Red-braised pork is a dish that in Hunan is inseparably bound up with the memory of Chairman Mao: many restaurants cal it “The Mao family’s red-braised pork.” Mao Zedong loved it, ate it frequently, and is said to have insisted his Huananese chefs cook it for him in Beijing. It’s a robust concoction, best eaten with a plain steamed rice and simple stir-fried vegetables, but the sweet, aromatic chunks of meat are irresistible and it’s always a favorite at my London dinner parties. In keeping with traditional Chinese gastronomy, which seeks to make a medical virtue out of every dietary predilection, the people of Mao’s home village, Shaoshan, recommend a red-braised pork as a health food: “Men eat it to build their brains,” Chairman Mao’s nephew Mao Anping assured me when I met him there a few years ago, “and ladies to make themselves more beautiful”. His friend and neighbor, the Shaoshan communist party secretary, told me he ate two bowlfuls a day to keep his intellect in shape.
This is Mao Anping’s recipe, but there are some delicious variations, where the richness of the meat is offset by the addition of other, vegetarian ingredients. The one that uses water chestnuts is a particular favorite of mine. In Shaosan, cooks traditionally leave the skin intact for maximum succulence, and cut the meat into rather large chunks, perhaps 1 ½ inches long; I tend to make the pieces a little smaller. The recipe below takes its color from caramelized sugar, which gives it a lovely reddish gloss, but many people just use dark soy sauce at home.
- 1 lb. pork belly (skin optional)
- 2 tbsp. peanut oil
- 1 tbsp. Shaoxing wine
- ¾ in piece fresh ginger, skin left on and sliced
- 1 star anise
- 2 dried red chiles
- A small piece cassia bark or cinnamon stick
- Light soy sauce, salt, and sugar
- A few pieces scallion greens
1. Plunge the pork belly into a pan of boiling water and simmer for 3-4 minutes until partially cooked. Remove, and, when cool enough to handle, cut into
2. Heat the oil and sugar in a wok over a gentle flame until the sugar melts, then raise the heat and stir until the melted sugar turns a rich caramel brown. Add the pork and splash in the Shaoxing wine.
3. Add enough water to just cover the pork, along with the ginger, star anise, chiles and cassia. Bring to a boil, then turn down the heat and simmer for 40-50 minutes
4. Toward the end of the cooking time, turn up the heat to reduce the sauce, and season with soy sauce, salt, and a little sugar to taste. Add the scallion greens just before serving.
For all these variations, begin by making the original recipe (it can be prepared in advance, and freezes well). Local chefs have told me that women always prefer the water chestnut version, while men opt for pork with bean curd skin. Do feel free to improvise by adding other vegetable ingredients: one of the most wonderful versions of this dish I have ever tasted was pork braised with reconstituted dried cabbage. It is a peasant dish served in the Everyone Restaurant in Yueyang.
Red-Braised Pork with Water Chestnuts:
Peel the water chestnuts and deep-fry briefly until just taking color. Drain well, then return the chestnuts to the woke with some cooked red-braised pork, light soy sauce, sugar, ground white pepper to taste, and a little dark soy sauce to intensify the honey color. Turn up the heat to reduce the sauce and make everything sizzly and fragrant. Just before serving, adjust the seasoning, stir in some pieces of scallion greens and allow them barely to cook. The crisp chestnuts are a magnificent foil for the richness of the meat.
Red-Braised Pork with Garlic Cloves:
Follow the water chestnut recipe above, but substitute whole garlic cloves for the chestnuts and make sure you fry them until they are tender and a little golden.
Red-Braised Pork with Deep-Fried Bean Curd:
Add deep-fried bean curd puffs to some prepared red-braised pork, with water, if necessary, and simmer until the bean curd has absorbed the flavors of the meat. Finish as in the water chestnuts version above.
Red-Braised Pork with Bean Curd Skin:
Soak the brittle yellow bean curd skin rolls in cold water overnight, or in hot water for about 30 minutes, then strain and cut on an angle into chunks. Cook with some prepared red-braised pork as in the bean curd puff recipe above.
Red-Braised Pork with “Tea-Tree Mushrooms”:
Simmer some prepared red-braised pork with soaked and squeezed dry “tea-tree” mushrooms, stir-frying the mushrooms before adding the pork and then proceeding as in the recipes above. (You can stir-fry the mushrooms in some of the fat that rises to the top of the braised pork).
Steamed Red-Braised Pork with Preserved Mustard Greens:
Put some prepared red-braised pork into a bowl, top with a good handful of thoroughly rinsed preserved mustard greens and then steam for 20-30 minutes to heat through. This is delicious.
Red-Braised Spare Ribs:
Cook spare ribs as in the pork recipe above.
Nutritional information is based on using 1 teaspoon of light soy sauce, 1/2 teaspoon of salt and sugar to season the pork belly at the end of cooking.