Summertime in North America is the season of heat, watermelon, and family gatherings, and the perfect time to make and enjoy this refreshing and festive salad. The recipe was an original creation of Fatty Crab‘s Zekary Pelaccio and was written up by The New York Times, where we found it. Sweet and fluffy watermelon cubes tossed in an aromatic ginger cilantro dressing and tangy pickled watermelon rinds were coolly delicious contrasts against juicy roast pork belly. Spicy scallion, rau răm / Vietnamese coriander, and Thai basil completed this unusual salad that in its own way provided all the textural and flavor elements of gỏi (Vietnamese salad). The original recipe combined elements of Southern United States cuisine with spices and techniques chef Pelaccio encountered in Malaysia. We substituted his crispy fried pork belly for a star anise marinated roast pork that was more reminiscent of heo quay (roast pork), an ingredient associated with celebrations in Vietnam. We had no idea how one would classify a dish in which so many lineages were mixed together, but we felt perfectly at home serving and enjoying this salad out in the backyard with the rest of our family.
The New York Times recipe included an extensive list of ingredients that scared off many of our friends to whom we recommended this recipe. However, the actual bill of materials is much shorter since those ingredients that were used in more than one mixture were listed multiple times in the recipe. It’s not so bad! Here’s what we used:
- 3 lbs pork belly
- 2 cups kecap manis (or substitute soy sauce + maple syrup) for marinade
- 4 star anises
- 6 tablespoons Chinese black vinegar (or substitute regular vinegar, or tamarind juice) for marinade; 2 cups rice vinegar (or tamarind juice) for pickling
- 3 tablespoons soy sauce for marinade
- 3 tablespoons fish sauce for marinade
- 1 lime’s juice for marinade; ½ cup lime juice for dressing
- 5 pounds watermelon
- 3 sliced shallots for pickling solution
- 2 sliced Thai chillies for pickling solution
- 2 lime leaves for pickling solution
- 1 oz ginger for pickling solution; 6 oz ginger for dressing
- 2 tablespoons sugar for pickling solution; 6 tablespoons sugar for dressing
- 1 tablespoon salt for pickling; ¾ teaspoon salt for dressing
- 6 cilantro stems and leaves for dressing
- 2 chopped cloves of garlic for dressing
- Chopped scallions, rau ram, and basil for garnish
Pork belly: We combined kecap manis, star anise, soy sauce, vinegar and fish sauce to make marinade. Poured marinade over pork belly that had had its skin crosshatched by a sharp knife. We put the pork belly and marinade combination in a vacuum bag to speed up the process.
Watermelon: Removed the flesh, then separated the hard green shell from the white rind with a sharp knife. Cut watermelon flesh and white rind into small cubes. Chilled watermelon flesh cubes. Transferred white rind cubes into a heat-proof bowl.
Watermelon rind pickling: Combined tamarind, shallots, chillies, kaffir lime, ginger, sugar, salt and ½ cup water in a saucepan over medium-high heat and brought to a boil. Strained liquid over white rind, then chilled.
Pork belly: Marinated pork belly were roasted on a rack above a drip pan filled halfway with marinade for 30 minutes at 375 degrees Farenheit.
Dressing: Blended sugar, tamarind, lime juice, ginger, cilantro, garlic and salt in a blender until smooth
Assembling: Tossed the watermelon flesh with just enough dressing to coat. Plated pork belly pieces on a serving plate, then topped them with cubes of watermelon flesh and white rind. Drizzled dressing on top of watermelon cubes and pork as well as around the plate. Garnished with scallions, rau răm and basil.
Provided above was our tweaked version of chef Pelaccio’s signature dish. We’d substituted tamarind for vinegar in the pickling solution. The result was more fragrant than the original, however the full impact of the tamarind was more subdued though still noticeable in the fully assembled salad. We’d also added star anise to the pork marinade and opted for roasting the pork belly rather than braising then frying it. We liked the roasted pork belly for its tenderness and intensity. The flavor was deeper than usual for pork in traditional gỏi and even more fragrant than the Cantonese roast pork (siu yuk) that inspired the star anise addition. Now if we could master the crispy blistered skin secrets of siu yuk we would be able to reintroduce the crunchiness of the original crispy fried braised belly while retaining the juiciness of roast pork.
This is our contribution to the July’s Delicious Vietnam food posts round-up started by A food lover’s journey and Ravenous Couple. This month the round up is being hosted by Lan at Angry Asian Creations.