One of the most well-known street foods of Taiwan, braised pork rice is the working class staple that carries the flavor of nostalgia and perhaps, the essence of Taiwanese food culture. Explore the different styles and variations of braised pork rice offered by MICHELIN-recommended establishments across Taiwan to best appreciate this humble dish that's rich in layered flavors.
The true origins of Taiwanese braised pork rice may be impossible to ascertain, but an old Taiwanese saying offers a clue: “Even if you’ve never eaten pork, you would have seen pigs walk.” Pork would have been a rare luxury in early agrarian communities, and the poor would have stretched any meat they had through ingenious cooking techniques. Pork skin, fat, and other scraps trimmed from meat would be chopped up, marinated with soy sauce, and cooked down into a gravy with fried shallots. The rich and aromatic gravy would then be served over rice for a hearty meal. Braised pork rice became a street food staple for the working class, affording busy workers with a simple and delicious meal at all hours of the day. Though usually eaten at lunch or dinner, braised pork rice is also a breakfast staple for people in southern Taiwan.
When it comes to styles of braised pork rice, preferences vary between the northern and southern parts of Taiwan. In the north, the dish is referred to as lu rou fan, while Southerners call it rou zao fan. Southern-style lu rou fan is made with pork belly, or three-layered pork. Just like in Northern Taiwan, the dish is known as lu rou fan in Central Taiwan; however, the pork belly version, which is more common in Southern Taiwan, is served.
Regardless of the differences, all these braised pork rice dishes are similarly delicious with a luscious gravy that is rich in gelatin, leaving a sticky kiss on the lips. There is no need for expensive cuts of meat, but freshness is key. Each establishment marinates chilled fresh pork in their own secret blend of seasonings, and cooks down the gravy in their own laborious, time-honored methods. Pork minced by hand results in a more favorable texture than machine-ground meat, and the ratio of fat to lean meat is a personal preference. Some prefer the indulgence of a fattier blend and others swear by an even 50-50 distribution, while increasingly health-conscious consumers are opening for leaner meat.
Other factors that make or break a bowl of braised pork rice include the selection and preparation of the rice, the amount of meat gravy going on top of it, as well as the side dishes that accompany it. Along with accompaniments like pickled yellow radish, cucumber slices, pickled gourd, or marinated eggs that are enjoyed together with the braised pork, the humble dish is transformed from ordinary to extraordinary.
The use of the rich and aromatic sauce isn’t just limited to rice. It is also used to dress blanched vegetables and dry noodle dishes like yi mian and dan zai mian, imbuing these simple dishes with much soul.
On the streets of Taiwan, you might find signboards that read 魯肉飯 instead of 滷肉飯. Though the first characters are read the same way, “lu”, the former, is an intentional typo to attract the attention of passersby and to stand out from every other establishment offering the same thing. This is a fascinating tradition that harks back to an earlier era. Braised pork rice is so ubiquitous that it is hardly ever listed on the menu, though it can most certainly be ordered anywhere. So ingrained is it to the food culture of Taiwan that the Braised Pork Rice Festival has been held every year since 2017 to share the delicacy with the rest of the world.
This article was written by MICHELIN Guide Taipei & Taichung and translated by Rachel Tan. The original article can be viewed here.