Fried Pork Belly Curry (Sri Lanka, adapted from The Complete Curry Cookbook, 1984)


One of the more interesting (and less intimidating) recipes in The Complete Curry Cookbook is the Fried Pork Curry.   Pork may seem an unusual ingredient for a curry, given that many of the predominant religions in Asia forbid it.  And while it is certainly off-limits for observant Hindus and Muslims, pork is quite common in Southeast Asian cuisine.  In addition to the Fried Pork Curry, The Complete Curry Cookbook offers recipes for four other pork curries from Sri Lanka, Malaysia, and Burma, plus a pork vindaloo recipe from non-vegetarian populations in South India.

In the traditional recipe the pork is cubed and slow cooked in a thick and fragrant mixture of spices and aromatics.  The pork is then removed from the gravy and crisp-fried in its own fat, then returned to the gravy and served over rice.  The combination of slow cooking and frying – sort of a reverse braise – makes the pork belly seem impossibly decadent.  The exterior has the crunch of breakfast bacon while the interior remains moist and fall-apart tender.  It pairs wonderfully with the rich, aromatic gravy.

Pork belly, unfortunately, is quite variable in quality and fat content.  While there is a time and place for the high-fat, skin-on cuts typically found in Asian markets, this recipe demands the leanest boneless belly you can find, skin removed.  There will still be plenty of intramuscular fat to keep things tender, but a thick fat cap simply won’t render properly.  I am able to procure a 3-4 lb lean pork belly frozen from my local specialty butcher for about five or six dollars a pound.  If you can’t find good quality pork belly, a well-trimmed pork shoulder or pork blade roast is an acceptable substitute.

When I make this at home I prefer to cook the pork belly sous vide to optimize both texture and flavor.  It requires a little bit more advance planning but noticeably improves an already decadent recipe.  The tightly controlled cooking temperature keeps the pork belly from getting too mushy during the long cook, and it allows the flavor to penetrate the meat completely.  I’ve provided instructions for both conventional and sous vide methods in the recipe below.  If you want some additional pointers on sous vide cooking I’ve provided a brief primer here.

Fried Pork Belly Curry (Sri Lanka, adapted from The Complete Curry Cookbook, 1984)

  • Preparation: 45 min
  • Cooking: 13 h 20 min
  • Ready in: 14 h 5 min
  • For: 8 hearty servings
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Ingredients

For the curry powder:

For the pork:

Instructions

Prepare the curry powder

  1. Toast coriander, cumin, and fennel seeds over medium-low heat in a dry pan until lightly browned and fragrant. For best results, cook each spice individually.
  2. Combine toasted spices with cinnamon, cloves, and cardamom seeds in a spice grinder (or coffee grinder) and blend to form a coarse powder. Stir in the cayenne pepper and set aside.

Prepare the pork and spices

  1. Cut the pork into large cubes, about 2 inches by 2 inches
  2. Heat oil in a large dutch oven or wok over medium heat. Fry curry leaves until they start to brown, then add onion and saute for 3-5 minutes until onion is tender and starts to brown. Add garlic and stir for one minute more, then add ginger, 6 tablespoons of the curry powder, cayenne, salt and vinegar, and the pork to the pan. Continue to fry, stirring frequently, until the pork is entirely coated in the spice mixture and the exterior is lightly browned.
  3. If cooking sous vide, remove from the heat add the tamarind concentrate and stir to coat. Let cool for 10-15 minutes, then transfer to two large plastic bags for sous vide (see note). Add cinnamon sticks and cardamom pods, divided evenly between bags, before sealing. Set the water bath to 185 C and cook for 12 hours or up to 24 hours. When finished, remove pork from bag and reserve liquid from sous vide bag for the gravy.
  4. If cooking via traditional method, add the tamarind concentrate, cinnamon sticks, cardamom pods and 3 1/2 cups of water to the dutch oven. Heat through, then reduce heat to a simmer and cook for 1/2 - 2 hours until the pork is tender and comes apart easily. Remove pork and reserve gravy in a separate container.
  5. Wipe out dutch oven and bring to medium-high heat. Return pork to the dutch oven and fry in its own fat, about 2-3 minutes per side until the exterior is brown. Work in batches if necessary. If needed, add small amounts of cooking oil to facilitate the frying.
  6. When the pork is nicely browned, return it all to the dutch oven along with the reserved gravy. Stir in coconut milk and simmer, uncovered, for about 5-15 minutes until gravy reaches desired thickness. Serve with rice.

Notes

In Sri Lanka this rice would likely be served with samba, a short-grain rice also used in South Indian biryanis.  Basmati rice is much easier to find in the United States, and is an acceptable substitute.  Although much different in size and shape, they both maintain separate grains when fully cooked.  American or Japanese-style short grain rices have their place, but they are too sticky and mushy for this dish.

This recipe calls for “thick coconut milk”, which is often sold in America as “coconut cream”.  My local Asian market sells Savoy brand.  Unfortunately, in America “coconut cream” can also refer to a sugary coconut mixer used for making pina coladas, such as Coco Real brand.  If you use that this recipe will be a disaster.

If you absolutely can’t find coconut cream you can use standard canned coconut milk instead.  The gravy will be thinner but it will still be plenty tasty.


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