Looking back, the early years of the bacon craze seem like a time of innocence. We took it for granted that any problem, culinary or otherwise, could be solved with various preparations of pig belly. The thrill of realizing we could eat bacon anywhere, in anything, any time of day, as much as we like, was thrilling.
As long as man has hunted and confined pigs, he has probably found ways to obsess and fetish about bacon. But these days we have the means at our collective disposal to obsess about bacon like never before, and we do. I never joined a bacon-of-the-month club, or wore any bacon-themed personal accessories, but there was a time in my life when I did begin most meals by chopping slivers from a brick of pork belly. And it was awesome. Bacon is clearly a wonderful thing. But when I began entertaining the possibility that it isn't the only thing, some interesting culinary doors opened.
Part of the problem with bacon everywhere, all the time, is that unless you're investing in clean, quality bacon, you could be exposing yourself to some questionable karma. Industrial hog farms are home to gross exploitation and pollution. Plus, antibiotics and other substances found in factory-farmed pork, such as the pork-fattening hormone ractopamine, are widely used in the United States but banned in many countries. One of those countries is Russia, which recently announced it will no longer import U.S. pork.
And even if you're unconcerned about chemicals, pollution, dietary fat or the feelings of pigs, sooner or later you still might find yourself wondering if there's something else out there. Something different. So let's entertain the notion, if only for the sake of argument, of satisfaction at a post-bacon culture.
Bacon offers three basic elements, two of which are easy to explain. Those would be grease and protein. Bacon's third element, which I'll call the essence of bacon, could simply be called flavor, but it feels like more than that. While adding little of substance to the meal, this unmistakable aspect is difficult to articulate, much less substitute for.
Pig meat, bacon's protein component, is anything but irreplaceable. Lacking the juiciness and supple texture of beef or sheep, its popularity arises largely from its deposits of exceptional fat. Replacing this fat is more problematic than replacing the meat, because the fat is undoubtedly where the essence lurks.
One option is to pivot hard away from bacon's essence and use olive oil instead, trading bacon's warm umami blanket for the cleaner, subtle flavor of a good olive oil. Sure, olive oil doesn't have bacon's lusty, forbidden-fruit quality, and blowhard carnivores will surely howl. But while the scent of something frying in olive oil doesn't fill a house like a cloud from a pan of bacon deep frying in its own grease, there are advantages to extra virgin olive oil. Rather than upstage other flavors, as bacon is wont to do, olive oil allows more space for complexity. And by most conventional measures—for what that's worth—olive oil is a healthier choice.
One could also use butter, which imparts a rich, fatty flavor and that animal product je ne sais quoi, though it doesn't offer the mystery and complexity of bacon. If you want to truly rival bacon's essence, in my opinion, the only flavors that come close come from the ocean.
Fish sauce and oyster sauce are ubiquitous in Asian cuisine, and there are many variations—like the crushed small crabs that were tossed into a papaya salad I bought on the street in Bangkok.
I've been doing something along those lines with whole anchovies. Where once upon a time my bacon slivers prepared the pan for everything from shepherd's pie to fried rice to lasagna, I've begun preparing the pan with a few anchovies in olive oil.
Unlike extracts and sauces, anchovies blur the line between ingredient and condiment. Bacon blurs this line as well, but unlike bacon, anchovies disappear as they cook, leaving only their flavor.
Given how quickly they dissolve into browned goodness, pan-fried anchovies must be diligently scraped off the pan to avoid burning. Deglaze with white wine, sherry, squeezed lemon or water to re-suspend anchovy residue. Add more olive oil, as necessary, and then, for example, try adding some chopped onions and garlic. I recently fried chunks of potatoes, which had simmered in chicken stock, in this anchovy grease. When they got crispy, I added garlic and salt. Olives and tomatoes would have been culturally consistent additions as well.
A more specific and well-traveled recipe that also conveys a comparable essence of pork belly is red meat fried with vegetables, oyster sauce and garlic. Parboil the veggies; try broccoli, carrots, peas or kale. Meanwhile, brown chunks of meat—beef, lamb or venison—in a pan. When the chunks are brown, add chopped garlic and, if you want, hot peppers and/or slices of ginger, and stir. Then add a mixture of equal parts sherry (or white wine) and oyster sauce, and stir some more. Kill the heat as soon as the sauce begins to simmer. Season with black pepper and soy sauce.
You could have included bacon, but trust me—I tested that idea, and concluded that it wouldn't improve it. And believe it or not, that's not the only dish that can do without bacon.