Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Three Little Pigs Caja China

A coonass microwave pig in Louisiana, from the website....

If you’ve ever been in a small town in Louisiana on a weekend, you probably saw what is referred to as a “Cajun microwave”, or a “Coonass microwave”. It’s a rectangular wooden or metal box with a tight fitting lid, with smoke pouring out of it. Inside there is a metal liner, a grate to hold a whole of half pig, and then a metal tray suspended over the pig to contain coals, before the lid-coals tray is placed on top of the apparatus, sealing in the heat. The “microwave” part of the name refers to the fact that it reduces cooking time for a big chunk of pork by almost half, producing moist, tender meat with crackling smoky skin. It’s the fast and easy way to cook a half or whole pig; much easier and faster than the traditional style of cooking cochon de lait, or Cajun-style roast pig. Cochon de lait is French for “pig in milk”, meaning a suckling pig. But a Cajun pig roast most often cooks a young pig weighing anywhere between 50 and 150 pounds; not still sucking the teat, but definitely tender and juicy. For a fantastic and mouthwatering Southern Foodways Alliance documentary film by Joe York on cochon de lait (including some shots of the caja china method), click here:
Suffice it to say that once you’ve caja china’d, you never go back.

Cool caja china tee from twentyfirst creative......

Stories abound about the name “caja china”, which means “Chinese box” in Spanish. Supposedly it came originally from Cuba, referring to a new cooking method imported by the 150,000 Chinese laborers in the 1850’s. The theory sounds logical, but it’s more than likely hogwash. Culinary historians say that the method isn’t that old, and the two cuisines stayed separate on the island. Food anthropologist Sid Mintz points out that the word “china” is a common term used all over the Hispanic Caribbean that describes something exotic, clever, or mysterious. Supposedly in Cuba, and in Latino countries all over the Caribbean, it is common to call anything clever or unusual “Chinese”, so it’s no stretch to see how the clever cooking box became the caja china. In Peru the box is called “caja china criolla”, and in Cuba it’s known as “caja asador” (roasting box) and asador Cubaan (Cuban roaster”. No matter what it’s called, it uses charcoal heat in an enclosed space to roast-grill meats in roughly half the time that it would normally take by standard fire-roasting methods. They are all over the web if you want to buy one, just pay attention to the sizes and the building materials.

Ray's caja china....

My buddy Ray Tatum of Three Little Pigs has lusted after a caja china for some time now, wanting to roast a half pig in one, and learn how they work.  He’s seen them in operation, and tasted pig cooked in one, and was immediately hooked by the process and the taste. So last week he broke down and got hisself a caja china, and then secured a half pig from salt + time, which Ben and Bryan procurred from one of their local rancher suppliers. The side weighed 105-pounds and was gorgeous. Ray brined it for 24 hours in a spiced up brine, after draining it, placed it in the caja china and loaded the top tray with oak coals.

Ray said that he cooked it in about 5 hours, and the skin was deep golden brown, the meat tender and drippingly moist. He was running it as a special that night, and a group of us went over to check it out.
Wanting to avoid the ROT (Republic of Texas) Biker Rally motorcycle traffic that we felt sure would be littering the freeways downtown (they expected 50,000 motorcycles over the 4 day event), we opted for the eastern approach from way down south (IH 35 to Oltorf, to Pleasant Valley, to 11th and Rosewood). When we got to Rosewood Park we decided that dealing with the bikers might have been a faster route. From the overpass over Rosewood Park the entire park was covered with folks and tents, with the smell of great food wafting up; it was an early celebration for Juneteenth. I’ve never seen so many po-po in one area; there was a cop car literally about every 50 feet, and our normal turn was blocked off by yet another, so we went on up to 12th and came in that way. East Austin was rocking!

The four sides......

Ray was pairing puerco caja china with your choice of two sides for $10. I knew all the sides were going to be fantastic, so opted for all four: creamy garlic-cheese grits, fried baby Brussels sprouts, sesame cole slaw, and chipotle potato salad. Every single one of the four was wonderful. Ray knows his way around side dishes, and they were all as good as I knew they would be. The pork was succulent and delicious. I could have eaten a whole boat of the skin: biting through it was like closing your mouth on an unctuous, savory, porkish cloud of roasted pig cotton candy. It had crunch, but also melted in your mouth. The meat underneath was moist and sweet, with sections of the belly being the best. Two lessons learned: Puerco caja china is well worth a drive from way down south, through masses of ROT Rally and Juneteenth celebrants, and two, who knew that the caja china was such a delicious secret?

Yummy nums caja china puerco......

Mick Vann ©

1 comment:

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