[Image: Cooked pig's ears, sliced around 5mm wide, intermingled with finely-julienned cucumber and a few leaves of fresh coriander, all coated in a light dressing.]
Some of you may have been able to guess from my post on texture in Chinese food a couple of weeks ago that pig's ears were coming up. Here they are!
Pig's ears are used in many cuisines beside Chinese. Jerry Hopkins' Extreme Cuisine (a title I have some issues with, but I won't go into that here) states that pig's ears can be "boiled, fried, sautéed, braised, grilled, stuffed, made into a gratin, or added to a stew or soup". Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's River Cottage Meat Book suggests cooking them for 2-3 hours and then crisping them up on a hot griddle or on the barbecue[see footnote 0].
In Chinese cuisine, however, pig's ears are often treated in a way that I haven't come across in other cuisines. In fact, although Alan Davidson's weighty and comprehensive Oxford Companion to Food insists that "the cartilaginous meat has to be softened by lengthy cooking", the author is missing a trick by failing to mention that a shorter cooking time is also possible. Simmering for as little as 20 minutes renders the ears not only edible, but enjoyably crunchy. The pork flavour is subtle; there's not much meat here, nor much fat, just plenty of crunchy cartilage.
Once cooked, the ears are usually cooled, sliced into thin strips, mixed with a flavourful dressing, and served as a cold dish. I like them served as pictured above, mixed with julienned cucumber and a dressing based on chilli oil.
When I made this dish myself in preparation for this post, I didn't have a recipe to follow, since the ones I found online were all in Chinese. I've described below how I made it, but I have since posted a recipe translation by pulchritude, which I would urge you to also take a look at.
My made-up method: clean a pig's ear (shaving it if necessary), then simmer it in boiling water for around 20 minutes. Leave to cool, then slice into long strips around 5mm (1/5") wide. Optionally, add some cucumber cut into similar-sized strips. Then mix with a dressing made from 3 Tbsp light soy sauce, 2 tsp sugar, 1 tsp sesame oil, and 3–6 Tbsp home-made chilli oil, including some of the sediment from the chilli oil if you like[see footnote 1]. Leave a little while for the flavours to soak in, and serve cold or at room temperature as part of a Chinese meal.
On Chinese menus, this may be listed as 紅油豬耳 (hóng yóu zhū ěr), 紅油耳片 (hóng yóu ěr piàn), or 紅油耳絲 (hóng yóu ěr sī). As I mentioned in my post on 紅/hóng/red, the 紅油 here is chilli oil, literally "red oil". 豬 (zhū) is "pig", 耳 (ěr) is "ear", 片 (piàn) is "sliced", and 絲 (sī) is "shredded". In this context, "sliced" and "shredded" pretty much mean the same thing — a pig's ear is quite flat, so slicing it results in long shreds. You'll note that 豬/pig is omitted in a couple of these names; as with many other Chinese dishes, pig is assumed to be the default animal unless otherwise specified (see also 肉/ròu/meat).
Footnote:  Note that Hugh, like me, is British, and hence barbecuing to him means cooking quickly on a grill above the heat.
Footnote:  I found this dressing in Fuchsia Dunlop's excellent Sichuan Cookery (published as Land of Plenty in some countries), where she explains that it is "typically used for cold chicken and rabbit meat, as well as various types of offal". The quantities given are stated as being enough for 300g–400g of cold chicken meat; a pig's ear weighs around 200g, so with the addition of cucumber this is about right for a single pig's ear.