Revisiting "A Dissertation Upon Roast Pig"

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

You don't need to burn a whole house down to roast a pig

The last time I saw a whole roasted pig, I had to tip toe to peer at it.

A very young boy then, we were celebrating Chinese New Year.  A roasted pig was brought in to celebrate the 9th day, an important day for Hokkiens to worship their deities.

I can still remember the faces of many adults, peering through the smoke from the burning joss sticks. Were they anticipating the offering or in worshipful devotion, I couldn't tell.  There were unintelligible chants in the background. The lights seemed to be swaying and dancing through the smoke, keeping in step with the rhythms of the chant.

I suppose even deities need the right ambiance to enjoy their meals.

But I have never forgotten the sense of awe I had as I stared at a whole prostrated roasted pig, with it's head fully intact. Yes, pigs have heads and they come with pointy ears and all. Farmers do not rear headless walking roast pork bellies. We can easily forget that when we buy our cling-wrapped cuts off supermart shelves.

I was in Penang this week. We chanced upon a whole roasted pig. Again. 

Now, 40-plus years later, I had a smartphone in hand to capture the experience. As the seller set up his stall, the queue was already forming. I knew this huge golden crackling beauty wouldn't be on display for long.

I did wonder - as I did when I was a boy - whether it was roasted alive. Its eyes were closed and as it laid worshipfully prostrated, it seem surrendered to it's destiny as an offering, may it be a deity or to a queue of hungry Penang folk (and one Singaporean).

It seemed like most did not bother which parts of the pig were being bought as long as there was some of that glorious crackling skin on it. Somehow, when the whole pig is roasted, the various cuts of meat become secondary to the skin. The "prime" rib becomes as anonymous as other cuts. Even the head with a higher skin-meat ratio is valued. I can imagine how good it will be in my Chai Buey.

The crackling skin is indeed a great equalizer.

It was a clever display of cleaver skills, as the seller reduced the whole pig, section by section, into bite-size slices. The cleaver was sharp, and you could hear it slicing through the pig effortlessly. It was a beautiful crisply sound.

Within an hour, the table was empty. A whole pig - gone in 60 minutes.

It seems to me that no one does roast pork as well as the Chinese. They taught the world that the tegument need not be cut off and thrown away. When roasted properly, it is even more prized that the meat itself.

So, how did the Chinese learn how to cook pork this way? 

In a conversation with my Dad-in-law recently, who loves to cook (and eat) roast pork, he mentioned about this famous essay by Charles Lamb. I checked it up and indeed there was his rather humorous piece, "A Dissertation Upon Roast Pig." It appears that this English writer (1775-1834), like my Dad, loved roast pork too and came up with a theory of its origins. He claimed to have read about it in an old manuscript and published this essay in 1822.
A Dissertation Upon Roast Pig
This is an illustration by Frederick Stuart Church from an
1884 edition of "A Dissertation Upon Roast Pig".

A Chinese boy, Bo-bo, discovered roast pork by accident. Apparently, until that point people ate their meat raw, clawing or biting it from the live animal.

One day, while his father away, playing with fire, Bo-bo accidentally burned the pig house down. There was an unusual smell. He touched one of the burnt pigs and quickly licked his fingers to soothe the pain. Some of the crackling crumbs were on his fingers and for the first time, a human tasted crackling skin ("in the world's life indeed, for before him no man had known it"). It was so delicious that he gorged the skin and meat and excitedly told his father when he returned.

The father was horrified to see his son eating burnt pig. Bo-bo persuaded his father to try it. The father was equally enthralled, but warned that their roast pork must remain a secret. He feared their neighbours may kill them for thinking they could improve on the meat provided by God. Eventually, the villagers noticed that the house burned down more frequently than ever. "There was nothing but fires from this time forward", says Lamb.

A court was convened and they were doomed to be convicted. But their fortunes turned around when one of the jury wanted to take a look at the cooked pig. He too handled it, burned his fingers, licked them and from there, roast pork was no longer a secret. Soon everyone was setting fire to their home at regular intervals. Thankfully, the later realised they did not need to "burn the whole house down to roast a pig."

We can assume this is where the idiom originated from. This makes for a good and fanciful tale, somewhat like my April Fool food posts. You can read Charles Lamb's essay for yourself here. It is a good piece of literature.

And in case you want to try your hand at roasting pig but not the burn-down-your-house way, you can check out my modest methods.

You can't use my Sous Vide method for a whole pig though, unless you plan on immersing it in your long bath tub and then roast it in goodness knows where.

And if you burn down your house in the process, don't sue me.

Cooking this at home? Don't even think about it!

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  1. Interesting Post! Can you check this link in your post as it doesn't seem to work. Thanks!

  2. Tim, thanks for pointing out the broken link.

  3. Hi Padre

    Last time I seen a whole roasted pig was in 1988, when I was in Penang. It was to celebrate my home coming and my marriage and to give thanks to my ancestors, like the chinese do.

    I think it cost about $200 and then we chopped up the pig and distributed it to various relatives and friends. It so delicious.

    Trouble is a small portion of Roast pork cost about £8.00 in London and those from the Chinese supermarket does not taste the same.
    Generally I try to cook it myself and searching for recipes in youtube and blogs like yours etc.

    Having lived in London for over 40 years, I cannot wait to retire, 6 months in Penang and 6 months in the UK. Stuff my face silly for 6 months and diet for the remaining period.

    Keep up the good work as I intend to try the ginger chicken this weekend. My wife being a local, adores Chinese and Malaysian food but her culinary skills leave much to be desired. If it was not for my love of cooking, I would look like a Belsen victim!

    Take care Padre.


    Eric Ng

    PS My nephew is a chef at the Beaufort Sentosa Resort, can learn a thing or two from him when I next see him.

  4. Hi Eric - Thanks for sharing your thoughts and all the best to your ginger chicken this weekend. :)

  5. You can always sous-vide a whole pig using a hot tub like how Heston did in this video!

  6. Anything that can be done has been done!

  7. very insightful post on the origin of roasted pig!