It was 10:00 p.m. in Taiwan, and Ivy Chen, who has been teaching cooking classes to tourists and locals for 25 years and recently developed recipes for journalist Clarissa Wei’s upcoming book Made in Taiwan, dangled a zha paigu in front of the camera on our video call. “This is half of the face size,” she explained, holding the deep-fried bone-in pork chop close to her own face for scale. “But in the restaurant, it is bigger.” When she returned the bronzed behemoth to its cardboard take-out container, it occupied more than two-thirds of the space—but there was still room for a scoop of white rice; stir-fried mushrooms; and a dark, soy-stained boiled egg. I wanted to reach through my screen to take a bite.
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Growing up in the countryside, Chen didn’t experience her first zha paigu until she started working in Taipei. That’s because the chops are found mainly in cities, where they’re enjoyed by working folks and train commuters in paigu fan (a plate or bento box containing zha paigu, rice [fan], and vegetables). “It’s kind of like a hamburger. It’s just everywhere,” explained Cathy Erway, the James Beard Award–winning author of The Food of Taiwan: Recipes from the Beautiful Island (2015), when I contacted her to learn more about the chops.
While there are different ways to make zha paigu, Chen and Erway concurred that a common approach goes like this: Pound bone-in chops thin; soak them in a savory-sweet five-spice-infused marinade; dredge them in coarse sweet potato starch; and deep-fry them. Lift the chops from the sizzling oil to reveal an expanse of juicy, tender meat encased in an exceptionally crispy, tawny-brown crust.
Sweet potato starch is a big part of the magic: It fries up remarkably sturdy and crunchy—tap the crust with a fingertip, and you’ll hear just how crisp it is—yet it feels light and shattery on the tongue.
It all adds up to pure comfort, and I couldn’t wait to come up with my own recipe for zha paigu.
For a Great Taiwanese Meal, Hop on a Train
Bian dang culture runs deep in urban Taiwan, where the compact meals are ubiquitous. But city dwellers have a particular affinity for train bian dang, which grew in popularity when the railroads expanded dramatically under Japan’s occupation of the island nation from 1895 until 1945. During the 50-year occupation, the government oversaw the construction of the Taiwan Railways Administration (TRA) that is the foundation of the island’s extensive rail network, and with it came the growth of the travel-friendly staples.
Whether purchased at a TRA station kiosk or on board, the wooden or cardboard boxes are renowned for the deeply satisfying fare held within, prepared with high-quality ingredients and sold for a song ($50 to $100 TWD, or roughly $1.75 to $3.50 USD). Vendors offer numerous types—chicken leg, eel, and mackerel are common—but a fried pork chop is the quintessential choice, with aficionados having vehement preferences for the recipes of certain purveyors. –Rebecca Hays
Meat of the Matter
Numerous bone-in pork chop cuts are used to make zha paigu (the significance of pork in Taiwanese cuisine can’t be overstated—it’s a principal source of protein and a hugely important domestic product). The bone contains superflavorful meaty bits that are great for nibbling and also helps prevent the meat from curling in on itself during frying. Including the bone for serving also makes for a splashy presentation.
I tried a few different chops: blade, center cut, and rib. By the time they were pounded 1/4 inch thick, all the cuts offered loads of surface area for the marinade and starch to cling to. Rib chops, with their mix of light and dark meat, were my top pick because they are tender and juicy. Also, their bone is conveniently located at one end of the chop, making it easy to maneuver a meat mallet around it.
Chen mentioned that when the chops are prepared at home, they’re often cut into strips after frying and served family-style. With that in mind, I selected two 8-ounce chops to serve four as part of a meal.
For the marinade, I whisked together a dynamic mix of soy sauce; dry, clean-tasting michiu (Taiwanese rice wine); sugar; salt; and five-spice powder, the fragrantly sweet and licorice-y seasoning that, according to Chinese lore, represents the five elements of the cosmos—earth, fire, metal, water, and wood. “You can really smell [the five-spice] when it’s frying,” Erway said. I also drizzled in a little water to make sure that there was enough liquid to coat the chops and added a couple minced garlic cloves. Some cooks include additional spices to mirror or complement the five-spice; I chose white pepper for its floral, earthy complexity. The mixture was so potent that after bathing in it for only an hour, the chops had taken on loads of flavor.
Science: Coarse Sweet Potato Starch
“Why hasn’t coarse sweet potato starch been a bigger story [in the United States]?” wondered Lisa Cheng Smith, owner of Yun Hai Taiwanese Pantry. After all, the granular, snow-white secret to zha paigu’s crisp, shattery crust is “an amazing, gluten-free, pretty much ready-to‑go batter or breading” that’s used not only in Taiwanese but also in Singaporean and other Asian cuisines. (So-called “thin” sweet potato starch is milled to a powder to use as a thickener, to make noodles and mochi-like dessert balls, and to velvet proteins for stir-frying.)
The remarkable crispness of fried coarse sweet potato starch is thanks to the starch’s ability to absorb moisture (in zha paigu, from the marinade and egg), which is a big asset when it comes to frying. That’s because when moistened starch hits hot oil, it gels. Then, as the oil drives water out of the gel, it leaves behind tiny cavities. It’s these cavities that lighten the crust so that it shatters when you bite it. The moister the gel is, the looser it will be, and the more spaces will be created when the water is driven out. The upshot is an ultraporous, ultracrispy fried coating.
Starched White Coat
Pebbly, chalk-white coarse sweet potato starch is not only essential to this dish but also the coating of choice for many fried foods throughout Taiwan. “All of the granules are a slightly different size, just this uniform non-uniformity. It has a great mouthfeel, and it’s supercrispy,” enthused Lisa Cheng Smith, owner of Yun Hai Taiwanese Pantry, an online source for premium Taiwanese ingredients.
Chen said that dunking the marinated pork in beaten eggs gives the starch something to cling to, and after preparing chops with and without an egg dip, I was strongly in favor of this step. Not only did the eggs act as an adhesive for the starch, but they also led to an even crunchier crust (see “Coarse Sweet Potato Starch”).
While the coated chops sat, I heated 3 cups of vegetable oil in a wok. Zha paigu are typically fried twice: The first round drives out some moisture from the coating and gelatinizes the starch to form the foundation of the crust, and the second round expels any remaining moisture from the crust to create substantial crunch. I fried the chops individually because of their breadth—each one occupied nearly the width of the wok—and then carved the meat from the bones and sliced them into crackly, golden‑brown, ½-inch-wide strips.
I served this final batch of juicy, well-seasoned, and extremely crunchy meat as paigu fan with lots of steamed white rice and an array of typical accoutrements—stir-fried cabbage; tangy pickled mustard greens; and salty, savory lu dan (braised eggs). If only I could pass a plate straight through my computer screen to Ivy Chen at her home in Taiwan.