Wednesday, March 11, 2009

The tale of the pig's head

This is the story of how I:

•went to a Vietnamese engagement,
•brought home a whole pig's head, and
•tried to figure out how to use it.

The engagement

One of my best friends is marrying a lovely woman who is a Vietnamese immigrant. In Vietnam, the key ceremony is not the wedding but the engagement. Last weekend was the traditional engagement party.

The ritual began with a procession of the fiance's representatives bringing the fiancee gifts covered in bright red cloths.
Notice the box on the right? That is a whole roasted pig from Sinh Sinh.

After the gifts came the introductions, the granting of permission to start dating, prayers to the ancestors, the presentation of the ring -- and then the feast. During the feast, we ate some of the gifts, including much of the pig. But not the head.

Traditionally, the pig's head is a special gift taken home by the fiance's parents. The problem is that my friend's parents are not Vietnamese. They don't eat pig's heads. So the fiancee consulted her elders about whether it would be a bad omen for the fiance's parents to give away the head. It wasn't.

Then they gave the head to the only person on the fiance's side who might eat it -- me.

What do you do with a pig's head? - day 1

My wife refused to allow the head in the refrigerator. "I'm not going to look at that." So the immediate task was disassembly.

The ears were a gift to my dog. I like pig ears. But I love my dog.

Then I removed the roasted head meat. A pig's head has more meat than you might think. Much of it is in the cheeks. I was permitted to store the meat until I figured out how to use it.
But what to do with the remaining skull? After much research, I finally decided to make broth.

In Western cooking, pork broth is rare. But it is widely used in Asia. And soup guru James Paterson highly recommends the full flavor of a pork bone broth. (Although he says nothing about heads).

So I made a stock with the skull. The problem was that the broth took about 3 hours. And at about hour 2, the house really started to stink.

It is hard to describe the smell. It was sickly sweet, foul, pungent.

My wife left the house.

After refrigeration, the stock turned into the texture of jell-o. The skull had leached a lot of collagen into the broth, giving it an amazingly thick texture.

I stored away my stock/jell-o and pig's head meat. As I lay in bed, falling asleep, I wondered what I might do with them on Sunday.

What do you do with a pig's head? - day 2

By morning, I had decided to make soup. But what kind?

Again, I turned to James Paterson. His book includes a few Asian pork soups using an ingredient I had never seen -- Szechuan preserved vegetable. I didn't use his recipes, but I went looking for this ingredient. After a few stores, I finally found a can at Super H Mart. The can had rusted outside, as though it had been shelved a very long time.

Nothing prepared me for the foulness inside:

The preserved vegetable is ugly. But the smell may be worse than any other food -- even durian.

I heated my stinky stock, added the stinky vegetable, and the pig's head meat. Then I added some noodles, szechuan peppercorns, and green onions, thinking they could only help.

By this point, I was nauseous from the smell of the stock, and even more from the stinky vegetable. I knew this soup was going to be bad.

So what happened? If you have watched Tony Bordain or Andrew Zimmern, you know that stinky, gross food stories always have one of two endings:

1 - the food tastes just as bad as it smells.
2 - the flavor is a nice surprise.

This story has a happy ending.

The broth was one of the richest, meatiest broths I had ever tasted. The stinky vegetables added a sour note, which made it more complex. The meat looked different from normal sliced pork, but tasted good. The noodles added body.

The only problem was the preserved vegetable. It helped the broth, but the chunks of vegetable were so sour, so putrid, and so foul, that I only could eat a few.

But now, two days later, the preserved vegetables taste just fine. They have mellowed, with no more pungency than a slightly-pickled cabbage. And the broth tastes even better.

So dearest Ann and Mark, I wish you the happiest joy and the best luck on your engagement and marriage.

And thank you so very much for the pig's head.


Food Princess said...

Only you could write such a story.

Travis said...

Awesome. Wish i could have been there.

HoustonWok said...

I am glad you had a happy ending to your Pigs head. OH GOD i wouldn't know what to do with a pigs head roasted or not, I am too scared its going to say something to me. I would have to refer to the elders to chop this one up for me.

Rubiao said...

I have been alive for a considerable amount of time, visited and lived in a fair amount of disparate countries, yet no one has ever offered me a pigs head as a gift, and now I am jealous.

Jim said...

This is one of the best stories I've read on any food blog in a long, long time!

anonymouseater said...

Thanks for all the very kind comments.

My wife asked me last night whether I really liked the soup, or if that just made a good story.

The truth is, by Day 3, this soup was fantastic. It has made me very interested in making more stocks using rosted pork bones -- but only if I am home alone.

Last night, I gave my dog another pig ear. Before devouring it, she turned and gave me a long gaze, full of love.

neverfull said...

i'm giving my computer screen a long gaze, full of love too. i love this story.

i am also reminded of the HouCH whole pig roast @ feast when misha took one of the pigs' heads back to the table. we ate all the head meat, ears, tongue. then misha cracked the skull open and tried the brain. of course everyone at our table did too. it was sooo gross. but we were so proud of ourselves.

here's a photo of misha's pig head:

Gehrig said...

Hey blogger! RiceOwl1978 here visiting from Kansas City...up on Morrison in the Heights. My friend turned me on to your blog before last year's trip here, and I enjoyed it. Loved the piece about the hog's head. I would have lovingly removed the delicate brains before any further diminution by cooking, sliced them into 1/4" to 3/8" slices, and sauteed in butter or olive oil for breakfast with fried eggs. This would be a centuries-old, well-known delicacy to Europeans of many stripes.

My Morrison St host and I and others are going to try FEAST on W'heimer tomorrow afternoon before the Astros game.

And I'm going to check out your CFS evaluations. Fairly lame CFSs in the 200 mile radius around KC, as CF Pork Tenderloin rules. So I'm ready for a fix.

Thanks for all the info and entertainment.


Anonymous said...

great story.

Viet Teacher said...

You know, by cutting the ears off, you just took the bride's virginity! Traditional Vietnamese custom....

Asian_Al_Sharpton said...

My wife an I hosted a our wedding reception two years late due to other circumstances.

We had a whole roasted pig at our party which was simply delicious, but since we were only in town for a short while we gave the head to friends.

A week later, we were thinking, we shoulda had some of those tasty pig cheeks all the foodies talk about.

This week, we had our chance. At a chinese restaurant known for it's crispy roast pork, we spied the head and asked if they could serve us the cheeks. The butcher/counter person declined to just serve the cheeks, but added "It's only $5 if you want the whole head!"

At that rate, we said SURE! We added the condition that he cleave the head in half for us so it would fit our stock pot better.

The cheeks and some of the head meat was o good and the skin so crispy. Now we have the rest of the head to make soup!