Ear Affection. Cold Sichuan Pig Ears. Chung King Restaurant. Monterey Park, CA.
These little piggies went to a Sichuan restaurant...
This is a story about unwanted pig parts. Frankly speaking, these are parts that may very well go into franks, hot dogs or wieners. You know, parts like snouts, tails, entrails and ears. These parts are mostly unloved and quickly discarded or tossed over to the hounds. Or worse, they’re chopped up and ground up and then fed back to another bunch of swine.
While the other pig parts get lavished with A-list attention, elaborate cooking techniques and even primetime television commercials, the unwanted parts traditionally look forward to humble methods of cooking involving low heat and long, slow cooking time, breaking down the sinew, tenderizing dense muscle fibers and maybe melting any collagen. These modest meats eventually find a home on the plates of appreciative peasants ecstatic to ingest any form of animal protein they can get their hands on. These were scraps for the poor and wretched.
At least that’s how it used to be. But, with Ferran Adria, the Gandalf of gastronomy, proudly serving up tastings of “Deep Fried Rabbit Ears with Aromatic Herbs” to affluent epicures dining at the "world’s best restaurant" El Bulli, it seems - as far as body parts go - odd is in.
I love these nasty bits and kinky cuts. This is not a huge revelation since I’m the Oscar the Grouch of the food world. I don’t mean in temperament. I mean that I simply love to eat what most people wouldn’t hesitate to grind up in their garbage disposal. I’m the Statue of Liberty for peculiar parts: "Give me your gamy, your slimy, your large intestines yearning to be plated…”
It's like what my granny Lolian from Tennessee used to tell me - "Back in my day, we ate the whole hog. We didn't waste nothin'. We ate everything from the rooty to the tooty. Damn straight." Not really. I never had a granny from Tennessee. But if I did that's what she'd preach. Hell, the pig’s already kicked it for your dining pleasure, so show some respect for the departed sow. Why not eat the entire pig? Like its ears.
When I hear that pig ear is on the menu, well, that’s just music to my you-know-whats, especially, if these aural delicacies are prepared Szechwan or Sichuan style.
Sichuan is that province in southwestern China made world renown because of the region’s blistering and mouth anesthetizing food. (Contributing most to the region's red hot rep is the inferno-in-a-pod, otherwise known as the Sichuan peppercorn.) A popular subcategory of Sichuan cuisine is the “small eats” or xiao chi, which are also considered a drinking or bar food. Eccentric nibbles like chilled and shredded pig ears, in my distorted opinion, are a much better alternative to pretzels and peanuts when knocking back brews.
Preparing pig ears Sichuan style is a long process. First, a few ears need to be braised with soy, anise and other spices and seasonings.
After some hours of braising, the cooked ears are tightly packed and stacked like Yu-Gi-Oh! Cards and then chilled in the fridge for a day. The stack of ears congeals like gelatin thanks to their high collagen content, so the result is a pig ear Jell-O, if you will (or won’t). This pig ear Jell-O is then run through a meat slicer that thinly shreds the stack of ears into a macabre yet fascinating cross-section of several pig ears; it also looks somewhat like glossy bacon strips.
Lastly, the sheets of pig ears are pulled apart and tossed into a bowl with a spicy Sichuan marinade, mixed, chilled and served. The shredded pig ears have a broad bouquet of flavors like the licorice notes from the anise and the saltiness of the soy, but the heat from these chilled ears sit somewhere below a blast from a can of pepper spray and well above a plate of hot wings.
Like the varied tastes of the pig ears, the texture is just as multi-layered with a mouthfeel assortment of gelatinous, chewy and slightly crunchy. Yes, the crunch comes from the ear's cartilage.
If you're not careful, this cold heat will shred you like the pig ears themselves have been shredded. So eat the ears chilled, drink with a chilled Tsingtao and you’ll be chillin’ like a Sichuan villain in no time.
Can you hear me now?
Chung King Restaurant
1000 S San Gabriel Blvd
San Gabriel, CA 91776