Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Red-Braised Pork Belly (Hong Shao Rou)

Red-braised pork, hong shao rou, is a classic Beijing dish. I don't eat it as much as I'd like to because it's excruciatingly fatty, but it's wonderful on special occasions. (OK, the presence of a plate of hong shao rou pretty much creates a special occasion by itself).

Hong Shao Rou - 1

First you take about two pounds of pork belly (with the skin on), cut it into bite-sized pieces of about .75"x.75"x1.5", then you boil them until they change color and turn white, like this.

Hong Shao Rou - 2

Then you put the blanched pieces into an empty wok (it will make its own oil shortly) and stir-fry them. This stage of the preparation is kind of like fighting the Medusa, because you have to hold the lid up like a shield to protect yourself when the pork pieces start to pop and spray hot oil at you.

Hong Shao Rou - 3

In no time at all, the pork will be happily simmering away in its own oil. Don't let your guard down; they'll still pop at you. When they get nice and golden brown around the edges like this, remove the pork from the wok and set aside. Pour off the oil and set that aside, or throw it away if you prefer to use vegetable oil for the next step.

Hong Shao Rou 4

In about two tablespoons of the melted pork fat or cooking oil (peanut, corn, canoloa, vegetable), caramelize two and a half tablespoons of white sugar. This part goes lightning fast, so be careful. The sugar should be golden brown, but not burned.

Hong Shao Rou 5

Cooking sugar is notoriously difficult to time correctly. It's probably easier when you don't have a girl getting all up in your grill with a camera. "Stop stirring, I need a picture!" "It'll burn!" But as always, Nick is a trooper.

Hong Shao Rou - 6a

As soon as the sugar's the right color, put the pork back in the wok and mix until it's covered well.

Hong Shao Rou - 7a

Gather all the meat in the center of the wok. Around the edge add two teaspoons of shaoxing wine, two tablespoons light soy sauce and about 2/3 teaspoon dark soy sauce. This is where it starts to look really delicious, but don't eat it yet; it's not finished.

Hong Shao Rou - 8

Cover the meat with two cups of water. Add a star anise, a bay leaf, half a teaspoon of salt, and a little piece of cinnamon about the size of a pinky nail. Also add 30g of ginger, cut into coins, and a 3" piece of spring onion (white part only). Cover and let it simmer over low heat for an hour. If the water isn't gone by then, uncover it and cook the water off.

ine Shao Rou - 9

Finally, serve this dish with fluffy white rice. (In this case, it was also served with mu xu rou, ie: moo shoo pork, and shredded cold spicy/numbing chicken). This is one of the few dishes where I think rice is actually a better accompaniment than beer. The rice is an excellent match for the heavy, sweet, oily and salty sauce. If it comes out properly, the taste should be deep and smoky, simultaneously sweet and salty with the savory edge of caramelized sugar and crisp, browned pork fat.

Note: There are as many authentic versions of hong shao as there are cooks making it. This one comes from Chunyi Zhou of Hutong Cuisine, who's had the often difficult task of teaching me Chinese cooking for the past six months.

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