One of the things that I really like about Chinese food is that it baffles me just a little bit. Oh, if you put me in front of a steamer full of dumplings or a bowl of dan dan noodles, I could probably tell you — for the most part — what’s in them. But Chinese food is out of my cooking idiom: it isn’t something that I had at home growing up, I’m not quite comfortable with its methods, and I would almost say that I have a block about producing most of my favorite dishes myself.
For the most part, I am content with this fact. It turns out that Philadelphia is pretty great for Chinese restaurants, and I’ve developed a deep stable of favorites in and around the city: Sang Kee, Han Dynasty, Joy Tsin Lau, and the like. And it is a pleasure, I find, to choose a handful of elaborately prepared, intricately spiced dishes from their menus, and enjoy them without giving too much consideration to the prospect of reproducing them at home.
Occasionally, I will ask myself how I would make bao, or lotus leaf rice, or (perhaps especially) Peking duck. But the answer almost always seems to involve an army of kitchen staff. And almost always, I come to the conclusion that my favorite Chinese recipes are made to be cooked in restaurants — not by me.
Almost always, I say, because there are exceptions. There was, for example, my foray into char siu — that delicious, vividly red, Cantonese barbecue pork of which I managed to make a pretty good facsimile a couple of years ago. It took a few tries, and it involved several hours poking into a hot oven with a pair of tongs, but the result was sweet and salty, richly porky, and particularly good on a bed of steamed bok choy.
Was it as good as the versions in my favorite restaurants, though? Was it even as good as the version from the Asian grocery I sometimes visit? Not quite. And so — while it was a lark of an experiment — I have reverted to getting my crispy, crusty delicious Chinese pork out.
Red cooking, however, is a different matter. I just told you, just now, that Chinese food is largely outside of my idiom. But not so red cooked pork belly. Red cooked pork belly is right, exactly in my wheelhouse.
You may have noticed that, during the winter, I tend to make a lot of braised meats. I lean toward the stewed beef, the madeira chicken, the falling-off-the-bone bone-in pork shoulder. I find these dishes comfortable, and easy to make, and they click neatly into the cold-coping part of my brain that had so long laid dormant until I moved away from California.
And red cooked pork belly fits there.
Red cooking is, according to the venerable chinesefood-recipes.com, a technique that involves stewing or braising in soy sauce. It is typical family cooking in China, says the site, and has the advantage common to slow-cooking dishes that the leftovers keep well and can be eaten cold or warmed over. And it is especially popular in Eastern China … where the finest soy sauce is produced.
My version — alas — does not come from Eastern China. It is an adaptation of this recipe from Saveur, that great filter of world cuisine for the American palate. It is, if anything, even more thoroughly for an American audience than that recipe, substituting dry sherry for shaoxing jiu rice wine, which I was unable to find. But it does add, at least, a complexity of spices absent from the Saveur version, and a very little bit of heat.
How true is my red cooked pork belly to similar dishes that are actually found in China? I can’t answer that. I have absolutely no idea. But I made it for a small dinner party not too long ago, and my panel of tasters unanimously voted it a winner. So much so that they took the leftovers with them when they went home.
And why wouldn’t they, after all? Pork belly is delicious, soy sauce is delicious, and I don’t think I’ve ever met a non-vegetarian who doesn’t like a braise.
It’s got everything you could ask for in a late winter meal. And it’s super easy, too.
1 Pork Belly, 3-4 lbs, cut into 1.5 inch cubes *
2 cups Water (plus more to parboil the pork)
1 onion, sliced
1 inch Fresh Ginger, washed and sliced thin
.25 cups Soy Sauce
.25 cups Dry Sherry (I used an inexpensive fino for the purpose)
1 tbsp Brown Sugar
1 tsp Five Spice Powder
1 tsp Salt
5-6 Dried Thai or Chinese Hot Peppers
Place the cubed pork belly into a stock pot and cover with cold water. Cover the pot, and then, over medium-high heat, bring it all to a boil. Allow it to bubble for about five minutes, then remove from the heat, remove the pork from the pot, and rinse it thoroughly with cold water to arrest the cooking.
Heat a wok or saute pan over a medium high flame, and lubricate generously with vegetable oil. When it is hot, add the onions and ginger, and cook until the onion is just starting to brown. Add the pork belly and allow it to brown for about five minutes more, then add the soy sauce, sherry, five spice powder, and peppers, and saute until the liquid is just about evaporated.
When it is just about dry, add the two cups of water and allow the whole thing to come to a boil. Then cover the pan, turn the heat to low, and braise for about an hour.
At the end of the hour, uncover the pan and turn the heat back up. Stir in the brown sugar, and allow the liquid to reduce for about twenty minutes.
At the end of that time, you may eat it as is, but it would be better to separate the sauce from the pork fat (saving the fat, of course, for other delicious applications). To do this, the best way I have found is to allow the dish to cool for a few minutes, then pour all the liquid into a one-gallon ziplock bag. You will see almost immediately that the fat rises to the top. With a scissor, snip one corner of the bag and allow the liquid to drip into a four-cup pyrex container. Then, when you’ve just about gotten down to the fat, allow it to drip into a second container.
Serve your red cooked pork over rice, accompanied by copious stir-fried vegetables.
* My particular pork belly, which was particularly delicious, came from Rising Moon Acres in Hiram, Ohio. The Rising Moon mastermind is a friend of a friend, and the belly was passed from hand to hand during late December visits, until it ended up with me. If you live in OH, look them up!