If there is one dish that represents Shanghai cuisine, this is the one. Perhaps my favorite recipe in this entire book, this recipe holds a dear place in my heart. My mom has been making red-braised pork belly for as long as I can remember. Whenever we gathered with family or friends, my mom made this recipe, the one that her mom taught her, and the one that I want to teach to my future children.
红烧 hong shao, “red cooking,” is one of the most well-known cooking methods from Shanghai. A mix of dark and light soy sauce is a must to achieve the right flavor profile. There are many variations of this dish in Jiangnan: In Suzhou, where my husband’s family is from, hard-boiled eggs are added to give extra dimension to the dish. In Shanghai, tofu knots are added. In Ningbo, salted yellow croaker is added for an extra umami kick. Some recipes will call for adding cornstarch, but I can tell you with certainty that this recipe should never need to be thickened with cornstarch. The gelatin from the pork belly’s skin and the rock sugar will naturally thicken the sauce. Finishing the dish by cooking the braise down will produce a thick, gleaming sauce to coat the pork belly.
I’ve put three hours as the recommended braise time, but in truth, the longer the better. My husband’s grandfather makes this dish as well, and he just lets it simmer over a small flame all day, filling the kitchen with the most tantalizing aroma.
NOTE: This is a very forgiving recipe. If it’s too salty or sweet, add more sugar or soy sauce to compensate. In line with true Chinese cooking, taste the sauce as it simmers and adjust to your preference. Be wary of adding tofu knots in too early, as they can become overcooked and mushy.
- Bring about 2 inches (5 cm) of water to a boil over high in a large pot. Add the pork belly and boil for 3 minutes. Add more water to cover the pork if necessary. This step removes impurities from the pork, making for a clearer dish. Drain and set aside. When cool enough to handle, cut the pork into 11⁄2-inch (4-cm) cubes.
- Heat the oil in a well-seasoned wok on low, until wisps of smoke curl up off the edges. Add the crushed rock sugar and stir until the sugar melts and dissolves.
- Increase the heat to medium and, working in two batches if neces- sary, gently slide in the chunks of pork belly. Brown all sides of the pork. Any residual water on the pork will pop in the oil—don’t be scared! A splatter screen can help keep the oil contained. Stir only occasionally, so that the pork can caramelize and brown. This step gives it a rich caramel flavor. Add the dark soy sauce and fry for an additional minute.
- In the wok or in a separate braising pot with a lid (a clay pot works well for this), combine the browned pork with the stock, light soy sauce, Shaoxing wine, remaining rock sugar, star anise, ginger, and scallion segments. The mixture should come three-quarters of the way up the side of the pile of pork. If not, add more stock or water.
- Bring to a boil over high, then reduce the heat to the lowest setting and simmer, partially covered, for at least 3 hours, stirring occa- sionally to prevent sticking. The longer the pork simmers, the more tender and flavorful it will be; it’s ready when it’s tender enough to slip a chopstick in with ease, but you can go up to 2 hours longer to build the flavor even more. Add more stock or water as needed; the pot should never be dry. When there’s approximately 2 hours of braising time left, add the hard-boiled eggs to the pot, if using. Twenty minutes before you’re ready to serve, add the frozen tofu knots, if using.
- When nearly ready to serve, remove the lid, increase the heat to high, and boil until the cooking liquid becomes a thick, dark, glistening sauce that covers the pork belly. If the pork belly has begun to break down (the lean meat is separating from the fatty portion), use a slotted spoon to remove the cubes before cooking down the sauce, and add the cubes of meat back in at the end.
- Serve with white rice and the chopped scallions.
From the book MY SHANGHAI by Betty Liu. Copyright © 2021 by Betty Liu. Published by Harper Design, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Reprinted by permission. Photo credit Betty Liu.