Sunday, February 14, 2010

Chairman Mao's red-braised pork (hong shao rou)

I say I eat everything, but the one thing I cannot stomach is animal fat. That slippery, gelatinous texture is the reason I hated my native Vietnamese cuisine as a kid — most people think of Vietnamese as light and refreshing, but homestyle cooking typically involves very fatty cuts of meat. The same is true of Chinese food. In her cookbook Land of Plenty, Fuchsia Dunlop explains that one of the greatest obstacles to a profound appreciation of Chinese food in the West is our very limited sense of texture:

Most Westerners think of pork fat with distaste: It's the horrid bits you leave at the side of a steak, or a dangerous substance best bred out of farm animals. The Chinese, however, have long regarded pork fat as a delicious luxury, and when you try eating it the Chinese way you will probably understand why.

Fine. I'm learning to cook Chinese food, I'll try fat. The fattiest dishes are made with pork belly, a well-marbled cut of meat with a thick ribbon of fat and skin attached. These days crisp-skinned pork belly has made its way onto many couture menus, typically north of $10 for a small appetizer portion, so I was pleased to find it in a Chinatown grocery for under $3 a pound. I bought a piece to make red-braised pork belly, Chairman Mao's favorite dish. Apparently Mao's doctor, concerned about his fat and cholesterol, had forbidden him from eating any more red-braised pork, but Mao paid no attention. (He also famously said: "If you are scared of the chillis in your bowl, how on earth will you dare to fight your enemies?")

This dish slow-cooks the decadent meat in a seductive braising liquid of stock, soy sauce, rice wine, sugar and spices. (The red-tinted meat makes a lovely Valentine's day presentation.) Note that in Chinese braises, one typically blanches the meat in boiling water before beginning the slow cooking. This removes bloody juices, which the Chinese find undesirable. Dunlop says you can skip this step if you want, so I just seared the meat to develop a golden crust as we do in Western braising.

1. Blanch a 1- to 1 1/2-pound piece of boneless pork belly for a couple minutes in boiling water, then remove and rinse in clean water (optional). Cut the pork into 2- to 3-inch chunks, leaving each piece with a layer of skin and mixture of lean meat and fat. Crush a 2-inch piece of unpeeled ginger with the flat side of your knife. Cut 2 scallions into 3 or 4 sections each.

2. Heat a trace of oil on high in a heavy-bottomed pot, then add the pork chunks, allowing surfaces to sear and brown briefly. Add the ginger, scallions, 2 cups chicken stock, 1 T. dark soy sauce, 2 T. Shaoxing wine, 2 T. brown sugar, half a cinnamon stick and half a star anise (4 segments). Stir well.

3. Bring the liquid to a boil, then simmer half-covered or uncovered over a very low flame for 2 hours, stirring from time to
time, until the liquid is much reduced and the meat is fork tender. Serve with plenty of white rice.

So how did I like it? Much, much more than I expected. The meat was meltingly tender and wonderfully aromatic. I even spooned more of the unctuous gravy over my rice. Red-braised pork is a fabulously rich dish, so some light and refreshing stir-fried bok choy or other vegetable is the perfect accompaniment.

I could not eat the fat, however. Those revolting blobs just sat in my bowl, flavoring the rest of the meat with their proximity, and that was enough. Sorry, but there are some places I just can't go.

No comments:

Post a Comment