I really like Fuschia Dunlop’s writing on food, and her recipes for reproducing authentic dishes. She has a recipe for huhng siu yuhk (red brasied pork belly) that I’ve been meaning to try for some time. There are some good places to get this dish in Hong Kong, but its also interesting to try cooking these things for yourself. This is one of my favourite Chinese dishes, with beautifully soft cubes of fatty meat that melt in the mouth, and a gloopy black sauce full of a wine and liquorish flavours. Hopefully only by coincidence, this also happened to be Chairman Mao’s favourite dish. Like him, it originates from the Hunan district of China.
Red-braised pork is a dish that in Hunan is inseparably bound up with the memory of Chairman Mao: many restaurants call it “The Mao Family’s red-braised pork.” Mao Zedong loved it, and insisted his Hunanese chefs cook it for him in Beijing. It’s a robust concoction, best eaten with plain steamed rice and simple stir-fried vegetables; the sweet, aromatic chunks of meat are irresistible.
The first hurdle I met with this dish was acquiring ingredients. I thought I understood the butcher when we discussed the price of the meat. He asked me if I wanted it cut and I decided that it would save hassle to get him to cube it for me. Before I knew it he was hacking away with his cleaver and a big pile of meat was stacked up. He charged me HK $170 and I now have enough pork belly to feed the whole of China. I later also realised that the pieces still had bones in – and had to exercise my own lacklustre cleaver skills to resolve this.
I then went to buy aniseed, which I’d seen so many times walking around Sheung Wan. But for some reason, today it all seemed to have vanished. Not knowing the word, I tried to draw it in various stalls, but the reactions ranged between completely blank looks and one place where they brought out a starfish. Finally I found out the word is ‘baat gok’ and this sped things up no end. The other ingredients were pretty straightforward. Cinammon from a little India store, and the guy on another stall even gave me the dried chilis for free.
- 1lb of Pork Belly (skin optional)
- 2 tablespoons of peanut oil
- 2 tablespoons of white sugar
- 1 tablespoon of Shaoxing wine
- Fresh ginger – a 3/4 inch piece
- 1 star of anise
- 2 dried red chilis
- A small piece of cassia bark or a cinammon stick
- Light soy sauce
- Scallion greens
- Plunge the pork belly into a pan of boiling water and simmer for 3 or 4 minutes, until partially cooked. Remove and, when cool enough to handle, cut into bite-sized chunks.
- Heat the oil and white sugar in a wok over a gentle flame until the sugar melts, then raise the heat and stir until the melted sugar turns a rich caramel brown. Add the pork and splash in the Shaoxing wine
- Add enough water to just cover the pork, along with the ginger, star anise, chiles, and cassia. Bring to a boil, then turn down the heat and simmer for 40 to 50 minutes.
- Toward the end of the cooking time, turn up the heat to reduce the sauce, and season with soy sauce, salt, and a little sugar to taste. Add the scallion greens just before serving.
In Shaoshan, Mao’s home village, cooks traditionally leave the skin intact for maximum succulence, and cut the meat into rather large chunks, perhaps 1 1/2 inches long; I tend to make the pieces a little smaller. This recipe takes its color from caramelized sugar, which gives it a lovely reddish gloss, but many people just use dark soy sauce at home.
Overall, this wasn’t a difficult dish to make reasonably well. The only point at which I had slight difficulty was adding the pork to the sugar and oil. I found that the pork made the sugar spit upwards on contact, coating the walls around the stove. Because the pork is slow cooked over a couple of hours, this dish also requires quite a large investment of time. It not hand’s on time like risotto, but you do need to be there to check on it now and then. I felt that by the end, the pieces of pork did have a very intense flavour because they had been able to absorb it over such a long period of time.
I’m not sure I got the balance of anise and wine and sugar quite right and might have made it a touch sweeter on I didn’t really feel the pork in my version was as soft as it could have been. I’d like to begin with fattier pork, as the fat wasn’t that distinctive here. I also might try to cook it even slower if possible, but the burner I used kept going out when left on a really low heat.