This isn’t one of those dishes where you can throw all the ingredients into the pot and leave them to cook. Cooking this delicious dish begins by boiling the pork then rinsing it to remove impurities. The pork is then deep fried to brown the surface and for the skin to blister.
The red sauce is prepared separately by melting sugar then mixing it with dark and light soy sauces. The red sauce is poured over the pork and the braising commences. Over low heat, on the stovetop or in the oven, the pork is cooked in the sauce until the meat is tender, and the fat and skin are gelatinous.
Prepping the pork belly
I start by parboiling a slab of pork belly (including the trimmings which later went into another dish) in plenty of water and let scum rise to the surface. After ten minutes, the meat is scooped out and rinsed thoroughly. Why do this? To get rid of the scum issue once and for all. All the scum is in the boiling liquid already which means it isn’t on the meat. The meat is then pressed between paper towels to remove as much surface moisture as possible in preparation for the next step — browning.
While parboiling removes scum, browning creates texture. A light crust forms on the surface of the meat during this stage. That is a desirable thing, that light crust, because that prevents the meat from acquiring the sensation of eating boiled meat. This is a braised dish, after all, and you want a texture that is different from, say, meat in a boiled meat and vegetable dish.
Now this isn’t deep fried crispy pork belly. You’re browning the meat and blistering the skin a bit to give them texture. Don’t wait until the skin turns into a crackling. You don’t need it to get crispy because you’re going to cook the pork belly in liquid anyway.
The pork belly is only partially cooked even after browning. The center is still pink but the surface is firm enough to slice the meat without the edges getting frayed.
The meat is now ready for braising. While you may easily cook this dish on the stovetop from start to finish, I use the oven for convenience. Less evaporation means better flavor concentration. Here’s how I do it.
I line a baking dish with all the required spices for the dish — onion, garlic, ginger, cloves, peppercorns and star anise. The pork slices are arranged on top. What’s with the layering? Why not just scatter the spices over the pork? That’s in case the sauce evaporates too much or thickens too fast during cooking, and there’s scorching. The layer of spices at the bottom creates a buffer between the meat and the baking dish.
The red sauce is poured evenly over the pork, the baking dish is covered with foil and the pork goes into a preheated 325F oven where it cooks until fork tender. It takes about an hour a half. The actual time depends on the thickness of the slices and the age of the hog. The more mature the animal, the tougher the meat, after all, and requires longer cooking.
At the end of cooking time, the pork is very tender, the meat shreds easily and the fat is gelatinous. But the pork slices still look a bit pale at this stage. So, I use a ladle to scoop the sauce and bathe the exposed portions of the pork slices. I do this repeatedly for a few minutes. Might sould like extra work but this step makes a huge difference.
Chinese red-braised pork belly (hong shao rou)
- 1 kilogram pork belly whole
- cooking oil for deep frying
- 3 tablespoons sliced scallions
- 2 tablespoons brown sugar
- 2 tablespoons dark soy sauce
- 2 tablespoons light soy sauce
- 2 tablespoons rice wine
- 1 cup bone broth
- 1 onion peeled and thinly sliced
- 1 two-inch knob ginger peeled and sliced
- 4 cloves garlic peeled and lightly pounded
- 5 to 6 cloves
- 1 teaspoon peppercorns
- 3 to 4 star anise
Prep the pork belly
- Cut the pork belly crosswise to separate the lower portion with the bones.
- Boil about six inches of water in a pan large enough to fit the trimmed pork belly.
- Slide the pork belly into the boiling water (you may add the trimmed portions too) and leave to boil over high heat for ten minutes.
- Scoop out the meat and rinse well making sure to scrape off any remaining impurities.
- Place the parboiled pork belly between stacks of paper towels to remove any surface moisture.
- In a wok or fryer, heat enough cooking oil to reach a depth of three inches.
- Slide in the pork belly, skin side up, and cook the meat over high heat until lightly browned.
- Turn the pork belly over and continue cooking until the skin is blistered.
- Scoop out the pork belly and rest on a rack to cool.
- Preheat the oven to 325F.
Make the sauce
- Spread the sugar in the frying pan.
- Melt over medium heat, pour in the soy sauces and rice wine carefully (the mixture will sizzle initially) and swirl.
- Pour in the broth and bring to a gentle boil. Cook uncovered for five minutes.
Braise the pork belly
- Cover the bottom of a baking dish with the onion slices.
- Scatter the rest of the spices over them.
- Take the pork belly and cut. Cubes are traditional but slices cook faster.
- Arrange the pork belly slices (or cubes) in the baking dish and pour the sauce over them.
- Cover the baking dish with aluminium foil (I used two sheets) crimping the edges to seal.
- Cook the pork belly at 325F for an hour and half.
- Take the pork belly out of the oven and peel off the foil.
- Take a ladle, scoop the sauce and pour over the cooked pork belly. Do this repeatedly for a few minutes to give the pork belly better color.
- Serve your red-braised pork belly with rice.
- Optionally, sprinkle with scallions and arrange blanched bok choy on the side.