Sichuan Wind-Cured Pork Belly (Larou, 腊肉), Part 1
Published Feb 01, 2021, Updated Oct 21, 2023
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.
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).
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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!
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
- 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
- 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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
Tried this recipe?