Chinese Red-cooked Pork Belly
A moment of evening in Spring is worth a thousand pieces of gold.
Once they start naming food after you, you know you’ve made it. Writer and calligrapher Su Dongpo was apparently something of a gourmand, and this classic Chinese dish bears his name to this day. Given that he passed away in 1101 AD, this fact is a testament to the longevity of his art and the enduring popularity of this simple yet elegant dish. And while it is undeniably delicious, it’s also a perfect example of how patience and simple Chinese cooking can completely transform ingredients… as long as those ingredients are given their due.
The perception of Chinese food outside of China is quite often more than a little off the mark. As I’ve mentioned in the past, much of the world suffers from a fairly distorted concept of what every-day Chinese cuisine is like, thanks in large part to the ubiquity of cheap Chinese food and the popularity of elaborate Southern Chinese dishes (which, while delicious, were hardly designed with every day consumption in mind). Consider soy sauce. I’m hard-pressed to think of any East Asian ingredient that has so thoroughly entered into Western usage, and yet it’s rarely afforded much consideration as an ingredient. While many Asian-inspired recipes frequently call for soy sauce, there’s rarely any distinction made about the type or quality; it’s just soy sauce – end of story. It seems to me that its role is often unfairly reduced to that of salt-replacement. But by neglecting the actual flavour, quality, and character of soy sauce, we’re all-too-often selling our food short.
Now, I personally have a fascination with diving really, really deep into the variation and history of a food product, but I’m not going to go too far down the soy sauce rabbit hole right now – the topic is just too complex. Instead, I’m going to limit this two a discussion of two key differences within the world of soy sauce: traditional fermentation vs. modern production, and dark vs. light.
The first point concerns how soy sauce is made. Traditional soy sauce brewing is a time-intensive process, taking on the order of several months. The end result is rich and chemically complex – not to mention variable. Any given recipe for traditional soy sauce might involve different ratios of ingredients, fermentation methods, aging periods, and even yeast species. Unsurprisingly, this can yield very different end products. By contrast, modern methods like soy hydrolysis can yield a soy-sauce product in only 3 days.* Hydrolyzed soy sauce is quick and extremely shelf-stable, but it’s also far less complex in taste. If you want to see what I mean, grab one of the little soy packages that comes with takeout, as these are almost always hydrolyzed for cost and shelf stability reasons. Taste a little of it. It’s usually pretty harsh stuff, and in my opinion, not terribly pleasant on its own. Now I suppose that’s not a huge deal if you’re just using a little dab of the stuff, or if there are a lot of other ingredients rounding your dish out. But in a many Chinese, Japanese, and Korean dishes, soy sauce is revered. It’s used for its flavour, and not just to add salt. Using a cheap, brash tasting sauce makes your cooking taste cheap. It’s somewhat akin to using a really cheap cooking wine; maybe fine when you need a tablespooon, but not when you’re making Boeuf Bourguignon.
Now, let’s discuss the dark side and the light side. Jedi aside, the trick here is not to take sides, but to use each appropriately. Soy sauce is pretty much always deep brown, so the distinction based on colour might seem odd. But dark soy sauce is a very important component in “red-cooked” Chinese dishes like this one, as it contributes a deeper, darker, reddish-brown colour to meats than what you’d get from light soy sauce. That part is fairly intuitive, but the most important distinction between the varieties has to do with flavour; dark soy sauce is actually lighter tasting and less salty than light soy sauce. Because of this, the balance between light and dark soy sauce in a dish like this one becomes crucial; too much of the light stuff and the meal will be pale and way too salty, too much of the dark stuff and the meal will be dark but somewhat flavourless. To further clarify, light soy sauce has nothing to do with “lite” soy sauce. The former is boldly flavoured with lots of salt, while the latter is usually a reduced-sodium variety (neither has any appreciable fat or calories). To sum up – light soy sauce for impact, dark soy sauce for colour.
I consulted 8 different Dongpo rou recipes in order to make this, and 4 additional Chinese pork belly recipes. I’m quite comfortable saying that this version is not only delicious and mouth-wateringly tender, but surprisingly easy to put together. As you can see from the list of ingredients, this is a meal that is built around the flavour of soy sauce and a handful of Chinese staple ingredients. While the soy sauce is very important overall, it doesn’t overwhelm the final dish, but is balanced by the rock sugar, ginger, garlic, onion and most importantly, the Shaoxing cooking wine. Honestly, there’s nothing intimidating about this dish; if you respect the building blocks and cook it low-and-slow, you will end up with an amazing dish.
* Note that there are also blended soy sauces that use a combination of traditional and hydrolyzed soy sauces in order to yield an inexpensive product with a passable flavour. In addition, colour, preservative, and flavour additives are all quite common in mid-range brewed soy sauces, and even some high end sauces. As I mentioned, this is a pretty complex subject – but the best advice I can give is to look for something traditionally fermented and to taste a little to see if you like it.
The simplicity of this dish is one of its most redeeming features, but it does require attention to detail and quality ingredients. This style of cooking relies on a small number of quintessentially Chinese ingredients, and the best results will always come from the best ingredients you can find. Beyond that, the only real trick is to let the whole thing cook slowly over low heat in order to break down the fat (your want the final dish to be rich and unctuous, not a big block of chewy fat).
What you’re basically doing with this dish is cooking it three different ways. First, a simple simmer draws out impurities and partially cooks the meat. Second, an uncovered braise concentrates the flavours. Third, a long, covered stewing period tenderizes the meat and distributes all of the flavours. Do not be tempted to omit or rush any of these steps – and don’t worry! While this dish involves a bit of a time commitment, it involves very little hands-on work.
It’s absolutely necessary that you use the two different soy sauces, and that you use them judiciously. Good brewed light and dark soy sauces are usually available at any respectable Chinese grocery store, and can often be found at better conventional grocery stores. If you have the choice, spend a little bit more for the best soy sauce you can get – the difference is usually only a few dollars anyway.
The remaining ingredients should be easy to find. Rock sugar is easy to find at most Chinese grocery stores, but if you can’t find it the ideal substitute is an unrefined cane sugar; white sugar lacks the same depth of flavour, while brown sugar has too strong of a molasses flavour.
One last note – and it’s a bit of a confession. You should leave the skin on the pork belly (make sure it is very well cleaned), but when I made this, I had a piece of pork belly with the skin already removed. Should you find yourself in the same position, you can still cook this dish and have it turn out great – just lay the skin down, then the belly as if it were still attached. If you like, you can pull the skin out towards the end and cut it into strips like I did (I actually pan fried the strips briefly to crisp them up). That being said, if you have the choice, leave the whole thing intact, as it’s easier and a little more ‘classic’ looking.
You’d normally find a summary of the high and low nutritional points here, but this is a bit of a complicated meal to work out. I’ve done my best to present a fairly accurate nutritional summary, but this is complicated by two major factors. First, if the pork is not cooked down enough, or the fat is not skimmed out of the sauce, then you can expect the fat/calorie count to go way up.
Second, the sodium levels I’ve given are an estimate based on the amount of sauce you’ll actually end up eating. In all likelihood, you’ll have far more sauce than you need, so any numbers I can give will be estimates.
Suffice it to say that this is a fairly rich meal, and fairly high in salt regardless, but it is protein rich and nutrient-dense.
No pantry pages have been written yet for any of the ingredients in this recipe. Like to see one? Let me know in the comments below or by email.
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