Sugar-braised pork (humba)

Sugar-braised pork (Filipino humba)

A few months ago, my friend Maila asked me if I’d ever made humba, a type of Filipino stewed pork. I had heard of it, but had never eaten it, so naturally, to me it sounded like a blog post plan.

Humba is a Visayan festival dish that seems to be a southern answer to the adobo and kaldereta of the north. The influence is definitely more Chinese than Spanish; the use of tausi (salted fermented black beans) and the common inclusion of Chinese mushrooms is a central flavor combination for this dish. This stew is also notable for the use of palm sugar, a testament to the Filipino love of salty and sweet foods together. (See my recipe for pork barbecue if the idea of sugar and pork turns you on.) For this recipe, I’ve substituted light brown sugar, but if have access to palm sugar, it would be even nicer in this dish.

Dried chinese mushrooms
Dried mushrooms

The fact that I’ve never eaten it before came as no surprise: my mother is a proud Kapampangan cook, and I think I can safely say that Kapampangans – who consider themselves the best cooks in the Philippines – can be just a leeeetle dismissive of other regional dishes. (Just try talking to someone from Pampanga about Ilocano food, for example. Be ready for a rant.) The fact that Kapampangans were the first ones to give sisig to the world may justify this attitude… a little bit, anyway. (And by the way, I love Ilocano food too. Most of it anyway.)

I was robbed. Do you like pork? Do you like tangy and sweet together? Do you like stews with lots of delicious sauce? This is humba, straight up.

Recipes for humba often call for pork belly (liempo), but I find that the belly cut makes the sauce a little too fatty for my taste (yes, it’s possible), so I’ve used pork shoulder instead. In The Filipino-American Kitchen, Jennifer Aranas suggests serving humba with a soft version of maja blanca mais, which is almost like polenta with coconut milk. I served it — untraditionally, of course — with mashed potatoes. (And rice. There’s always rice on the table. Don’t tell me about double-carbing.)

Lastly, this dish rocked my world the day after I cooked it. If you have a chance, make it a day in advance and let all those beautiful flavors harmonize in the fridge overnight. Oh yes, it’s worth the wait.

Humba, sugar-braised pork
with lots of rice, serves 4-6 hungry people

2 lbs. (1 kg) boneless pork shoulder
1 onion, diced
3 cloves of garlic, minced
small knob of ginger, minced
3 bay leaves
5 or 6 dried Chinese mushrooms
3 tablespoons salted black beans
3 tablespoons palm vinegar
2-1/2 cups (600 ml) water
2/3 cup (70 g) light brown sugar
1/4 cup (60 ml) salty soy sauce
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

  1. Combine the sauce ingredients in a large measuring cup or bowl: water, salted black beans, palm vinegar, sugar, soy sauce, salt and pepper. Set aside.
  2. Cut the pork into large chunks. I don’t like small cubes because if you braise it for long enough, you get these nice bits of shredded pork mixed in with the large pieces. Sprinkle with salt and pepper.
  3. Heat a heavy Dutch oven over high heat. Add a splash of vegetable oil. Brown the pork on all sides. (Do this in batches so you don’t crowd the pan.) Set the pork aside.
  4. In the same Dutch oven, lower the heat to medium and add the onions, scraping the browned bits off the bottom of the pot. Add the garlic and ginger, taking care not to burn the garlic.
  5. Add the sauce ingredients, the mushrooms and the bay leaves and bring to a simmer. Add the pork (and any juices that have accumulated. Bring back to a simmer.
  6. Reduce the heat to medium-low and cover. (You can also stick the whole thing, covered, in a 250 F (120 C) oven for 2 hours). Simmer for 2 hours.
  7. Uncover and raise the heat to medium-high and allow the sauce to reduce by a quarter, or as much as half, so it’s a bit thicker. Meanwhile, remove the mushrooms, halve them, and add them back to the sauce.
  8. Serve with lots of rice, maja blanca mais, or my favorite, mashed potatoes.

Humba with garlic mashed potatoes