A few years ago I started venturing on beyond stir-fries in my explorations into Chinese cooking. Along the way I discovered the wonderful world of red-cooking, a Chinese braising technique in which soy sauce is a significant component of the braising liquid. Used most often on pork, it turns the outside of the meat a lovely reddish color, and imparts that wonderful soy-sauce savoriness to the whole dish.
This recipe is a simplified version of the red-cooking technique that I adapted from a number of sources. It’s totally dead-easy, but it does take a long time to let the meat do the full low-and-slow braise to get properly tender. This of course makes this dish a great candidate for crock pot cookery (only dropping the bit about taking off the lid and turning the meat every now and then, since crock pots don’t like that). But even if you do it in a conventional cooking pot it requires minimal intervention.
You can do this recipe with any number of pork braising cuts–it’s especially glorious with fresh pork belly. Here I used a bone-in pork shoulder blade roast, with some of the skin layer intact. If you really dislike the skin, get a skinless cut or remove the skin. But I invite you to give the skin-on version a chance–the Chinese consider the jelly-soft braised skin a particular delicacy, and I don’t blame ’em.
- Approx. 4 lb. pork braising cut (shoulder, Boston butt, fresh ham, belly pork, etc.), preferably with a modest layer of fat plus skin
- 1/4 cup Chinese soy sauce (Pearl River Bridge is a good brand)
- 1/4 cup Shaoxing rice wine or dry sherry
- 3 or 4 chunks Chinese yellow rock sugar candy, or 1 tbsp brown sugar
- 1 quarter-sized slice fresh ginger root, or 1 tsp. dried ground ginger
- 1 or 2 star anise pods (optional)
- 1 small dried red chile (optional)
- Place the meat in a heavy thick-bottomed braising pot with a well-fitting lid, that holds the meat comfortably but without a lot of excess room. Pour or sprinkle remaining ingredients over meat; add about 2 cups water, or enough to come just barely halfway up around the meat. Turn the meat over a few times to get it bathed in the liquid on all sides.
- Bring the pot just up to a boil on the range-top, then back it off to the lowest simmer you can manage–the liquid should just be burbling gently, not actually bubbling. Put the lid on and let it simmer for a good couple of hours, until the meat is very tender but not falling apart. Occasionally check the pot to make sure the simmer is staying at the right level, and to turn the roast so all sides get their turn in the cooking liquid. Be gentle when turning the meat, especially as it gets tender and more breakable–tongs and a wide-blade spatula help a lot. (Alternatively, you can do the braise in an ovenproof lidded casserole in a pre-heated 350F oven.)
- When the meat is done, remove it to a platter to rest before carving. Strain the cooking liquid; either spoon off the fat on top, or put it in the fridge overnight so you can remove the congealed fat more easily.
- Slice the meat across the grain, and in such a way that each slice has a bit of the skin on top. Serve with white rice, with a bit of the cooking liquid spooned over the meat and the rice.
Variation: You can add chunked braising vegetables to the pot for the last 30 to 60 minutes of cooking. I especially like carrots, turnips, and/or daikon braised this way.
Servings: 6 to 8 if the main dish; a lot more if part of a multi-course Asian dinner.
–posted by Denny Kozlov