Like mother like daughter: we love a good pork knuckle. My mum will make braised pork knuckle regardless of the occasion (although it's often for a celebration like a birthday).
My early childhood birthday parties didn't feature pork knuckle, but somewhere between primary school and university, my mum swapped out fairy bread for her pork knuckle recipe.
The pork knuckle was not something for my lunchbox; I didn't want to take pork bones into the playground back then. When it came to home dinners, I just wanted mum to be more conventional. My sister and I would request steak, sausages and chicken for birthdays. "Anything but the hoof, mum!" we used to say, but she never heeded.
Pork knuckle is an excellent birthday meal. In fact, it's a tradition I'll most likely impart to my kids. Like many dishes in Chinese culture, braised pork knuckle is an auspicious dish; it symbolises prosperity.
"It's a tradition I'll most likely impart to my kids."
Some people may associate pork knuckle with Germany. The dish is commonly served alongside a stein (beer jug). However, in Taiwan, in particular, Taichung, pork knuckle is found in all its braised and sometimes stewed glory. But we don't just limit the pork to the knuckle. We also like the shin, knee-joint and hooves. A typical, braised pork-knuckle dish uses many different cuts depending on how much fat, gelatin and meat you like. The higher up the leg you go, the more meat you get, but that would mean sacrificing the fat and more importantly, the gelatinous outer skin which when braised becomes sticky, bouncy and very pleasurable to eat (just like pork belly).
My mum tends to choose a mix of pork knuckle and lower shin to ensure a good meat-to-skin ratio. This pleases my dad who likes to talk about how bad cholesterol is, even though he always has more than his fair share of skin.
The last time I was in Taiwan, I discovered a night market dedicated to pork knuckle. There were two distinct recipes on offer: a soy-braised pork knuckle dish, which is best served with rice or noodles to soak up the silky and oily sauce from the long braise, and a soupier pork knuckle dish, which is boiled with peanuts to produce a creamy milk soup.
This year I will spend my birthday in Europe with my mum, and I can only imagine the grin on mum's face when I tell her that I have a great butcher near my apartment with farm-raised and sustainable pork as its specialty.
I guess I'll be having another braised pork knuckle dish for my birthday, and after three years of missing out on it due to the COVID-19 pandemic, I'm as jiggly with excitement as the gelatinous skin found in my mum's recipe.
Simplified Taiwanese soy-braised pork knuckle
- 1.5 kg pork knuckle
- 1 spring onion
- 30 g or a small knob of ginger, smashed with a clever/knife
- 1 tbsp sesame oil
- 200 ml light soy sauce
- 100 ml dark soy sauce
- 800 ml water
- 100 ml cooking rice wine
- 2 tbsp rock sugar or brown sugar
- 2 star anise (optional)
- 1 cinnamon stick (optional)
- Ask your butcher to clean and remove all hair from the skin of the pork knuckle. Wash the knuckle in cold water and drain.
- Place the pork in a big pot. Cover with cold water and bring to a boil.
- Discard the water and run all the pork bits under cold water. Drain and set aside.
- Return the pot to the stove and on medium heat, add the sesame oil, followed by the ginger and spring onion.
- Fry the aromats a little before adding the pork. Move around with a large spoon or chopsticks and add the soy sauce, rice wine and sugar.
- Add fresh, cold water, making sure all of the pork is covered. Add the star anise and cinnamon stick.
- Bring the broth to a boil before reducing it to a steady simmer. You can use a pressure cooker and cook for at least 45 minutes or braise over low-medium heat for at least 1.5 hrs, or until the skin is sticky and meat fall off the bone.
- If you want a stickier sauce, continue to braise until the broth has reduced. Toss and turn your pork to ensure all of it is coated in the delicious sauce.
- Serve with rice or noodles.