Red-braised pork belly (红烧肉, hóngshāo ròu) is such a common dish, and so simple, that I can’t believe it’s taken me this long to add the recipe to TastyAsia. Red-braising means braising meat in soy sauce and water or stock. Pretty simple. I’ve posted other red-braised recipes before, but this might be the most famous red-braised dish of them all.
The first recipe for red-braised pork belly that I ever cooked was from Fuscia Dunlop. (And everyone who likes Chinese cooking should buy her books. Seriously.) She tells a great story about this being Chairman Mao’s favorite dish, but I’ll let you read that on your own. All you need to know for now is that this is rustic comfort food, so there will be as many variations as there are people lovingly making this for their families.
Start with some skin-on pork belly. If you can’t get this at your supermarket, you’ll be able to find it at a Chinese grocery or a butcher’s shop.
You’ll recall that pork belly is the same cut that ends up as bacon. Therefore, it’s somewhat fatty. Therefore, like bacon, it’s delicious.
Put the skin side of the pork belly down on your cutting board and then slice it into cubes. Then parboil for a few minutes until the redness just starts to disappear. Remove the meat from the water, drain well, and either leave to air dry or else pat dry on a clean towel (you want to remove all the free moisture, because the next step calls for hot oil). It will end up looking like this:
Next, lightly brown the pork cubes in oil and sugar. For this step, put the oil in a large pan (a dutch oven works well, as does a wok with a cover), and heat it on medium heat. Then add the sugar.
Continue heating the sugar in the oil until it begins to melt and caramelize. Don’t let it get too brown, or burn.
After the sugar has melted, add the pork belly back to the pan and stir gently until lightly browned on all sides.
Next, add the ginger and the dried spices into the pot.
Then add the braising liquid to the pot so that the pork belly is covered.
And that’s basically it. The braising will take about an hour and a half, but it requires no more work on your part after this point. That gives you plenty of time to cook some other dishes and your rice without feeling rushed.
INGREDIENTS and PREP:
- 3 Tbsp oil and about 2 Tbsp sugar
- 2 lb skin-on pork belly, cut into bite-sized pieces (about 1″ on the side, maybe a bit less), parboiled for 3-4 minutes, then drained and dried
- 1″ ginger, unpeeled, cut into coins; one 3″ stick cinnamon or cassia bark; 3 whole star anise; 8 whole dried red chiles
- About 4 cups stock or water, 1 Tbsp dark soy sauce, 1 Tbsp light soy sauce
- Heat your wok on medium heat until hot but not smoking. Then add the oil and the sugar (#1). Stir until the sugar melts and turns brown, without letting the sugar burn.
- Then add the pork belly (#2) and stir-fry gently until lightly browned on all sides.
- Next, add the aromatics (#3) and stir-fry for about a minute until everything is fragrant and beautiful.
- Pour in the braising liquid (#4) so that the pork belly is covered. If you use stock, you can omit the light soy sauce, but if you use water, make sure to include it. Bring to a light boil, cover, and then reduce the heat and simmer gently for about an hour and a half. Add water along the way if the pork belly gets to be too exposed, except that for the last 20 minutes, you can cook it uncovered at a slightly faster boil to reduce the sauce. Garnish with hard boiled egg and serve with rice and contrasting dishes.
VARIATIONS: Some people enjoy adding things to the pot as the dish is finishing. Perhaps the most beloved items are tofu skins to soak up the delicious sauce, or fresh herbs such as Chinese leeks, scallions, or cilantro, to add another layer of tasty complexity. You can also vary the amount of sugar and chiles to suit your taste. Another wonderful addition would be about 2 tsp of Sichuan peppercorns to the dry spices (#3) above.
The essential Chinese pantry is here.