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August 21, 2010

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Legendary master of pig skin soup

PEOPLE come from kilometers around for pig skin soup in Beicai Town. Tan Weiyun slurps.

A big casserole of steaming hot rou pi tang or pig skin soup topped with fish balls, meat balls, ham, egg dumplings and sliced bamboo shoots is a must for any local Pudong-style banquet.

"It is such a deep-rooted tradition that if we don't have the soup on a big occasion, we feel something missing," says 69-year-old chef Zhang Linfa, who makes the best pig skin soup in Pudong -- he says with all modesty.

The skinny chef, who has been cooking this legendary soup for 50 years in Beicai Town, is heir to the century-old soup-making skill. The soup is on the list of Pudong New Area's Intangible Cultural Heritage. Diners from around the city, including celebrities, flood Zhang's simple restaurant.

His simple eatery opened in the early 1980s on Bei'ai Road, mainly featuring the pig soup.

"It's my family's secret recipe passed on from my father, who learned it from local culinary master Luo Yaosheng in the 1920s," Zhang says.

In those days, cooks went from village to village, carrying pots, pans and cooking implements on their back or in a handcart -- they cooked for village weddings, baby showers, big dinners after funerals and other occasions.

Young Zhang followed his father around. Since the early 1960s, the father have made a famous cooking team. One of their specialties was pig skin soup.

"It's not easy to make perfect pig skin soup," says Zhang. "Everything needs to be carefully done, from selecting ingredients to final preparation."

This is an understatement -- the work is time-consuming and painstaking.

The pig skin must be the intact part on the back from the neck to the loin. "It must be thick enough and bright white to crystal clear."

He then scrapes off the fat and air dries the skin. In summer it takes two or three days and in winter it usually takes a week.

"It has to be fully dried. If not, it tastes sticky and loose, instead of crispy and firm," the chef says.

The next vital step is to fa (fry) the dried pig skin. First it's fried in oil at low temperature. Then the heat is briefly turned up. The skin is removed and cooled, then refried at medium temperature.

"How to fa a pig skin is the most secret part," Zhang says. "I never reveal the precise temperature or duration of frying."

As the skin -- now pork rind -- becomes hard after frying, it then is soaked in water until it softens. It takes 30 minutes in summer but almost three hours in winter.

Water is then gently squeezed from the skin, oil is removed and the skin is cut into pieces.

A perfect soup should be clear and flavorful.

"It should be so clear that one can see the bottom of the bowl. It should look like pure water, but taste rich and mellow," Zhang says.

Then soup is made by stewing for hours with pork ribs, pork bones and chicken.

"Filter it and just keep the soup," he says. "It's not greasy and has no unpleasant smell or impurities."

Finally he adds handmade meat balls, fish balls, sliced ham, egg dumplings and bamboo shoots.

"Last but not least, I'll pour a scoop of lard into the bowl -- it makes the soup smell and taste even better."

Zhang's two sons and one daughter all know the culinary art and help in the restaurant.

"And my grandson in college wants to learn how to cook pig soup," says Zhang.

Zhang's restaurant

Address: 850 Bei'ai Rd (close to Xianan Rd), Pudong

Age-old beauty secret

Pig skin is very good for you.

It's loaded with collagen protein, which improves skin, making it smoother and more supple, helping reduce the appearance of wrinkes. It also promotes growth of hair and ails.

Pig skin has more than 26 percent protein, and more than 90 percent is collagen protein, two and a half times more than pork meat.

Traditional Chinese medicine holds that pig skin can nourish yin (cold) energy and reduce inner heat. It is used in many TCM prescriptions to treat many ailments, including sore throat, ringing in the ears and excessive bleeding.

In addition to soup, the pig skin can also be made into broth jelly. It can be seamed with jujubes and rock sugar, said to promote women's reproductive health.

Pig skin can be steamed, chopped, cooked with soy beans and hot chili and made into a spicy sauce.


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