Since I had to buy a sizable piece of pork belly for the Japanese braised cha shu, I went hog wild and cooked pork belly Chinese style. If you noticed in the Japanese pork belly recipe, it’s simmered in a classic Chinese method called red cooking in which soy sauce, rice wine, and sugar are combined to flavor and color the meat a deep mahogany. The Japanese borrowed the Chinese simmering technique but for some reason called it cha shu, though they never roasted the pork. Go figure. Chinese red cooking produced remarkably rich meat that doesn’t taste fatty. You end up gobbling pork belly but don’t mind it. Actually you want to eat more of it. Chinese red-cooked pork belly is perfect for slicing and stuffing into steamed rolls, just like its Japanese counterpart. Or, just have it with rice for a sumptuous meal.
When I set out to prepare red-cooked pork belly, I looked in a number of my favorite Chinese cookbooks and settled upon Fuchsia Dunlop’s recipe in Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook, which focuses on Hunan cooking. Fuchsia relates how red-cooked pork in Hunan is practically unseparable from Chairman Mao Zedong, who loved it, ate lots of it, and requested it from his personal chefs in Beijing. The folks from Shaoshan village where Mao was from even declared red-cooked pork to be a health food that also kept your mind sharp. I suppose that in times of hunger, which China had plenty of in its past, a chunk of well flavored fatty pork would be both luxurious and nutritious.
Fuchsia presents Chairman Mao’s red cooked pork recipe (she calls it red-braised) and there’s a nifty technique quite similar to traditional Vietnamese kho, savory dishes simmered in caramel sauce. She caramelizes sugar and oil before simmering the meat. Other Chinese red-cooked pork recipes I’ve seen calls for rock sugar and dark soy sauce but Mao’s approach allows you to skip the trip to an Asian market. Actually, go there for excellent pork belly, rice wine, and soy sauce.
I spent years studying modern Chinese history and Mao was a controversial subject to say the least. If things just boiled down to this recipe, there would be no controversy. Just pure porky bliss.
Chairman Mao’s Red-Cooked Pork Belly
Mao Shi Hong Shao Rou
Buy lean pork belly – it’s usually more expensive than the fattier cut. If you like, remove the skin but I enjoy it for textural contrast and it enriches the sauce. This dish keeps for days in the refrigerator and freezes well too. The recipe below was adapted from Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook by Fuchsia Dunlop (W. W. Norton 2007).
Serves 4 to 6
1 pound pork belly, lean cut preferred
2 tablespoons peanut or canola oil
2 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon Shaoxing rice wine or dry sherry
Chubby 3/4 inch piece fresh ginger, unpeeled and sliced
1 star anise (count 8 robust points)
2 dried red chiles, such as arbol
2-inch piece cassia bark or cinnamon stick
3 scallions, white and green parts, cut into 2-inch lengths
Light (regular) soy sauce
1. Bring a 3 or 4-quart saucepan of water to a boil and parboil the pork belly for 3 to 4 minutes. Transfer the pork to a plate and allow to cool. Discard the cooking liquid. When cool enough to handle, cut into bite-size chunks.
2. Put the oil and sugar into the saucepan that you just used and heat over medium heat. When the sugar melts, increase the heat and stir until the sugar caramelizes to a rich brown.
3. Lower the heat slightly, add the pork, and splash in the rice wine. Add water to just cover the pork. Scatter in the ginger, star anise, chiles, cassia and two-thirds of the scallion.
4. Bring to a boil, lower the heat, and simmer, covered, for about 45 minutes, until you can easily pierce a chopstick into a chunk of pork. There should still be some resistance. The pork should have become a mahogany color.
5. Uncover, increase the heat to vigorously simmer and reduce the sauce to roughly half its volume. Taste and season with the soy sauce, salt, and sugar. Aim for a savory, faintly sweet flavor. The pork may be cooked up to this point, cooled and refrigerated or frozen.
6. To serve, reheat the pork, taste and adjust the flavor as needed. Transfer to a bowl, leaving behind the aromatics, if you like. Garnish with the remaining scallion and serve with rice. If using for steamed buns, slice the pork at room temperature and reheat in the steamer as directed in the Japanese braised pork belly buns recipe.