Dongpo Rou (Chinese Red-cooked Pork Belly)

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Dongpo Rou

Chinese Red-cooked Pork Belly

A moment of evening in Spring is worth a thousand pieces of gold.
春宵一克值千金
Su Dongpo

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.

Recipe Notes

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.


Nutrition Facts
Dongpo Rou (Chinese Red-cooked Pork Belly)
Amount Per Serving
Calories 620 Calories from Fat 342
% Daily Value*
Total Fat 38g 58%
Saturated Fat 13g 65%
Polyunsaturated Fat 0.05g
Monounsaturated Fat 0.02g
Cholesterol 83mg 28%
Sodium 1100mg 46%
Potassium 189mg 5%
Total Carbohydrates 38g 13%
Dietary Fiber 1g 4%
Sugars 30g
Protein 27g 54%
Vitamin A 109%
Vitamin C 121%
Calcium 15%
Iron 18%
* Percent Daily Values are based on a 2000 calorie diet.

Nutritional Summary

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.

Ingredient Pages

Pantry Pages

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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Dongpo Rou - Chinese Braised Pork Belly - Diversivore.com
Dongpo Rou (Chinese Red-cooked Pork Belly)
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Votes: 1
Rating: 5
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Servings
4 people
Cook Time
3.5 hours
Servings
4 people
Cook Time
3.5 hours
Dongpo Rou - Chinese Braised Pork Belly - Diversivore.com
Dongpo Rou (Chinese Red-cooked Pork Belly)
  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5
Votes: 1
Rating: 5
You:
Rate this recipe!
Servings
4 people
Cook Time
3.5 hours
Servings
4 people
Cook Time
3.5 hours
Ingredients
Sauce
Pork
Servings: people
Units:
Instructions
  1. Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add the pork belly and reduce to a simmer. Cook for 20 minutes, then remove the pork and set aside to cool a little. Discard the water.
  2. While the pork is cooling, combine the sauce ingredients and set aside.
  3. Once the pork is cool enough to handle, slice it into cubes, about 5x5 cm (2x2 inches). Work carefully to try to keep the skin and upper fat from separating from the meat.
  4. Layer the bottom of a large pot with the scallions and ginger, then place the pork skin-side down in the pot. Pour the sauce over the pork (don't worry, it's not supposed to cover the meat). Spread the rock sugar around the pot. Bring to a boil over high heat, then cover and reduce to a simmer.
  5. Cook the pork skin-side down for 45 minutes, then turn the pork over and simmer gently, covered, for another 2.5 hours. Spoon some of the sauce over the pork once in a while during the cooking time.
  6. Once finished cooking, let the cooked pork rest in the sauce for 15 minutes, then spoon off some as much of the rendered fat from the sauce as possible. You can use a turkey baster to help you with this, but try to ensure that you leave most of the sauce.
  7. While the pork is resting, bring a pot of water to a boil. Blanch the choy sum until the stalks are tender, about 2 minutes. Remove, drain, and rinse briefly with cold water to stop them from cooking any further.
  8. Remove the pork from the pot and set aside. Transfer the sauce to a small pot and bring to a boil. Reduce by about 1/3 to make a thicker sauce.
  9. Serve pieces of pork on a bed of choy sum, then spoon some sauce over top. Garnish with thinly sliced scallions, if you like.
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Comments

  1. I just ate lunch and I AM SO HUNGRY AGAIN just from looking at this! I love how much information you provided on the different types of soy sauce out there. Even though I’m really picky about the sauces I cook with all the time (see: sesame oil, harissa paste, fish sauce, olive oil, vinegars), I’m definitely guilty of just buying whatever soy sauce I can find and not thinking too much about it. I absolutely love pork belly, but have never been brave enough to cook it before! I’m going to get me some fancypants soy sauce and sort it out. Thanks again for the inspiration, Sean!

    1. Author

      Thanks Alanna! I always figure it’s a good sign when you can make someone hungry all over again. I’m also glad you enjoyed the soy sauce info (but man, there’s so much more to say!). I’m not really sure why it is, but I think soy sauce almost doesn’t register as an ingredient in many of our minds, so we don’t apply the same scrutiny we use with other ingredients. In any case, once you do start looking into it, the variety is actually quite staggering! I do hope you’ll give this dish a shot – the pork belly seems a little intimidating, but this is actually a pretty stunningly easy meal to make.

  2. Well, Sean I’ve finally made it to your blog despite the many notes I’ve made to do it before. First off, let me say that I love the way you’ve written this post and if it’s consistent with the rest of your content, you will now have an official stalker – ha,ha.
    I’m a Sommelier and as I was reading your information about soy sauce I was conjuring up some wine pairings. I absolutely love how my mouth watered just by reading about a recipe.
    Secondly, your food photography is amazing. You certainly invoke a response from me, as in, “I want that!” except I’m a vegetarian. ha,ha.
    I see why you are getting all the recognition that you are. Well done!
    In Food & Wine, Kellie from Princess & The Yard Ape

    1. Author

      Hi Kellie! Thanks for making it to the site – and I’m very glad to hear that you like what you found. It’s funny you mention wine pairings – I think that’s one of the hardest things to figure out when it comes to Chinese food. Wine doesn’t usually get a lot of attention in China (though that is starting to shift a little), but I think that it should. I’m also quite glad that you’re enjoying the photography – I know I’m doing my job if it makes people want food that they don’t normally want! I hope you’ll peruse some of the vegetarian and vegan dishes on the site too – there are plenty of them (and plenty more coming). Cheers!

  3. I “discovered” (read: accidentally bought) dark soy sauce a couple of years ago, and I’ve been totally obsessed with it ever since. It’s the secret weapon in my trademark stir fry sauce, and I like to add a couple dashes to my beef stew for that extra-rich flavour and colour.
    I haven’t tried using it yet in more traditional dishes like this one, but you had me at pork belly! I love how rich and glossy the sauce looks… definitely my kind of dish!

    1. Author

      Hah, isn’t it great when you get to “discover” foods that way? At least your discovery worked out for you – I bought vanilla Greek yogurt for a meal once thinking it was plain. Didn’t notice in time. That was an interesting experience.

      Anyway dark soy really is a great ingredient, and the colour it imparts is spectacular. The trick to the gloss in this dish is the rock sugar – and it’s an absolute must if you’re going to pull this off correctly. My father-in-law (who’s Taiwanese) immediately commented on how glossy it looked and said that was a good sign!

  4. Hi Sean
    This pork belly is definitely a work of art and a vision of beauty. I could only image the flavor it has and the tenderness of the meat as you described cooking it with patience and moderate heat. I love what you wrote about how we are quickly to assume what a cultures cuisine based on the abundance of restaurants serving similar foods. I love to travel and when Nicoletta and I go out to eat we try to find the most authentic and heart felt places showing us everyday life and wonderful food.
    Great work Sean
    Happy adventures in cooking.

    1. Author

      Thank you so much Loreto! I have to say – it was pretty amazing. My father-in-law (who is Taiwanese) saw the photo and immediately suggested that I make it again soon. I took that as a compliment. I love your approach to eating – when you find places that cook from the heart, you really can’t go wrong!

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