to manually move our drying rack around for sun. Limit sunning to three to four hours per day so the meat neither spoils nor overdries.

Sunning the wind-cured pork belly

Shown with optional meat hooks. Dry your Sichuan wind-cured larou directly under the sun, up to three to four hours per day, for best results.

The larou is done curing when the rind dries stiff and the strip retains some flexibility/give when pressed. With sufficient sun exposure, the fat begins to render, the surface may appear oily, and mouths may involuntarily water. You’ll notice that drier, windy days expedite the curing process, while high humidity, windless indoor environments extend the process. Still, China’s southern provinces experience year-round moisture; good larou requires some humidity (60% to 70%) to cure without drying out completely. 

(For a year-round, virtually overnight oven-cure, this wet-brine spiced soy method will produce something similar to Cantonese cured pork belly (lapyuk). This is feasible on the dehydrator setting or below 75C/167F.)

If you made it this far, you’re almost at the finish line (read: dinner table). Stay tuned for Sichuan Wind-Cured Pork Belly Part 2, where we’ll discuss smoking, cooking and eating larou! Let us know in the comments any questions you have, or just introduce yourself and say hello. Thanks for reading!Author portrait

Kathy Yuan is a first-gen, twenty-something daughter of two Sichuan immigrants who cooked her way back to her parents’ kitchen during the pandemic and is now helping Ma (you can call her Mala Mama) keep generational family recipes alive. Mala Mama is fully trilingual and introduced the Sichuan 麻辣 (málà) curriculum very early on, storing fresh-ground 花椒 (huājiāo) in a Gerber baby food jar and not judging a certain 2nd grader’s 紅油 (hóngyóu) mashed potato phase.

Sichuan Wind-Cured Pork Belly (Larou, 腊肉), Part 1

Kathy Yuan | The Mala Market

Equipment

  • Gloves
  • Shallow basin (deep roasting pans work) or wide mixing bowls
  • Butcher's string (kitchen twine) and/or meat hooks
  • Pole/rod or drying rack to hang meat

Ingredients

  • 11 pounds center-cut pork belly, skin on excess fat trimmed
  • 100 grams high-proof baijiu (>60% ABV, minimum 55%) or vodka approx. ½ cup
  • 150 grams fine-grain salt approx. ½ cup
  • 3 tablespoons Sichuan peppercorn
  • ½ tablespoon fennel seeds
  • 5 star anise

Instructions

PREP

  • Slice pork belly into strips approximately 2½ inches wide. No need to rinse the meat, but if you do, pat completely dry before slicing.
  • Using the tip of a pointed knife, make a clean incision into the square end and out the skin side of each strip (see photo). You’ll thread this opening with string to hang each piece later.
  • Working in batches inside the shallow basin, rub baijiu onto every inch of exposed meat. Gloves are recommended.

DRY BRINE

  • Preheat a dry pan or wok over low-medium heat. Toast the salt and spices, stirring constantly, until you can smell the spices' fragrance and the salt turns yellow. Remove from heat. Let cool to room temperature.
  • Rub the salt brine into the meat, coating each strip thoroughly, including the ends.
  • Move loosely covered basin outside and leave the meat to brine for five to seven days, flipping the pieces daily. If weather doesn't permit, you can do this step in the refrigerator.

WIND CURE

  • Tie an 8-inch loop of string through the incisions made previously and slip the loops directly onto a hanging pole, or use meat hooks. Hang to dry for one to two weeks in a shaded, well-ventilated spot. On clear days, move meat into the sun for three to four hours daily. Transfer meat indoors—to a garage or refrigerator—at nights and on rainy days. 
  • The larou is done curing when the rind is dried stiff and the strip still has some flexibility/give when pressed. Refer to post for detailed drying tips and notes.

Notes

Outside temperatures must be below 59F (ideally between 50-55F) or the meat can spoil. Temperature, humidity and size of strip all affect curing time, which can range from one to three weeks total.
 

Kathy Yuan

Kathy is a first-gen, twenty-something daughter of two Sichuan immigrants who cooked her way back to her parents’ kitchen during the pandemic and is now helping Ma (you can call her Mala Mama) keep generational family recipes alive. All photos shot and edited by her.

17 Responses

  1. Nancy Lui says:

    Can you use a dehydrator to partly or fully prepare. Or is the time in the sun to render the key?

    • Kathy Yuan says:

      Hi Nancy, thanks for reading! We’ve never used a dehydrator for this, so unfortunately I’m not able to help guide you there. I haven’t seen a dehydrator that can go as low as 50F though, so that seems more equipped for making ready-to-eat jerky. It’s worth noting that jerky is mostly made from lean meat because the fat is prone to going rancid with the dehydrator method. Wind-curing below 60F won’t cook the la rou at all while drying, however, so even fatty pork belly won’t spoil. And yes, the time in the sun is key to rendering the fat, as well as drying it more efficiently at low temperature!

  2. Jeff says:

    Are the 5 star anise in the dry brine broken or crushed at all before toasting? Thanks…

    • Kathy Yuan says:

      Hi Jeff, thanks for reading! Great question. No, the star anise is not broken or crushed at all before toasting. Go ahead and toast it whole!

  3. Laura Schuemann says:

    Amazing. KUDOS!!!!

  4. Tom Brandeis says:

    As someone that makes bacon and porchetta at home I look forward to trying this recipe. Have you heard of or considered using Umai-type dry curing bags (used for charcuterie and beef dry-aging) in the refrigerator as a replacement for hanging the brined pork belly outside to dry?

    • Kathy Yuan says:

      Hi Tom, thanks for reading and sharing your expertise! I’d never heard of the Umai dry curing bags before, but I’m glad you put them on my radar for future charcuterie projects. There are three main reasons I don’t recommend replacing the hang-drying step for la rou: 1) Umai-type bags seem to call for 30-45 days of curing. With the right cut, airflow and weather, la rou could be ready in as soon as 1 week! 2) Without time in the sun, the fat won’t render and leave you with its nice, slightly oily coating. I have my plebeian theories about why this makes the final product better, I haven’t read all the literature yet. 3) The wind-curing is part of what makes this method distinctive!

      Since the la rou tradition predates refrigeration (especially in China, where refrigerators only recently became the norm — this interesting piece explores why) and part of its appeal is only requiring basic resources, I’m sure most people who still make la rou just never had reason to do it differently. Definitely let us know what you think if you try this with the Umai bags, and good luck!

  5. Heidi H Wasch says:

    I currently have my pork belly hanging up and drying on my Seattle porch. In reading other recipes, including Fuchsia Dunlop’s, I have a question about NOT using pink salt/nitrates. I don’t want to give anyone botulism! I bought the meat at a reputable butcher and followed your directions. I was thinking of smoking 1/2 of it in my Little Chief smoker. Can you give me your thoughts on why it is ok to not use the pink salt? Thanks!

    • Kathy Yuan says:

      Hi Heidi, hello from the East coast! So cool to hear you’re following along, I’m jealous of that smoker!

      In response to your question, I looked up more info on pink salt/nitrate curing. Clostridium botulinum is anaerobic, although it tolerates normal boiling temps (“heat to 240-250F, ~120C for 5-10min”). One reason you’ll be fine following our traditional Chinese curing method — la rou is NOT a ready-to-eat cured meat (even after smoking, since the Sichuan practice is that of cold-smoking and not cooking). Sichuan la rou is almost always boiled before using, including parboiling before stir-frying/steaming. I’ve written more info about parboiling/boiling in Part 2. Our minimum recommendation is boiling for 15 minutes, which would kill this bacterium in the process.

      Then, there’s the anaerobic requirement for Clostridium botulinum to survive. La rou never cures in airtight, oxygen-less environments. Fresh air and outside ventilation are key traits of Sichuan’s wind-dried tradition. While it does sit for a couple days initially to brine, the strong preceding concentration of high-proof alcohol rub + salt coating makes the la rou intolerable for bacteria to grow (another reason to err on more rather than less. Saltiness can be boiled away, tears from spoiled meat haunt you forever!). This is why no one uses baijiu <50-55% ABV. We also only suggest covering the brining container loosely, not tightly, to protect from dust and accidents.

      So rest assured, this is a tried-and-true method supported by thousands of years of anti-botulism la rou making, before anyone even had a name for nitrate! Feel free to reach out if you have any more questions and please keep us updated on your pork belly. I'd love to hear how this goes in a smoker like that!

      • Heidi Wasch says:

        Relieved to hear that I won’t kill my family and friends! I’ll be smoking tonight!

      • Heidi Wasch says:

        A final question – while the meat is covered, it has been a little rainy, should I still bring it into the garage if so? I just checked it, it’s been outside for a week, one or 2 days of rain during that time, and now it is pretty soft.

        • Kathy Yuan says:

          Hey Heidi, check the end of my post + recipe card for the weather-specific curing details: “Set the meat outside in a shaded, well-ventilated spot, returning to a garage or refrigerator at night and during rainy weather.” The meat should definitely be brought indoors at night as well as during any rain, since the purpose of wind-curing is to dry it out. If it’s taking up enough moisture to soften up although covered, I’m afraid the rain-saturated air around it may’ve taken a toll. The ideal humidity range is 60-70% for this reason, but better to err with drier/colder than wetter/warmer!

          At this point, here’s what I would do: check the meat with your nose ASAP — if it smells off to you, then proceeding further is up to you. But that’s a clear sign of spoiling, and if you’re worried about meat going bad I can’t recommend taking your chances! If it doesn’t smell/look bad, you should immediately rub it down with another coating of salt (not pink/nitrate). Refreshing the high-salt environment will continue to help deter bacteria/mold growth, and it should draw out the additional moisture. Then continue to hang-dry until the skin is stiff and meat firms up, taking care to bring it into your garage every night and when it’s rainy. Since Seattle is rain-prone, you especially want to take advantage of any sunshine. Don’t cover the meat when sunning.

          Your end result may be more salty, but pay attention to our soaking and boiling instructions in Part 2 and I’m sure you’ll still be able to enjoy it. Just soak it with several changes of water before parboiling, and boil for longer to draw out additional salt. I’m glad you asked what to do, hope this helps!

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