Hong Kong chefs warm to mangalica pork, from a rare woolly pig breed

A Hong Kong supplier’s quest for healthier food is starting to gain favour as chefs experiment with organically produced meat from the breed

 Neil Tomes gets up close with mangalica pigs at Kiskunsagi National Park in Hungary.

Mangalica pigs have an old-fashioned layer of fat and look startlingly like sheep. They caught the eye of food supplier Bennet Lee Jun-yu. He is constantly on the search for animals that are not only raised as naturally as possible, making them healthier for us to eat, but also promise natural flavours that have been lost after decades of mass food production.

The owner of Heritage Foods specifically searches for farmers who raise animals organically, where they are grass-fed, and for the most part allowed to roam wild. The decision to source animals this way came after a visit to an organic beef farm run by fifth-generation farmers in Australia. Lee saw animals that roamed so far on the seven million hectare farm that they were scared of humans.

“It opened my mind to the power of ecology and inspired me to search for other places that have pasture-raised beef, poultry and pigs; even chickens eat grass. Commercial farmers feed them grain because it’s cheap, but the animals don’t get enough nutrition,” Lee says.

Mangalica, or mangalitza, is a rare breed of pig raised in a national park in Hungary. In 1990 there were fewer than 200 of these pigs because people prefer a faster-growing breed, but green farmer Dezso Szomor, with the help of the Hungarian government, obtained 60 sows to save the breed and now there are about 4,000 of the pigs, 700 to 800 of them at Kiskunsagi National Park, where he is the steward.

The unfamiliar looking pigs have woolly coats – although the “wool” is far from soft. They feed on grass and are not given any antibiotics or hormones. As a result they take longer to reach their ideal 140kg weight than farm-raised pigs. Mangalica pigs are fattier, resulting in a stronger pork flavour, and making the meat ideal for certain Chinese and Western dishes.

Lee introduced the meat to Peter Find, executive chef at the Ritz-Carlton Hong Kong, who, together with Tin Lung Heen chef de cuisine Paul Lau Ping-lui has created an exclusive menu around mangalica pork that will be served from July in the private room of the Chinese restaurant.

Mangalica pork rice at Tin Lung Heen.

The Tin Lung Heen 7-course menu, priced at HK$1,288 per person, features dishes such as the Hangzhou pork belly dish dong po rou, Shanghainese lion head, and pork rice.

“The pork has a different colour and texture so I needed to experiment with it,” says Find. “It has a thick layer of fat on the outside, not marbled like beef. Also being grass-fed affects the colour of the meat, and because it’s more wild, it’s better for slow cooking, for things like char siu and dong po rou.

“People are interested in trying exclusive and unusual foods,” Find says. “And these are even more interesting because they are organic and sustainable. People think that pork is fatty, but this is healthy fat.”

Neil Tomes, executive chef at Beef & Liberty, is also exploiting the pork’s fatty qualities. “Nothing tastes like the true flavour of pork, when you put fat into something with protein and texture.” Tomes uses the pork in the Curly Pig Hungarian Mangalica burger.

It has a distinct flavour, and is tender when cooked medium rare, accompanied by appleslaw, and mizuna leaf, or emperor vegetable, greens that are usually cooked in Chinese hotpots.

Biting into a mangalica pork burger. Photo: Jonathan Wong

The burger is pricier than others on the menu at HK$150, but, as Tomes says, customers don’t eat at Beef & Liberty on a daily basis. “We like to think that what we do is quite special, it’s a treat. It’s good pork. It’s not the healthiest thing in the world; it’s better to have things in moderation.”

Lee also approached him about buying mangalica pork belly, shoulder and leg, and Tomes decided to mince them, season with a paste of fennel powder, garlic, ginger and shallots, and add some Chinese wine. When the patty is made, it is covered in cornflour to retain the meat’s moisture when grilled.

Tomes visited the national park in Hungary with Lee last October, where they observed the mangalica pigs roaming wild on 70,000 hectares of land, feeding on mulberry trees, grass and seeds.

Not only did Tomes get to see the pigs up close, but also to participate in the slaughter of one. “I did go into it thinking, there’s a possibility … I could walk away from the experience and become a vegetarian because I’ve never been part of a beast’s death before. We’re just so used to seeing the meat coming to us packaged.

“It was a moving experience. I’m a chef. But afterwards I found myself eating less in general,” he says, adding that watching how animals are raised and then slaughtered gives him a better appreciation of meats.

As a former butcher, Find also appreciates that the abattoir is inside the park, so the pigs are kept in their natural habitat for as long as possible. This prevents them from getting stressed, which affects the meat’s tenderness and colouring.

But Lee is meeting some resistance in selling the pork to high-end hotels and restaurants, as some chefs think the wholesale price is too high – even those who are happy to buy expensive meats such as French Pyrenees milk-fed lamb.

“Pork is seen like chicken – a cheap protein that can be cooked a number of ways. But mangalica pork is different,” he says.

While mangalica pork may be too expensive for many people, learning about it is a good exercise in understanding where food comes from. “If there’s enough publicity and it’s favourable and fashionable, then people want it,” Tomes says.

“But I don’t think the information is out there for Hong Kong people to make an informed decision whether they go to a restaurant and ask the provenance of the animal, if it’s grass-fed or corn-fed, if it has been given antibiotics and hormones, free-range or not. I don’t think the customers are as forward in asking those questions as they would be in the US or Britain.”