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Cooking Techniques

Deep-fried Crispy Pork Belly (Lechon Kawali)



For the second time in a decade, I fried the lechon kawali that we had for dinner last night instead of roasting it in the oven.

Speedy Veneracion and lechon kawali

Speedy had been hankering for it since we had bandeja paisa but I thought I’d make him sweat a little by saying that the meat had to rest for half an hour before it could be cut.

Of course, I was just kidding but he didn’t know that. Isn’t there a sadder face in the world?

Speedy Veneracion loves lechon kawali

Alex, who was taking photos with my iPhone, captured Speedy’s love for lechon kawali perfectly.

Speedy sat there by the kitchen island staring at that slab of meat and, I bet, imagining biting into it. So, about 10 minutes after the pork belly was laid on the chopping board, I started to cut it.

Slicing deep-fried pork belly (lechon kawali)

Into two-inch thick slices. Can you see how moist the meat was and how perfectly puffed the rind of the belly? Perfectly cooked. And, as I said earlier, the lechon kawali was fried. Deep fried.

Why did I go back to frying lechon kawali after I had perfected the technique of cooking roast pork belly with crispy and puffy skin in the oven?

The oven was busted. I had boiled pork that had drained cooled and no oven to cook it in. After all the trouble I went through to deep fry the pork belly, I figured I might as well write about the whole process with a few tips here and there too.

Simmer the pork belly in heavily salted water

You need a slab of pork belly. Not sliced but on one piece.

With or without bones?

It doesn’t matter. The flavor of the bones will go into the cooking liquid anyway so they are irrelevant.

Cooking liquid?

Yes, you simmer the pork belly in water (bone broth is even better) until cooked through.

Place the pork belly in a pot, pour in enough water to cover add plenty of salt, some peppercorns, a bay leaf and, something I recently discovered, a few stalks of lemongrass.

Bring the water to the boil, skim off scum that rises, cover the pot and simmer. For a slab that weighs around a kilogram and a half, it should take about two hours.

The exact length of time depends on the weight of the meat and the age of the animal it came from. The older the animal, the longer the cooking time.

When the pork is done, turn off the stove and leave the pork to soak in the broth. Leave it there until it cools to room temperature. As the meat cools, it will continue to absorb all the flavors and aroma from the aromatics.

Drain the pork completely

Scoop out the pork and transfer to a rack to allow all the liquid to drip off completely.

The cooking liquid will be much to salty to use as broth. You may, however, strain and freeze it, and use it as the base for boiling your next lechon kawali.

Forget old wives’ tales about cooking lechon kawali

There are so many beliefs about how to cook the perfect lechon kawali. Most of them have been propagated by cooks from a few generations back. I follow none of these beliefs and you can just see how perfect my lechon kawali is.

Filipino deep-fried pork belly (lechon kawali) with puffed crisky skin

No, there is no need to sun-dry the pork

Sun-drying the meat after boiling is a way to draw out moisture so that there is less oil spatter during frying.

Removing moisture from the pork skin also makes it easier to turn into into crackling.

The Ilocano bagnet is traditionally sun-dried before frying.

But sun-drying is not a must.

Just leave the pork on a rack for a couple of hours, covered with a screen to allow it to breathe, and it will be ready for frying.

No, there is no need to freeze the boiled pork

Now, I really don’t know where this belief originated. Freezing the pork after boiling and cooling was something the oldies did with pork hock too for cooking crispy pata.

But… You know, freezing will just allow ice crystals to cover the pork slab and that will result in more oil spatter than usual during frying.

Sprinkling water into the hot oil during frying is illogical

Okay, this is most famous advice of the oldies. Even our Ilocano neighbor swears by it.

Cooking lechon kawali at home

Again, I show you my lechon kawali that was deep fried without sprinkling water into the oil during frying.

The supposed rationale for the water sprinkling is to make the skin puff and turn crispy.

But, really? The reason for draining and cooling the pork (and sun-drying too per the oldies’ advice) was to remove as much moisture as possible without drying the inside of the meat, because moisture creates steam, and steam is the enemy of frying. And then you add water to the oil?

And why sprinkle the water into the oil directly? That lowers the temperature of the oil and make it spatter which can cause serious accident.

How I deep fry pork belly with no oil spatters

I poured enough oil into a wok until it reached a depth of three inches. I placed the wok on the stove and waited until fine wisps of smoke were floating on the surface. Then, I TURNED OFF the heat.

With one hand holding the wok cover, I picked up the pork belly with my other hand using extra-long tongs. Working with exact precision (because I am so scared of oil spatters), I slipped the pork belly into the hot oil skin side down then immediately covered the wok.

To make sure that the cover wouldn’t fly off (lightweight pan covers do that when oil spatters with rage as it does when frying anything that has moisture in it), I weighed it down with a mortar (yes, the bowl of the mortar and pestle) placed upside down on the cover. Who wants to clean up oil spatter on the stove, floor and everywhere else within spitting distance of the wok with the pork in it, right?

I turned on the heat, set it on high and, in a matter of seconds, the popping sounds signaling that the pork rind is turning into crackling began. I waited until the interval between popping sounds grew longer and longer. It took about seven minutes. Maybe eight.

When no popping sounds came for 30 seconds, I knew that the pork rind had already turned to crackling. I turned off the heat, removed the mortar and the wok cover. Using the tongs, I partially lifted the slab of pork to check the condition of the rind. Satisfied, I flipped the meat over. Time to fry the opposite side.

Frying the meaty side of the pork belly took two minutes. There’s no rind to turn into crackling on that side so the cooking time is shorter. And there was no need to wait for popping sounds to subside either.

There are no popping sounds when frying the meaty side of the pork belly. All the surface moisture of the meat (which causes the oil to spatter and make popping sounds) had dissipated at the same time that the rind turned into crackling.

But, to be on the safe side, I covered the wok just the same and weighed down the cover as I did when frying the side of the pork belly with the rind before turning on the heat again.

Two things that make a world of difference

  1. The quality of the frying pan; and
  2. The kind of oil you use for frying.

A frying pan that is too thin or is made with a material that does not conduct heat well will not give you optimum results.

Cooking oil with a low smoking point will not make the skin puff either.

I used a carbon steel wok to fry the pork belly that you see in the photos in this post, and oil with a high smoking point.

Now, about the cooking oil…

Never overfill the pan with oil

Note that flipping the meat is unnecessary if it is totally submerged in oil during frying. You’ll need a deep pan for that. My wok could only accommodate three inches of oil. Had I used more, the probability that the oil would overflow during frying was almost certain.

How do you know if there’s too much oil in the pan? Consider two things:

1. The height of the pan; and
2. The weight of the food you’re going to fry.

If frying something that doesn’t weigh much and especially when frying in batches, I find it quite alright to fill the pan with oil until two-thirds full.

But when frying a whole slab of pork belly, I never allow the oil to reach the halfway mark. Never mind the added work of flipping the meat. Better safe than sorry.

Sliced deep-fried pork belly (lechon kawali)

So, that’s how I deep fry lechon kawali. And it’s just something I do if, for one reason or another, I can’t use the oven. I really much prefer cooking lechon kawali with no deep frying.

See also: What is Your Favorite Dipping Sauce for Lechon Kawali?