Red cooked meat is one of my favorite Chinese dishes. I tried to make it once before and it was OK but not amazing. That was over a year ago and recently, I've been feeling dismay over my inability to cook traditional Chinese food. In actual fact, my inability to cook spans indiscriminately over every type of cuisine but it's Chinese food that really bugs me because it's like I've kicked away some cultural heritage? Food heritage is the best kind of heritage.
Everyone does red cooked meat different. Dad told me a story about a guy that grandpa knew. This guy apparently made The Best meat ever. Like, ever. And he was really guarded over his technique but would openly brag about certain elements that made him sound knowledgeable and pro. For example, he would use cloves... and he specified that he only used 7 and a 1/2 cloves. That's right, 7 and a 1/2. And that's not all.
The '1/2' clove had to be a 'female clove' while the others were male cloves. At this point in the story, mum was scoffing and basically saying that this guy is FOS but dad clarified that there does exist male and female cloves. We do have doubts about how these details can make any difference to the dish. It's like when dad used to stir-fry pea sprouts. He'd tell everyone that his special method took exactly 42 seconds, not a second longer or shorter. It's the kind of frill you dress your recipe with to make yourself sound like a cooking superhero.
Back to the red cooked meat. My parents recently had a competition amongst themselves over who could cook the best version. It was fruitless because both thought their own was superior and I honestly liked both. When I decided to make my version, dad was showering me with advice. His top tip was that you must not 'dilute' the pork with water. That means: no washing, no boiling, no adding water to the braising liquid. Wine is used instead and if you're being posh, it should be drinking-grade yellow wine. Not cooking wine.
I listened and remembered but in my version that is blogged today, I ignored both those pieces of advice. Not out of some kind of cooking rebellion but because I tried to follow a recipe on the Masterchef website. This caramelized pork belly was originally cooked by contestant Alvin in the 7 deadly sins challenge. He was trying to portray 'greed' with this dish.
I attempted to follow the recipe to a tee. Seriously, my pork belly was even EXACTLY 1kg. However, through the cooking process, I started to feel like the quantities are seriously flawed. I also skipped/altered some steps. If I was to make this dish again, I'd alter it even more. The recipe I'm going to post below is a recount of what I did, plus notes/recommendations on what I'd change for next time.
Caramelized Pork Belly with Saffron Rice
- 1 kg pork belly
- 15 black peppercorns
- 8 cloves of garlic
- 2L chicken stock (I would use ~ 300-500mL next time)
- 1 cup of cooking caramel/karamel masaka (bought this from an Asian grocery store)
- 1 and 1/2 cups of light soy
- 1/2 cup of oyster sauce
- 1/2 cup of Chinese cooking wine
- 1 piece of cinnamon bark
- 1 whole star anise
- 150g white sugar (the original recipe calls for 300g brown sugar which IMO is way too much)
- 2 tbsp fish sauce
- 1-2 tbsp rice wine vinegar (the original recipe used lime juice for acidity instead)
- vegetable oil for frying
- 2 scallions, finely sliced
- 1 cm of ginger, cut into matchsticks
- pinch of saffron
- 1 cup rice (I used basmati)
- chili and coriander (optional garnish)
1. Pound the garlic and peppercorns in a mortar pestle until it's a paste.2. Fry this with a bit of oil in a large pot until fragrant.
3. Add the stock, wine, soy sauce, oyster sauce, cooking caramel, cinnamon and star anise to this large pot and bring to the boil. The major flaw with the original recipe that calls for 2L of chicken stock is that it was way too much liquid. I had to ladle out about 1L just to allow the pork to fit. I suggest you add everything but the stock first and then enough stock to cover the pork.4. Add the pork belly to the pot and reduce to a simmer. I placed a cup on the pork to weigh it down and keep it submerged under the liquid and popped the lid on. The original recipe suggests cooking for 1 hr but I let it slow cook for 2 hours.5. Remove the pork from the braising liquid and set aside. I cut it into the inch square portions straight away. I think if you pop the whole pork slab in the fridge until it's cold and firm and THEN cut it, the pieces have a nicer, more even edge. Because I cut mine whilst warm, the meat was all frayed and unattractive. Either way, cut and set aside.6. To make the sauce, get a new pot ready (I used a large saucepan) and cook the sugar on high until it caramelizes. Stir constantly to prevent burning. As soon as it is golden and caramel, reduce the heat and add ~ 1 cup of the braising liquid from before. Stir through and add the fish sauce and vinegar. Taste and adjust adding more/less of the braising liquid, fish sauce or vinegar as required.7. Once the sauce is good, add the pork pieces back into the sauce and stir to coat (don't stir vigorously because your pork might fall apart). Let it bubble on low heat there for another 15-20min to soak up the flavors and keep warm until you're reading to serve.
8. In that time, I made the rice. I have a poor history of success with rice cooked on the stove. With this, first you make a fragrant oil by putting a bit of oil in a small saucepan and frying the ginger and scallion pieces until crispy. Remove with a slotted spoon and let the oil cool a bit.9. Add the saffron and let it infuse into the oil.
10. Using ~ 2 tbsp of the oil in a saucepan, coat the rice until shiny. Add 1.5 cups of water and bring to the boil. Quickly reduce the heat to a low simmer, pop on the lid and let it absorb for 10-15min. This didn't go exactly to plan for me and I had to add a bit of water part way through but the end result was reasonable.
11. To serve, plate up the pork and garnish with sliced chili and coriander. Serve with the rice and sprinkle some of the crispy scallion and ginger.
The pork was good. When mum saw I had braised it whole, she said the flavor probably hadn't gone in. If that's the case cooking the pieces in the sauce really introduced some flavor. The caramel component of the sauce lends a lovely sticky sweetness and makes the dish very moreish. The pork was also tender without falling apart.
I actually skipped a major step that was in the original recipe. Well... not really. I attempted it. You're supposed to deep-fry the pork pieces before putting them into the sauce. I experimented with a few pieces and nearly lost my eye. I quickly abandoned the task but not before wasting some precious oil and creating a right mess of splatter in the kitchen.
Honestly, the pork was still good without the frying so why needlessly give yourself more artery clog?
I thought the rice was good but not worth the effort of not using your rice cooker :).