I grew up eating Hunan food at a local Chinese place in Garwood, New Jersey. Spicier, deeper in flavor and more exotic than the traditional Cantonese food most places served. Hands down, Hunan and the even spicier Sichuan food is my favorite style of Chinese.
So you can imagine how happy I was to get a copy of Fuchsia Dunlop’s Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook: Recipes from Hunan Province from my friend Garrett at Vanilla Garlic.
Since then I’ve made countless Hunan dishes at home, and I’ve studied the cuisine a fair bit, from books and from my friend Kho Kian Lam’s excellent blog Red Cook, Adventures from a Chinese Home Kitchen. Kian knows his stuff when it comes to red cooking — he named his whole site after the style. I’ll let Kian explain it:
Red cooking is the basis of many Chinese home cooking. It is a term used for braising different kinds of food with garlic, dark soy sauce, rice wine and sugar. This technique can be used for pork, chicken, fish, tofu and many other ingredients. The phrase “red cook” comes from the fact that these dishes result in a shiny bright brown sauce appearing almost red. It is one of the most versatile techniques in Chinese cooking. And I’ve decided to name my blog for this technique to emphasize its flexibility and adaptability.
In America, you will most often see red cooked pork belly. This recipe is based on that one, only adapted to use wild ingredients, specifically wild pigs and bear. Yes, bear. The black bear Holly shot last year was so fat we made bacon out of much of the belly, but I saved a pig portion to make this dish.
I suspected it would work, and I was right. Bear, if you’ve never eaten it, is a lot like beef with a cap of pork fat on it. If you happen to have some, by all means make this recipe.
But don’t get all hung up on the bear part. That’s not what’s important here.
What’s important is that you make this recipe, with either regular pork belly or the belly of a wild pig. Why? This bowl of food has it all: Fatty goodness, meltingly tender meat, a sweet-savory-salty-spicy sauce reduced from the braising liquid — all with a whiff of exotic anise — bright, crunchy green onions (or better yet, Chinese garlic chives), herbal cilantro and for my touch, preserved garlic.
I’m not gonna lie to ya, Holly and I ate nearly the full two pounds this recipe makes between us. At one sitting. Make this. You won’t be sad.
- 2 pounds pork, or bear belly
- 2 tablespoons peanut oil or lard
- 2 tablespoons sugar
- 1/3 cup Chinese cooking wine
- A 1-inch piece of ginger, sliced thin
- 3 star anise pods
- 4 dried hot chiles
- 1 small piece of cinnamon
- 1/4 cup soy sauce
- 2 cups Chinese stock, chicken stock or water
- 5 scallions, sliced into 1-inch pieces
- 1/3 cup chopped cilantro
- 8 to 10 cloves preserved garlic (optional)
Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Salt it well, then boil the whole slab of belly for 5 minutes. Remove from the water and set on a cutting board to cool. Save the cooking water if you are not using stock later for this recipe. Cut the meat into largish cubes of about 2 inches across.
In a wok, heat the oil and sugar over medium heat until the sugar melts and begins to brown, about 10 minutes or so. Add the par-cooked pork belly and turn to coat with the sugar-oil mixture. Add the Chinese cooking wine and stir.
Pour in enough stock or cooking water to almost cover the meat, and add the star anise, ginger, chiles and cinnamon. Cover and simmer gently over medium-to-low heat. How long? Until the meat is tender. For a wild boar or bear this could take up to 3 hours. Check after 90 minutes. Taste the stock and if it is getting too strong, remove some of the spices.
Once the meat is getting tender – but not quite ready – add the soy sauce and taste the stock. Add sugar if you want. The stock should be a bit sweet. Recover and cook until the pork is practically falling apart. Remove the meat and set aside. Turn the heat up on the sauce to reduce it. When the stock has reduced to a sauce consistency, return the meat to the pot and add the garlic, if using.
Add the scallions and cilantro and serve at once.
Serve this with a green vegetable -- I like pickled mustard greens -- and some simple steamed white rice.