Hong shao rou is a classic Chinese way to prepare pork belly. It's slow braised in a gently sweet and aromatic mixture to make a sticky, tender and wonderfully flavorful dish.
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Pork belly is one of those cuts that is revered in many cultures. It can be a little tricky to work with, but the flavor can also be wonderful. It's the cut used for bacon in many places which speaks for itself, of course. But it can also be used in various other dishes like porchetta, Japanese chashu (often used to top ramen) and many more.
This is a favorite Chinese way to prepare pork belly, and if you are not already familiar with it, I highly recommend you give it a try. It makes a wonderful main dish for a celebratory meal (hello up-coming Lunar New Year), or really any excuse.
This Chinese braised pork belly is a popular dish that you'll find across the country. It has a few regional variations, as well as differences from family to family, like many traditional dishes. Some are more sweet, others more spicy or aromatic.
The dish is generally believed to originate in the Hunan region, though these days it is most associated with Shanghai. Most famously, it was apparently a big favorite of Chairman Mao who was from Hunan province. In fact, the Hunanese version often goes by the name Chairman Mao's red braised pork.
The red color comes from some of the ingredients used in the dish, either dark soy sauce or caramelized sugar (traditionally rock sugar), or both. In the Shanghai version, dark soy sauce gives most of the color. Hunan-style is often more spicy, as is typical of many dishes in the region, and the color comes more from caramelized sugar.
This version draws on a few recipes including this Omnivore's Cookbook recipe and this recipe on Food 52. It is closest to the Shanghai-style, though some would argue that means there shouldn't be aromatics (like this Woks of Life recipe). But as I say, tastes vary and evolve and I like it with just a couple in there.
About some of the ingredients
You don't need all that many ingredients for this, but some are less typical so worth explaining a little more. You can probably find them in a local Asian store (I can) and certainly they are available online. I do recommend finding them rather than trying to substitute as far as possible. They keep well so you can use them in other dishes as and when.
- Light soy sauce
- This is 'light' due to the lighter color, rather than 'lite' soy sauce that you may find which is lower in sodium. It is lighter in flavor as well, and often used as a dipping sauce. If you can't find it, you could use regular soy sauce but use slightly less.
- Dark soy sauce
- This is the ingredient that you really can't skip in the Shanghai version, and it is in most other versions of this dish as well. It is darker and a little thicker than regular soy. It is used, as here, to add depth of flavor and color.
- Shaoxing wine
- This is a type of rice cooking wine from Shaoxing province. It can also be spelt slightly differently (mine was spelt Shaohsing). Try to look out for this type rather than just a rice wine as it's not quite the same. If you can't find any, sherry is about the best substitute.
Everything else should be available in your regular supermarket, though you may need a butcher to get a piece of pork belly. Try to get a whole chunk rather than slices as slices are typically too thin.
Tips for making this dish
This is a relatively easy dish to make, but there are a few things to keep in mind as you make it to help it turn into a success.
- Blanch the pork first. This helps to get rid of any impurities, any blood etc that would otherwise come out as you braise the pork. You have two ways to do this - either add briefly to a pot of boiling water, or place in cold water and bring the pot to a boil.
- Warm the sugar slowly and don't stir. Traditionally, you would use rock sugar, but regular cane sugar works well too. Warm it slowly so that it gradually starts to caramelize. If you heat it quickly, it may burn. Don't stir as you could accidentally add water or otherwise 'shock' the sugar that may cause it to crystalize.
- Coat the pork all over in the caramelized sugar. This helps add color and flavor before you start braising.
- Give the pork plenty of time to braise. This is what lets the pork become deliciously tender.
Make ahead tips
If you like, you can make this dish ahead of time and either store in the fridge a few days or freeze for longer storage. I recommend completing the braise but stop before you reduce the cooking liquid. This then lets you have some liquid to warm the pork back up in and you can reduce the sauce as you heat the pork.
If you make the pork ahead you'll most likely find a layer of fat forms over the top as it cools. This is perfectly normal, as the pork belly releases fat as it cooks. You can discard some of this when you then re-heat, but don't worry about removing all of it. The fat does, after all, contribute to the wonderful rich flavor of the dish.
This dish, as you can probably imagine, is relatively rich, so you don't need a particularly large serving. You typically eat this with plain white rice, and often with some blanched or sautéed greens on the side (eg bok choy).
Hong shao rou is such a wonderfully tasty way to enjoy pork belly. The meat is so tender thanks to the slow braise with delicious sweet-savory flavors. It tastes like such an indulgent treat, but is also easy to make. We're all big fans of it, and I'm sure you will be too.
Try these other traditional Chinese dishes:
- Shrimp shumai - delicious shrimp dumplings
- Wonton soup - a classic that's so easy to make, too
- Chinese oven steamed fish - simple aromatic additions give a lovely flavor
- Cumin lamb dumplings - flavorful Northern Chinese dumplings
- Plus get more Chinese recipes and main dishes in the archives.
Hong shao rou (red braised pork belly)
- ¾ lb pork belly
- water for blanching
- 1 tablespoon vegetable oil or other neutral oil
- 1 tablespoon granulated sugar or rock sugar, if available
- 3 tablespoon Shaoxing wine
- 1 ½ tablespoon light soy sauce
- 2 teaspoon dark soy sauce
- 1 cup water or a little more if needed
- ½ in ginger 1cm piece, peeled and cut in around 4 slices
- 1 star anise
- 2 green onion spring onion, white and light green part cut in chunks
- Cut the pork belly into roughly 1in/2.5cm cubes. They can be longer from skin to inner meat but try to make them relatively even if you were to look from the skin side end on.
- Blanch the pork to remove any impurities and blood. You can do this by placing in a pot of water and bringing to a boil then boiling for a few minutes, or I prefer to bring a pot of water to a boil first then add the pork and cook for around 3 - 5 minutes. In both cases, then drain the pork and rinse. Set the pork aside in a dish to drain.
- Clean out the wok/pot or use a clean one. You want a pot big enough to hold the pork pieces in a single layer, but not with too much extra space, and with a lid. Warm the pot over a medium-low heat and add the oil then add the sugar into the oil.
- Warm the sugar gradually so that it melts and starts to turn a light caramel color. Don't stir the sugar - if it is all in a pile and you want to spread it out a little, jiggle the pot a little instead to help it move.
- Once the sugar is a golden color, add the drained blanched pork pieces. Increase the heat slightly and cook the pork, turning regularly, so that they are coated in the sugar on all sides and turn a light golden color.
- Add the shaoxing wine, stir through and scrape any browning from the bottom of the pot. Then add the light and dark soy sauces and water so that the pork pieces are just about covered. Add the slices of ginger, star anise and pieces of green onion.
- Cover the pot and bring to a simmer then reduce the heat slightly to keep it simmering rather than boiling strongly. Leave the lid very slightly open to allow steam to escape and leave to simmer for around 1 hour. As it cooks, if it looks like it is becoming dry, add a little more water. After this point, if you want to store, then allow it to cool before transferring to a container to refrigerate/freeze together with the sauce.
- Check that the pork is tender, then remove the lid and increase the heat. Let the sauce boil so that it reduces down to a more syrup-like consistency and coats the pork (it may take around 20 -30 minutes, depending on how much liquid was left). Stir now and then and reduce the heat if needed so that the pork doesn't burn. Once there is just a little sauce left, remove from the heat and serve.
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