An edited version of this article appeared in Wine & Dine magazine in 2004.
Text and photos © Christopher Tan. Reproduction without permission is forbidden.
By Christopher Tan.
‘He crackled delicately.’
- Charles Lamb, letter to friends, 1823
In the end, it all comes down to the sound. A discreetly dry, curt ripping, the noise of a cherub breaking the sound barrier, a micro-floe of ice breaking; the sound of ecstasy about to happen. Which it does, as your teeth gently rent the russet crispness and sink into a thin, pillowy layer of clean, sweet fat.
We’re talking about sucking pig, of course. (The Oxford Companion to Food helpfully points out the common error in calling it ‘suckling pig’ in actual fact it is the mother pig who suckles, the infant who sucks.) Eighteenth century essayist Charles Lamb, who referred to himself as “the warmest of pig-lovers“, lyrically describes the joys of piglets in several letters to friends. “What a pity such buds should blow out into the maturity of rank bacon! …Was the crackling the colour of the ripe pomegranate?”
These sentiments have evidently been shared by humans in antiquity. Archaeological evidence suggests that pigs were domesticated in the Middle East and Mediterranean region between 7000 and 5000 years ago, and possibly even earlier, making the pig man’s next best friend after the dog. That the old Chinese ideogram for the word ‘home’ is a combination of the ideograms for ‘pig’ and ‘roof’ indicates how far back and how important the roots of Chinese domestication of pigs.
Sumerian, Egyptian and later Roman cultures all bred swine for consumption. Wealthy Romans in particular especially enjoyed sucking pig as a festive dish, cooking it with their most commonly favoured condiments and herbs: rue, coriander seed, celery, pepper, liquamen (fermented fish sauce) and wine. Medieval and Renaissance recipes for sucking pig achieved an even higher level of flavour complexity. For example, French proto-gourmet Taillevent, includes in his Viandier cookbook of 1373 a highly elaborate preparation of pourcelet farci stuffed with cheese, egg yolks, chopped roast pork, chestnuts, and spices, then sewn up and roasted with bastings of vinegar, oil and salt. Simpler versions of stuffed piglet are still important centrepieces at New Year festivities in Western and
By virtue of its traits, the pig has much potential for being a vehicle for symbolism. It is extremely fecund, rudely large and physical, generally amiable, omnivorous, a rich source of protein and fat, and virtually entirely edible. Above all, it is delicious but it may exact digestive retribution if improperly prepared. Peoples’ attitudes toward the pig have therefore historically been somewhat ambivalent. The Greeks associated them with fertility rites and goddess cults, and pigs were used as sacrifices in both Egyptian and Graeco-Roman rites; conversely, Judaism and Islam are the best-known but not the only religions to attach culinary taboos to the pig. Across northern
Regardless of its metaphysical attributes, all of the great pig-eating cultures Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese, Balinese have in their gallery of porcine greats a special pedestal for the sucking pig. Best when eaten at between 21 and 28 days old, it has a more dulcet character than the full-grown animal; its meat and fat have not yet taken on the more assertive flavour that solid feed produces. Charles Lamb again: “O call it not fat but an indefinable sweetness growing up to it the tender blossoming of fat fat cropped in the bud taken in the shoot in the first innocence the cream and quintessence of the child-pig's yet pure food the lean, no lean, but a kind of animal manna or, rather, fat and lean (if it must be so) so blended and running into each other, that both together make but one ambrosian result…”
Sardinians slow-roast sucking pig, tucking it into a pit lined with aromatic herbs and wood bay, rosemary, myrtle, sage and hot embers. The Spanish and Portuguese are especially fanatical about cochinillo and leitao respectively. In Spain, the Association for the Promotion of the Cochinillo of Segovia, formed to uphold and protect the quality and status of the foremost gastronomical emblem of that city reckoned to be quite as important as any artistic or architectural monuments awards a mark of quality only to pigs that have met stringent conditions of rearing and processing.
Pacific island cultures, such as those of
Sucking pigs have been wedding fare since at least as far back as the Middle Ages, when ‘pigge ffarced’ was de rigeur at seriously grand banquets. As part of Chinese wedding custom, sucking pig is considered to represent the bride’s purity, perhaps more because of its rosy colour than anything else. Traditional practices vary between dialect groups. For example, for some, a sucking pig is included in the dowry sent by the groom’s family to the bride’s house, a few days before the actual wedding; it may be cut up, the bride’s family keeping some and sending the rest back to the groom’s house. For others, the groom presents a sucking pig to the bride’s family shortly after the wedding night, as a token to confirm that his beloved was indeed only his beloved. The added connotations of red as the colour of good fortune, and pork as signifying abundance roast pork is often used as an offering to the gods in other household rituals only serve to enrich the context. Modern Chinese couples and families, it almost goes without saying, largely ignore the symbolic side of the sucking pig, and simply enjoy it for its own sake.
Classic Chinese Sucking Pig
Recipe courtesy of Club Chinois
Charles Lamb, in A Dissertation On Roast Pig, tells a woolly story of how a Chinese swineherd’s son discovers the art of roasting by accidentally setting fire to the occupied pig-shed, which burns down. Checking on the piglets, he burns his fingers, sucks on them, and “for the first time in his life (in the world's life indeed, for before him no man had known it) he tasted crackling!” This may be wholly apocryphal, but Lamb’s essay illustrates two things known even in his time: that Chinese pigs were considered the best for eating, and that crackling is immensely important to Chinese gastronomy.
According to Club Chinois Barbecue Chef Ho Pui Kong, it is very important that the pig’s skin be thoroughly dried, then cooked over fierce heat, so that the subcutaneous fat boils and bursts through the skin, making little blisters that render the crackling super-crunchy. Typically, the meat is taken off the bones and then stir-fried with other ingredients, then served as a later course after the crackling is eaten.
The rigging up of a pig to be roasted takes a bit of work, but requires nothing not sold by any hardware store. Restaurants use sections of metal pipe and wire to hold its body in shape, and secure it to a large trident-like fork for the roasting step. Intrepid home cooks could try sandwiching the pig between two oven racks, tying them together with wire, and then cooking it over hot coals or under a hot grill.
1 whole sucking pig (about 4.5 kg), split down the belly
150 g spicy salt (salt mixed with five-spice powder)
2 teaspoons maltose
2 teaspoons red vinegar
2 teaspoons white vinegar
1 tablespoon + 1 teaspoon water
1 tablespoon + 1 teaspoon chinese rice wine
Oil for basting
Spread out and arrange pig so that the back is curved attractively for serving later. Brace inside of pig with thick skewers to maintain shape. Rub spicy salt over the whole pig and set aside to marinate for about 3 minutes.
Pour boiling water over the pig’s skin to tauten it. Pat dry. Mix rub ingredients together and brush evenly over skin. Place pig in a low oven (75 to 100 degrees C) for 45 minutes to 1 hour, or until skin is dry and smooth but not coloured. The meat will not be cooked at this point.
Stand the pig in front of a fan for about 30 minutes, or until cool and skin is totally dry.
Roast the pig over strong heat, preferably a charcoal or gas-fuelled grill, for 12 to 15 minutes, turning constantly to cook all parts evenly. Be careful, as dripping fat will cause fire to flare up. Baste skin with oil frequently. Skin should crisp up and form tiny, rough blisters resembling crushed sesame seeds. Let pig cool for at least 10 minutes before slicing skin to serve.
Cochinillo asado (Spanish-style sucking pig)
This method is much less fussy than the Chinese way, and easily made in a home kitchen, though it needs a large oven. It yields crackling that is smooth and shiny, less brittle and less crunchy, but meat that is more tender. Some recipes start the pig off belly upwards, and turn it over halfway through; you can try this as well, though be careful not to tear the skin.
1 sucking pig, ideally 3 (but not more than 4) weeks old, split down the belly and cleaned
salt and freshly-ground black pepper
3-4 tablespoons lard or olive oil
few sprigs of thyme
4-5 cloves garlic, bruised, if desired
2 onions, quartered
200 ml white wine or Spanish sherry
Preheat oven to 180 degrees C. Pat the pig dry with paper towels and rub it all over with salt, pepper and lard or olive oil. Spread out the pig, back upwards, in a large earthenware dish, or failing that, a large heavy roasting tin lined with foil. Tuck herbs, garlic and onion under and around it. Roast for about 30 minutes, then pour white wine or sherry all over the pig. Roast for 30 to 40 minutes more, basting every 5 to 10 minutes with the fatty juices. The pig is done when shiny and well browned all over. Let it rest uncovered for at least 10 minutes before cutting, so the crackling can firm up. Serve with a green salad dressed liberally with good vinegar and oil.
Traditionally, the sucking pig is cooked in a wood-fired baker’s oven, and cut into large serving pieces with the edge of a plate the better to show off crackling so crisp and meat so tender that a blunt edge can cleave them. The crunchy, waferlike ears are especially scrumptious.