Monday, November 29, 2010

The Art of Red-Braising

I was enticed by pictures of fatty pork.

At least, that's my story and I'm sticking to it, and friends who have known me for a while will know how hysterically funny that statement is. For one, I usually don't gravitate towards anything that boasts excess fat or lard, and for another I don't usually eat belly pork either.

But those gorgeous photos of this recipe! I am a sucker for good photography. I'm an even bigger sucker for good food photography, and the recipe seemed simple enough, and so when I finally caught sight of a NICE big strip of pork belly in the market and I already had most of the spices necessary for making this dish even though I'm terrified of being caramel-splattered after an accident in uni with hot caramel and a glass dish...

Well. The end result was a resounding triumph and the process was amazingly trouble-free and easy, although I thought I could have braised it a bit longer to make the meat more tender. I also thought I might cut down on the amount of oil needed as belly pork already has a huge amount of its own fatty goodness.

It did get me thinking about another dish I'd eaten over the years - Hong Shao Tofu. Having not had it for some years now, I couldn't remember if this was the sort of sauce used for it - there's a Cantonese version that uses a brown sauce instead - but I figured it could do no harm to try this particular way of making it.

So I got to work. I decided to use dried shitake mushrooms for a bit of bite, and firm Chinese tofu since that is sturdier than Japanese tofu and will stand up to long cooking without disintegrating into smithereens.

I saved the soaking water from the dried mushrooms so I could add it to the braise later on for a bit more savoury flavour. I also seared the cubed tofu in a non-stick frying pan first till it was brown on all sides - this helps it keep its shape when it's being stirred around with the pork and the caramel sauce.

The original recipe calls for Shaoxing wine. I don't have Shaoxing wine but I recall seeing somewhere that using mirin (Japanese sweet cooking wine) was an acceptable substitute so that's what I used.

End result after modifications and putting the whole lot of ingredients on to braise: Absolutely, unbelievably GOOD. Even if I had to make it with purely tofu and mushrooms, it would still be excellent since the tofu soaks up the flavours in the braise like a sponge.

It was even better after a night in the fridge; the flavours developed beautifully.

Thank you JS and TS of Eating Club Vancouver! This is a keeper of a recipe for sure!

Red Braised Pork with Seared Tofu and Mushrooms
Adapted from Fuchsia Dunlop's recipe in Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook: Recipes from Hunan Province

1 lb pork belly
Splash of vinegar (for boiling the pork)
1 tbsp. neutral-flavoured oil
2 tbsp. white sugar
1 tbsp. mirin (Japanese sweet cooking wine)
3/4-inch piece fresh ginger, skin on and sliced
2 star anise
2 dried red chiles
6-8 dried shitake mushrooms
2 blocks of firm Chinese tofu, cubed
1 tsp. neutral flavoured oil (for frying the tofu cubes)
Small piece cassia bark or cinnamon stick
Gluten-free light soy sauce, salt, and sugar
Few pieces scallion greens (if you have them)

1. Soak the mushrooms in hot water for about 20 minutes, or till soft. Squeeze them out and slice them, but don’t make them too thin. You can discard the stems, but I usually use them; in a braise like this, they’ll get soft anyway. Save the water used for soaking the mushrooms and set aside.

2. Fry the tofu cubes in the 1 tsp. of oil – I used a non-stick pan, so that cut down the amount of oil I needed. You might require a little more if you’re using a regular frying pan, or if you have a wok. Make sure the cubes are at least brown on two sides; I tend to fry them on all sides to be sure. This prevents the tofu from breaking up into mush when you add it to the pork-and-caramel mixture later. Set aside.

3. Plunge the pork belly into a pan of boiling water, add the splash of vinegar and simmer for 3-4 minutes until partially cooked. Remove and, when cool enough to handle, cut into bite-size chunks.

4. 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 stir till well-coated. Add in the tofu cubes, stir to coat and splash in the mirin.

5. Add the reserved soaking water from the mushrooms, and top it up with enough water to just cover the pork, along with the mushrooms, ginger, star anise, chillies and cassia. Bring to a boil, then turn down the heat and simmer for 40-50 minutes.

6. Towards the end of cooking time, turn up the heat to reduce the sauce, and season with soy sauce, salt, and a little sugar to taste. You might need to braise it a little longer than actual cooking time to reduce the sauce to the thickness you want. Add the scallion greens just before serving.

I forgot the scallions of course. I always forget SOMETHING. But the dish tasted great even without it, although the greenery would have added a lovely touch of colour to the finished recipe.


  1. Oh my. You know your pictures nearly got me running straight from the office to your home, right? Except the red-braised pork is prolly all gone by now.


  2. Sadly yes. :/ I just gave the remainder of it to a friend in Cyberjaya. Never mind! There's always another time, never a wrong time for pork! :)

  3. Nice work, Shuku! Red-cooking is a fabulous way to treat pork belly. It's homey and elegant at the same time.

  4. Thank you for dropping by Andrea! And I think I'm in love with this technique. I don't often have pork belly, but this is fabulously easy and makes great results. And LOTS OF LEFTOVERS.

  5. Thanks for the mention! We're so glad you made and enjoyed the dish. =)

  6. Agreed, TOTALLY. There's never a wrong time for pork!

    (Hey, that sounds like it could be our Babitarians Anonymous club motto, no?)