Red Braised Pork Belly: Recipe #5
If you only learn how to make one recipe for the rest of your life, this might be the one.
I love pork belly and there are a thousand ways to make a great dish out of one … hong shao rou might be my favorite. It’s certainly the one I cook the most in my home. It’s arguably the most classic pork dish from mainland China, slow-braised in a style referred to as “red cooked” using a combination of ginger, garlic, aromatic spices, chilies, sugar, star anise, light and dark soy sauce, and rice wine. Red cooking goes by many names and imparts a reddish-brown color to the food, but I have always found the color to be more brown than red unless food dyes are used. (I have seen that in some places but they are few.) I was privileged several years ago to dine at a semi private eatery in Shanghai called Sister Wong with my friend Jing Gao and we were happily shaken to our core by the 20 or so courses we tried that day, most vividly by the hong shao rou Sister Wong prepared with cherries and cherry juice in the braise, which resulted in a spectacular reddish tone to the brown sauce and sweet/tart element to the flavor of the dish. Every year I freeze bags of pitted cherries in season for making her version come the cold weather in Minnesota.
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I have struggled over the years to find a consistent "leaner than most" (it already has soooo much succulent fat) smaller belly than the 10-pound behemoths local butcher shops often sell, and I found one at D’Artagnan, a Canadian porcelet belly that they carry several times a year. I buy a bunch and freeze them when I am able, or I ask butchers to ask their farmers and supplies for smaller, leaner bellies. All that being said I have made this dish with big bellies, pieces of big bellies, shoulders, necks, cheeks, you name it. It’s all simply delicious.
My own take on this dish has some other elements worth noting. First, I add some typical Sichuan ingredients to the dish, a by-product of my having them on hand. I cook a lot of food from that area of China, and I shop at Mala Market a lot. I like using Pixian brand sweet wheat paste in this recipe because it’s thick and I like its flavor more than sweet soy bean paste. Sweet wheat paste or sweet flour sauce as it’s sometimes referred to, is a fermented sauce made of wheat flour and salt. Translated, it’s tian mian jiang in case you are shopping for it in a store or on some websites. Forget its name: It isn’t sweet. It is simply a stunning savory umami bomb.
I also add some Pixian brand douban (fermented chile bean paste) and some whole chiles to add a subtle warmth to the dish. Crushing the chiles would make it spicy, which really isn’t what I am after, but if you want to try it, go ahead. And I always serve this dish with plenty of Chinese pickles on the table, especially pickled mustard greens. They are easy to make, but the store-bought types work fine. If you want to try it yourself there are great recipes for them online. I like www.thewoksoflife.com or www.chinasichuanfood.com. Both have easy to follow guidelines.
Toasted rapeseed oil is available online and at Asian grocery stores. It’s the stir fry oil of choice for all pros and imparts a superb flavor to all food. I use it now in almost all my dishes regardless of cultural provenance.
Last thing. I take my leftovers, chop the pieces of belly very well with my cleaver and reheat them in the sauce that isn’t eaten on the first night, loosening with a half cup water or broth, and I make a nice easy version of lu rou fan, which is always served over rice and is one of the world’s great comfort food treasures. If you have friends over when you make the hong shao rou, good luck saving any of this.
Red Braised Pork Belly
5 pounds pork belly, lean end
3 tablespoons toasted rapeseed oil or other vegetable oil
2 onions, minced
8 garlic cloves, smashed
One handful freshly sliced ginger
2 cinnamon sticks
2 or 3 buds star anise
Several dried hot chiles (if used whole they won’t be spicy, these are Senegalese chiles that I adore, but feel free to use any Chinese hot chile, or Mexican Arbol chiles)
2 cups Shaoxing (Chinese rice wine)
3-4 tablespoons oyster sauce
1/4 cup natural soy sauce
1 tablespoon douban or toban djan (chile bean paste)
2 tablespoons (1.25 oz) sweet wheat paste (roughly one packet of the Pixian brand)
1/3 cup brown sugar, or more to taste
2 tablespoons freshly ground white peppercorns
1/2 cup water
1 bunch scallions, chopped
Cut pork belly into 1.5 inch cubes.
Brown the pieces in batches very well, skin side down, over medium heat in batches while doing the steps below on another burner. Save the rendered pork fat for another use.
Place the oil in a large heavy pot over high heat.
Add the onion and scorch/brown over high heat, lowering heat as you go.
Add the garlic, ginger, cinnamon, star anise and chiles.
Cook, stirring for a few minutes.
Add the wine, oyster sauce, soy sauce and douban, and stir. Bring to a simmer.
Add the sweet wheat paste, sugar and white pepper.
Stir, and add the water and scallions.
Add the belly pieces as they become browned.
Cook, at a low simmer, covered, for 60-75 minutes.
Pork will hold its shape but be tender.
Taste for sweetness—you may want to add some brown sugar, or a tablespoon of aged Chinese black vinegar.
Reduce the liquids at a simmer until the sauce tightens.
Serve over rice with pickled mustard greens.
All the best,