The first time I encountered pork floss at an 85°C Bakery Café in Seattle, I mistook it for brown sugar.
In fairness to me, the fibrous strands of pork had slightly melted on top of the fresh sweet bun I picked up at the popular bakery chain, which specializes in Chinese and Taiwanese desserts. And in fairness to cooks in China, Vietnam, and Indonesia, where the ingredient is more common, topping bread with pork floss is not at all revolutionary, or even unusual. But sometimes you need an unfamiliar culinary experience to open your eyes to a higher truth. On biting into that bun, my first salty, savory, sweet bites of pork floss provided me with a divine revelation: that this product is amazing, and that I should have stumbled upon it sooner.
For the uninitiated, pork floss is a dried meat product that originates in China. Also called rousong, it’s created by cooking pork shoulder in soy sauce and sugar, and then shredding it until it takes on a fine texture. Then it’s dried, first in the oven and later in a pan or wok, to produce light, fluffy strands that are delightful on the tongue. Pork floss is sometimes called meat wool, or compared to rough, unspun cotton. However, if comparisons to fabric are a turn-off, you needn’t put too much weight into those descriptions. They’re apt while the product is still in the container, but once in the mouth, it begins to immediately break down. It’s kind of like cotton candy with slightly more substance, and made from dehydrated pulled pork.
WATCH: How to Make Garlic Pork Stir-Fry
In addition to sweet buns, pork floss is traditionally used to adorn dishes like congee and tofu. It can enhance almost anything, though, as I’ve learned in my fledgling experimentations with the delicious substance. It goes great in grits, on peanut butter toast, and in mac and cheese, as well as in highly customizable dishes like spring rolls. It’s served as a great savory substitution for cheese in scrambled eggs, and it helps homemade burritos ascend to a god-tier level of flavor. Honestly, sometimes I just eat it straight out of the container, which isn’t hard to do considering that it often comes in huge, inexpensive tubs that you can grab at most Asian food markets, or on Amazon for less than $20 bucks. Consider it the new, more protein-packed version of French’s onions: an addictive godsend that makes everything its added to instantaneously better.
If you’re a pork floss novice, like me, you may notice that there are two slightly different varieties to choose from: pork sung and pork fu. As food writer Robyn Lee explains in her break down of the topping, pork sung has been fried for slightly longer, and usually has a darker color. They’re very similar products, however, so you can’t go wrong with either. You could also make it yourself, if you’re so inclined, but if you haven’t had it before, it might be better to try a shelf version of the product first.
While it may not have the most appetizing name, pork floss is an absolutely essential ingredient for any chef who appreciates delightful combinations of sweet and savory notes. To those who haven’t yet experienced it, the substance may seem strange, but once you try it, you’ll never be able to live without it in your pantry again.