The secret to this dish is procuring the fattiest, most succulent piece of skin-on pork belly you can find and using only the top half of it. If possible, employ the services of a local butcher, because the average prepackaged cut of pork belly in a regular grocery store is, unfortunately, far too lean.
While braising meat for hours in a soy sauce–based concoction is a technique used throughout Asia, this particular dish is special to Taiwan. This dish is also sometimes referred to as lu rou fan, which is a term that’s more widely used in Taipei and throughout northern Taiwan (and in most Taiwanese restaurants in the West). The difference is that lu rou fan includes a teaspoon of five-spice powder, perhaps a couple of chunks of star anise, and significantly less sugar. It also uses a leaner cut of pork and is therefore definitely not as tasty, but I know I think that only because of my preference for southern Taiwanese cuisine. This dish can be made a day ahead of time.
Freeze the pork belly until partially frozen, about 1 hour. This will make it much easier to cut. Dice the pork belly into 1⁄4-inch (6-millimeter) cubes.
In a large pot over medium-high heat, heat the oil. When it starts shimmering, add the diced pork belly. Cook, stirring often, until the pinkish color of the meat is gone and the fat begins to render a bit, about 4 minutes. Add the garlic, if using, and stir until fragrant, about 20 seconds. Add the water, shallots, soy sauce, sugar, soy paste and rice wine. Cover, bring to a boil, and then slowly simmer over very low heat, leaving the lid slightly ajar. Cook, stirring occasionally with a wooden spoon, until the pork is melt-in-your-mouth tender, 1½ to 2 hours. If you find that the braising liquid is reducing too fast and beginning to caramelize and stick to the bottom of the pot, add up to 1⁄4 cup (60 milliliters) more water. The pork is done when it’s soft and creamy.
To serve, drape a scoop of the finished braised pork belly over a bowl of cooked rice. Season with white pepper to taste.
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