Filipinos eat a lot of pork. They’re really good at cooking it, too. Lechon is one of the national dishes of the Philippines. It’s basically a whole roasted pig. The pig is skewered on a bamboo pole and slow roasted over hot coals while being continuously hand-turned like a giant rotisserie till the skin turns a crisp, reddish-brown and the meat becomes juicy and tender.
Lechon Kawali is made from pork belly that’s boiled until tender, then dried overnight, and the next day, is deep fried in a kawali (Filipino wok) till the skin is puffed and crunchy. However, cooking lechon kawali can be a dangerous endeavor. The pork belly pops and can splatter hot oil (or make “talsik” as they say) quite violently and can cause some pretty serious burns if you’re not careful. Not to mention making a greasy mess. Few are the Filipino cooks who have escaped unscathed from a bout with a slab of frying pork belly.
Enter Lechon sa Hurno (Oven Roasted Pork Belly). Lechon sa Hurno is prepared similarly to Lechon Kawali except instead of being fried, the pork belly is baked in the oven. No oil splatters, no greasy mess, and no visits to the urgent care clinic. Just some tender pieces of pork topped with a delicious crunchy skin.
This recipe differs from traditional Lechon sa Hurno in that you don’t boil the pork first before roasting. My cousin, Ana, has a business in the Philippines selling crispy pork belly and she said she uses lemon grass and bay leaves for “aromatics.” Meanwhile, I’d heard of roasting pork belly with a salt crust, kind of like the way they do with prime rib or whole fish, and decided to try the salt crust method of roasting the pork belly with aromatics underneath it for flavoring. Success! The meat was so tender and tasty. And the skin was to die for! Nicely seasoned and so crisp, you could hear the crunch across the kitchen as you sliced it.
LECHON SA HURNO (OVEN ROASTED CRISPY PORK BELLY)
- 2½ – 3 lbs. boneless, skin-on, pork belly
- 1 medium onion, chopped
- 2 stalks lemon grass, chopped
- 4 cloves garlic, sliced
- 4 sprigs fresh oregano
- 4 sprigs fresh thyme
- 3 bay leaves
- ½ cup water
- 1 cup salt
- The day before you plan to roast your pork belly, wash it in cold water and dry it very well with paper towels. Then put it on a platter, skin side up, and place the pork, uncovered, in the fridge to dry overnight.
- The next day, take a long sheet of foil, fold it in half so you have a double thickness, and press it into your roasting pan.
- Lay a bed of chopped onions, lemon grass, and garlic on the foil, then place the oregano, thyme and bay leaves on top. These are your aromatics. If you’re not sure how to work with lemon grass, you can read about it here.
- Place the pork belly, skin side up, directly on top of the aromatics in the pan.
- Look at your pork belly skin. If one portion of it seems to dip lower than the rest, take a piece of foil, scrunch it up, and tuck it under the lower part to raise it. You want the skin on top to be as level as possible so that it crisps evenly. (I learned that the hard way after the sides of my pork belly starting browning faster than the center portion which was lower.)
- Pull up the foil to enclose the bottom and sides of the pork belly, pinching the corners to fit the foil around the meat. Leave the top open to expose the skin.
- Carefully pour water against the foil along one side of the pork belly so it runs underneath the meat and mixes with the aromatics. This helps keep the aromatics from burning. If any water gets on the skin, dry it quickly with a paper towel.
- Pour the salt on top of the skin and pat it smooth to make a salt crust.
- Bake at 350ºF for 1½ hours. Remove from oven and raise oven temperature to 425ºF. Pull foil open to expose the sides of the pork.
- Using a pair of tongs, carefully lift off and discard salt crust.
- Usually, the salt crust lifts off in one piece. If it breaks like mine did, don’t worry about it. Just throw away the broken piece and carefully remove what’s left.
- After discarding the salt crust, pick up the pork belly with the tongs, hold it over your sink, and brush off any excess salt that may have spilled onto the skin.
- Place a wire rack over the pan and place the pork belly on the rack.
TIP: I learned this after I made the pork pictured below. If your pork belly has an uneven thickness like mine (see how it dips down in the middle?) take a piece of foil, crumple it up into a ball or log, and place it underneath the meat where it dips down low. This will raise that section up so that the top of the pork is all at an even level. Then when you broil it, the skin will broil evenly and you won’t have the higher spots turning dark brown while the lower spots remain too light.
- Return pork to oven and bake an additional 30 minutes more.
- Turn off oven, turn on broiler to low, and broil for about 15-20 minutes or until skin is completely puffed up and golden brown all over. Watch carefully that it doesn’t burn!
- Slice into 3/4-inch strips. Then cut the strips crosswise into 1-inch pieces and serve.