Pieces of Eight: Pig Ovens

Pig oven at Pine Creek NT
Pig oven at Pine Creek NT, 2015 (© Paul Macgregor)
Air vent for pig oven at Pine Creek
Air vent for pig oven at Pine Creek NT (© Paul Macgregor 2015).

The Our Chinese Past Temples Project is looking at artefacts from at least 8 Chinese temples in the New England North West region. None of these temples still exists, but a number of their artefacts do. The temples were at Tingha, Rocky River and Emmaville. The artefacts we are looking at are held by 5 museums. You can scroll down and get details about the 5 museums in our post of 10 November 2020: well worth a road trip!

The “Pieces of Eight” series of posts are not on our central interest – the artefacts – but are culturally connected with one or more of the 8 temples. This post is about pig ovens, which were a feature of many Chinese temples. They were communal ovens as large amounts of roast pork were required on festival days (such as Chinese New Year and Qing Ming) and temples were a community focus for celebrating such days.

Local histories of Tingha and Emmaville attest to the existence of outdoor ovens adjacent to both the Emmaville and Tingha temples. Rebecca Lin Yit’s archaeological survey of the Chinese settlement sites at Emmaville and Tingha found the remains of communal ovens at both sites. At the temple site on Howell Rd in Tingha (also often referred to as the Bundarra Rd temple) she found an earthen mound about 3m in diameter. The site was not excavated but Yit assessed that the diameter and the proximity to the temple made it probable that the mound was the remains of a Chinese oven. A J-shaped hook for hanging items was also recovered from the site. Yit found a similar earthen mound located within 20m of the site of the Emmaville temple on Joss House Road. She described these communal ovens in her 2005 thesis: tinyurl.com/6mact2a8

Les Jack standing next to a dressed pig hanging on a gantry.
OCP member Kira Brown’s relative Les Jack standing next to a dressed pig hanging on a gantry.
Typical pig roasting hooks, from Tim Sing Lee's farm, near Wellington NSW
Typical pig roasting hooks, from Tim Sing Lee’s farm, near Wellington NSW (© Juanita Kwok),

Chinese pig ovens were substantial pieces of construction. About 90 have so far been identified across Australia (Kwok, 2019, citing several authors, “Report on the Chinese Pig Oven at Tambaroora”). An extant pig oven is at Bell River flats outside Wellington. The oven is vertical and big enough to lower in a whole pig for roasting. Your correspondent had its operation explained in 2019 by Tim Sing Lee, a local farmer, who had seen the oven in operation over 60 years ago. Tim explained the construction of the oven, the method of preparation and cooking of the pig, and the physics of the cooking. The oven was a tube constructed of brick. At the bottom it had a draught vent which doubled as an opening to the ash pit for scraping out the ash. Above that was steel mesh to hold the burning logs and allow the ash to fall through. The dressed pig carcass was marinated at least overnight in a mixture of salt, spice, homemade spirits and saltpetre (presumably sodium nitrate) (other reports from other places refer to Chinese Allspice and Chinese whisky and yet others to garlic, ginger and soy sauce). The pig was then hung up to dry before roasting. It took a ton of wood and 4 hours to heat the oven. The ash was then scraped out of the bottom and the draught vent covered up. A camp oven filled with water was then lowered into the pig oven from the top to rest on the steel mesh to catch dripping fat so that the fat would not catch fire and smoke the carcass rather than roast it (reports from other places refer to using an old wok for this purpose). Then the pig was lowered in using a gantry erected across the top opening and roasted for another 4-5 hours. The pig had pointy ended steel rods or pig hooks inserted in it to hold the carcass together during roasting and to allow the escape of fat. Tim said the top rim of the oven was covered by dampened bags to create a type of seal, corrugated sheeting placed on top and rocks on top of the sheeting. (Reports of pig oven usage in other places have the top of the oven first covered with corrugated-iron sheeting and that in turn being covered by dampened bags.) The idea of the corrugated iron sheeting was to allow steam to escape so that the meat was roasted and not steamed. The idea of the dampened bags was to assist in retaining the heat within the oven.

Several families would contribute to the cost of the pig and lots would be drawn for portions based on the number of males in each family. Pig roasting mainly occurred on autumn and spring festivals.The photos show OCP member Kira Brown’s relative Les Jack standing next to a dressed pig hanging on a gantry; two photos of the pig oven at Pine Creek NT, the second showing the air vent in more detail (© Paul Macgregor); and typical pig roasting hooks (© Juanita Kwok).

I can almost smell the roasting pork as I write this post. Think I’ll slip out to my local Chinese BBQ and get a container of char siu!

For further reading: Gordon Grimwade, “Crispy roast pork: using Chinese Australasian pig ovens”. http://www.asha.org.au/…/australasia…/26_04_Grimwade.pdf

Posted by Our Chinese Past member Malcolm Oakes