Michele’s recent craving for Pork Belly brought back memories of living with the Meng family in Taipei, Taiwan during the 1970’s. Every Sunday. Mr. Meng would make his one and only specialty known in Mandarin as Hong Shao Rou. Using a technique from eastern China called “red-braising”, he would begin his magic after a quick trip to the local outdoor market down the street. After a couple of hours, the marvelous aromas drifting through the apartment would bring me into the kitchen, salivating for a dish I never grew tired of. One day, Mr. Meng decided to make me his “sous chef”, and our Sunday morning ritual was born.
A quick trip to Chinatown last week, and Michele’s kitchen smelled just as good as I remembered from those long ago days. Forgetting to buy scallions in Chinatown, I dashed off to Alba Produce here in the North End. Always curious, Albee, the owner of the shop (and a pork belly virgin) asked me what I was making. A few hours later, and Albee had his first taste of Hong Shao Rou.
Hong Shao Rou (serves 4-6)
1 lb. pork belly, preferably local
2 tablespoons peanut or vegetable oil
2 inch piece gingerroot, peeled, sliced into coins
2 cloves garlic, peeled and lightly smashed
one bunch scallions, chopped into ½ inch pieces, white and green
salt and pepper to taste
4 cups chicken stock, low sodium
¼ cup light soy sauce
two tablespoons dark soy sauce
3 tablespoons Shaoxing rice wine, or dry sherry, or grappa, or gin
2 cinnamon sticks,
4 whole star anise pods
1 small dried red chili (optional)
One large golf ball size piece of yellow rock candy (found in Asian markets)
1 package cellophane noodles (Mung bean noodles)
1 medium daikon radish
Fill a wok with enough water to cover the pork belly, and bring to a boil. Carefully place the pork belly into the simmering water and blanch for two minutes. Remove, and let cool. Discard the water.
Cut the pork belly into large cubes, containing lean and fat meat. Heat the wok over high heat, and add the peanut oil. When it starts to shimmer, add the pork belly, in two stages if necessary. Salt and pepper the meat, and sear on two sides. Remove to a plate. Add the ginger, smashed garlic and scallions, and stir- fry an additional minute, until fragrant. Remove and add to the reserved pork belly.
Wipe the wok clean with a dry paper towel. Add the chicken stock, both soys, rice wine, cinnamon, star anise, dried chili and rock candy. Bring to a simmer, and taste for seasoning, adding a bit more light soy sauce if desired. Add the pork with the ginger, garlic and scallions, reduce the heat to very low, cover and let simmer for at least two hours.
After two hours check the pork for tenderness. It should be quite tender, and the fat should almost melt in your mouth. Mr. Meng considered the fat to be the best part. Michele and I concur.
Place the cellophane noodles in a small pot of cold water, bring to a boil, drain and set aside.
Peel and slice the daikon into very thin slices. Add to the wok, and let cook for ten minutes. Add the cellophane noodles, and let cook an additional 3-5 minutes.
Serve the pork with some of the broth, noodles and daikon. Like most braises and stews, this dish tastes even better the next day.
written by Jim Becker, Chinatown guide