Eat The Skin; It’s Where The Flavor Is!

Words by Wanda A. Adams
Photography by Mieko Horikoshi

Two culinary generations ago, the speaker was chef Paul Prudhomme, not yet a then household name — just a visitor giving a cooking demonstration at the original Sur La Table in the Pike Place Market in Seattle. Both Prudhomme and Sur La Table would become nationally known brands for the then-new “foodie” tribe.

Prudhomme was teaching us to make a skin-on cut of pork fried in pork fat, then braised. When he called for questions, I innocently asked “But chef, why can’t you make these dishes without all the fat?”

The room went still. “But, cher,” he said, “that’s where the flavor is!”

In that era of skinless, boneless chicken breast and pork that had no fat or flavor whatsoever (“the other white meat”), he had put his finger right on it.

When I was a child on Maui, my favorite thing about my Grandma’s Portuguese bean soup was gnawing on the knobby, impossibly rich ham hock that absorbed and encapsulated all the ingredients in the mixture.

For that all-important fat, Prudhomme explained, you need skin. Almost every form of animal protein (except for wild game) is outfitted with a layer of fat under the skin.

Today, chefs have rediscovered this in ways that make the most of the least. Their dishes aren’t drowning in grease. They’re using techniques from braising to broiling to melt away fat but concentrate flavors in those enticing, crisp and yet soft outer layers.

Edible Hawaiian Islands talked to a number of nutritionists who, although they admitted that fat is needed to metabolize certain important nutrients, invariably ended by saying “Moderation in all things.”

Avoid mass-produced fast food, learn how to fry (temperature is an all-important key because deep-frying actually seals the food and keeps the fat out). Occasionally indulge in a few tablespoons of chopped bacon or fish skin scattered over fresh, local vegetables and whole grains. Delectable, and you’ll want to eat things that are good for you.

My view of Brussels sprouts, for example, changed when I learned to core them like tiny little cabbages, toss the leaves in a wok together with bits of salt pork, herbs, onions and a good grind of black pepper.

Many cultures treasure dishes involving skin: Japanese deep-fry scaled salmon skin or that of other fish to become a sort of condiment or snack (perfect with beer). Filipinos have lechon (roast suckling pig brined in a sugar/salt/water mixture and slow-roasted, often outdoors in a masonry oven). Even the “skin” of tofu becomes a delicacy when it becomes aburage, a salty-sweet pouch for sushi rice or other ingredients.

Over the course of the next week will be posting the recipes of four Island chefs that strip to the skin and show us how. Check back into our Recipe category often!