I don't think we ever knew the restaurant's name, just that it was somewhere in Kowloon,Hong Kong, down crowded, narrow, steamy, neon-lit streets: Blade Runner territory.
We had been taken there by locals, regulars who were well known, and so we got the inside story about an extra on the menu - a knuckle of pork that had been simmering for twenty-four hours. Normally this is only available if ordered long in advance, but a group of diners had cancelled at the last minute.
Did we want it?
The knuckle arrives. My soul shrivels as it wobbles obscenely like a porky blancmange in a pool of pond-dark liquor. The gelatinous fat quivers as we poke it tentatively with chopsticks. The meat needs no more than this gentle prompting to fall apart: it's tender and melting with a sauce aromatic with star anise, ginger, garlic, fennel and sichuan pepper. I dream about this dish for months afterwards.
Here is an approximation of that gargantuan feast, with a little help from Fuchsia Dunlop's Sichuan Cookery (read this for a flavour of her wonderful writing about Chinese food). I have reduced the cooking time, but extend it back up to the full 24 hours if you like.
Stage One Ingredients1 pork knuckle
150g ginger, cut into four and crushed a little
3 fat cloves garlic, cut in half
300g pickled sour mustard leaves, chopped into matchstick strips (buy this in your nearest Asian food store)
3 dried chillies (seeds can be removed)
3 star anise
6 tbs light soy sauce
6 tbs dark soy sauce
3 tbs black vinegar
9 tbs Shaoxing rice wine
2 tbs black bean and garlic sauce
1 tbs black bean and chilli sauce
2 thick spring onions cut into four inch lengths
Stage Two Ingredients
50 g dried white back black fungus (rinsed)
Stage Three Ingredients3 tsp sichuan peppers (coarsely ground)
3 tsp fennel seeds (coarsely ground)
1 Place the knuckle in a large pan and add all the other Stage One ingredients, topping up with water so that the knuckle is half covered. As no one knuckle is the same as another, proportions vary, so adjust according to taste and inclination.
2 Cover the pan, bring the water to the boil and then reduce the heat to a simmer. Check every 30 minutes, turning the knuckle over. Top up with water if needed.
3 (Stage Two) After four hours, add the rinsed fungus and stir in well. Cover and bring back to the simmer - continue to check every 30 minutes as it continues to cook.
4 (Stage Three) An hour before serving, stir in the ground spices.
5 Keep tasting the sauce during the final hour, and adjust flavours to suit taste. If too thin, boil down a little.
6 Serve with steamed sticky rice, stir-fried greens.