Sunday, November 14, 2010

How to commit poetic justice on a slab of pig

Lots of folks - and I'm talking now to most of the non-Chinese people I know out there - get really weird around fatty pork. Layers of luscious fat and pillowy-soft pork skin tend to be viewed by too many as Public Enemy Number One. And it makes me really sad that people avoid it, that they're nervous about sticking a divinely mellow piece of ethereal goodness into their deprived pieholes because they think it's unhealthy, that it will make them fat, that it's downright icky. 

Folks, what I'm talking about here is the same stuff as bacon, and come on, you know you love bacon, so get ready to fall deliriously in love with some of the most delightful flavors and textures to ever pass your lips. 

The dish I'm talking about here is something you probably have never tried, one that few restaurants serve because the sublime dishes of Jiangsu province - China's answer to France, when it comes right down to it - remain a mystery just about everywhere outside of China. And if you somehow find a place that actually offers it, chances are that they don't do it justice. 

The reason for this is that Dongpo Pork requires excellent ingredients, a more than lavish touch with the wine bottle, and the willingness for time and heat to work their magic. It therefore is the perfect dish for a home cook who wants to cook and eat only the best, who will take the time to savor the phenomenal layers of flavor in the final sauce, and who will be able to luxuriate comfortably in the screams of sensory delight that will be bouncing around between the tongue and the brain.
Bundles of joy

Dongpo Pork is very famous in China, mostly because it's just way too good to be ignored, but also because it's supposed to have been the brainchild of one of China's greatest poets, Su Dongpo. There are stories about how this dish came about, and I suppose one of them might be true (more on that later), but my feeling about most of these tales is that they're a little like the "Washington slept here" deal we have going on in the States. As far as I'm concerned, yeah, it's nice that our Founding Father spent the night in such and such a place, but then again, didn't he have to sleep somewhere? And so it is with ancient Chinese celebrities who might or might not have cooked up a genius meal one evening. That's fine and dandy, but is it still a dish we want to eat?

The answer as far as this dish is concerned is, oh yes.

Once you get past any willies you might have w/r/t pork fat, you're pretty much set up for this Dongpo Pork. Except for one other thing: pork skin. If you've had those crunchy Mexican pork rinds called chicharrones, then you're already ahead of the game. If not, settle down and think about how good chicken or turkey skin can be when it's roasted to a crispy brown. Okay, that's skin too. Pork skin starts out tougher - it is, after all, holding a pig together in one piece - but the marvelous thing about pork skin is that it undergoes amazing transformations as it cooks. When it's fried, it turns into chicharonnes, but when braised in the Chinese manner it ascends into the loftiest reaches of the culinary stratosphere, taking on new textures, absorbing new flavors, and in the process becoming tender, slightly sticky, and nothing short of absolutely divine.

Bedecked with twine
To be honest, I think of this more as alchemy than cooking. Just a few ingredients are called for, a bare minimum of cooking, and a willingness to suspend one's expectations long enough for the magic to happen.

And happen it does.

So there you are, with your first big piece of Dongpo Pork poised in front of your lip. Slip a corner into your mouth and bite down every so slightly. You'll first feel the almost trembly layer of fat and skin that has been braised and steamed into downright submission, nothing much left in the way of grease anymore, just the culinary equivalent of porky clouds. A rich and insanely perfumy sauce the color of an old walnut table greets your nostrils and nestles into your taste buds, the combustion of mellow Shaoxing rice wine and rock sugar parking tiny sparklers all over your tongue. At this point your eyes will probably be rolling into your head. Unroll them and focus. You'll start to detect at that point a slightly firmer texture under all those billows, and that's the meat that's trying to make itself heard above the ruckus in your mouth. 

Now bite down all the way. Yes, that's it. Feel the embrace of what used to be fat as it enrobes the meat with silkiness. Ponder the layers of flavors that went into that sauce, make mental note of the ginger, green onions, and echoes of a caravans of spice that slips in and out of your awareness. Dribble more of that sauce on a mound of hot, fresh rice and wallow in reactions that must qualify as intensely sinful in at least, oh, most of the world's religions. Now lean back into your chair and look at that simple piece of pork with new eyes. Suddenly, it's intensely beautiful and you want more.

But back to that story about how this recipe supposedly came into being, way back almost exactly a thousand years ago during the Song dynasty. One of the great eight poets of his time, Master Su also excelled at calligraphy, painting, and of course the culinary arts. He started out his career as a civil servant and eventually rose to become a governor, but by then he also managed to tick off the ruling clique, which had him banished. Good things often grow out of the bad, though, and it was during his time away from the world of political intrigue that he refined his artistic side and became the legendary figure that we know of today. He was eventually recalled back into office, but once again he was banished, this time to the south of China, where it is said he created this dish that still bears his name.

He became most adept at what is known as "red cooking," which means that the meat is stewed in a sauce colored mahogany with soy sauce. One of Master Su's poems even gives his general directions for correctly cooking the pork: "A slow fire, a little water, and it will become perfect when it has cooked long enough." That's pretty much the recipe right there.

Here now is my favorite way to cook Dongpo Pork. I strongly suggest that you double or even triple the meat in this recipe; just be sure there's enough sauce to cover everything. The meat freezes well, steams back into plump perfection, and is bathed in a sauce that is nothing less than a serious rival to a French demi-glace. Hoard this sauce as you would your most precious possession... it's absolutely heavenly spooned on anything you have handy.

One thing to be aware of: don't use a really salty soy sauce (something that looks very dark and molasses-y), as the sauce will turn out saltier than you'd like it.

Dongpo pork  
Dongpo rou  東坡肉  
Serves 4 as part of a multicourse meal

4 pieces of thick, long, dried grass, or butcher's twine (see note below)
    You want more meat than fat
1 pound fresh pork belly (get the best possible quality, with a thin skin and a good proportion of meat to fat)
Boiling water as needed

3 tablespoons fresh vegetable or peanut oil
3 walnut-sized pieces of rock sugar
1½  bottles Shaoxing rice wine
4 cups filtered water
5 green onions, trimmed
A thumb-sized piece of ginger
4 star anise
Half a stick of canela or cinnamon
3 tablespoons good quality regular soy sauce
1. Start this recipe at least a day ahead of time, and up to three or four days earlier if you have that much leeway. The flavor only improves over time. If you're using strands of grass to tie up the pork, soak them in a large bowl of boiling water to soften them; if you're using twine, have it handy on the counter along with a pair of kitchen shears. 

2. Make sure the pork is well chilled; it slices much easier when it's very cold. Rinse off the pork well in cold water and pat it dry. Pull out any hairs that are still hanging around and trim off the edges so that the pork becomes a nice rectangle. (Save those scraps for something else, or else throw them in the pot later on for the cook's treat.) Cut the pork into 4 equal portions. Tie each piece up with a length of grass or twine so it looks like a Christmas present minus the fancy bow.

3. Bring a pot of water to a boil and toss in the pork. Blanch them for about 5 or 10 minutes to remove all of the impurities. Dump out the water and then rinse off the pork and pat it dry.

4. Place the sugar and oil in a large, light-colored saucepan (steel is good) over medium-high heat, and gently stir the sugar until it melts and caramelizes; you can whack at any large pieces of sugar now and then to help them break down. Once it's a nice golden brown, add all of the wine, water, green onions, ginger, star anise, and canela or cinnamon. Bring the sauce to a boil and add the pork, skin-size up. Simmer the pork over medium heat for an hour, add the soy sauce, cover the pot, and then continue to cook it over the lowest heat for around 2 hours, stirring occasionally. Don't add any more water to the sauce unless it's truly necessary. Taste the sauce and make any adjustments at this point; if you add more sugar, wine, or soy sauce, bring the sauce to a boil again so that the raw flavors of these ingredients are mellowed. The sauce will be thick and the pork very tender at this point, so turn off the heat and let the pork continue to soak up the juices for another couple of hours. 

5. Once this time is up, place the pork in a small casserole and strain the juices over it. Cover the casserole and chill the pork at least overnight and up to a few days. A little more than a half an hour before you want to serve it, scrape off the congealed fat and reserve it for something else, as it tastes delicious. Steam the covered casserole for about 30 minutes and serve it hot right out of the casserole. As you serve your guests, thoughtfully snip open the packages so that the pork can be enjoyed without struggle. Have lots of hot rice and a flash-fried green vegetable to round out the meal.

One of the best things in the 
world to eat, bar none
Note on the grass: Traditionally and aesthetically speaking, thick pieces of grass are the way to go here. I had a dickens of a time finding any here in California, though, until my intrepid husband spotted some in a Chinese market, as they were wrapped around a deck of dried lotus leaves. These grass strands work perfectly here. If none is available, thick butcher's twine (which is a lot heavier than regular old kitchen twine) is a great substitute. 

(Thanks to VK for trying out this recipe and for sharing her experiences with me! You've made a great recipe even more delicious!)


  1. Interesting! One of the few dishes I liked during my Taiwan travels was some sort of baked pork belly. I don't remember it looking like your dongpo, though. It took me a while after I got home just to figure out it was pork belly. I tried cooking it at home once, although it wasn't the same. I'll have to give it another shot, with the help of this post!

  2. Thanks, d'Olivia. This really is pork heaven for me, and it's so delicious that I think a cult could easily be built around it. I mean, I adore bacon (try baking some thick strips of bacon, pouring off the fat, and then painting them with maple syrup and a sprinkle of finely ground chilies... it's better than any drug), but Dongpo Pork is something akin to the food of the gods. Can't wait to hear how it turns out for you!

  3. it sounds phenomenal, and I can't wait to try it! thanks so much.

  4. I have a beautiful batch in the fridge as we speak and the cook's treat scraps are amazing. Can I let this sit 6 days in a very cold fridge undisturbed, or should I freeze it? My dinner party plans have to be slightly delayed.

    1. Dear Susanne, I'm so sorry that I missed your kind note here! Hope that you discovered how well this pork keeps in the fridge, as well as the freezer. As with just about every pork braise, if you have a nice layer of fat on top that hardens in the fridge, that will keep the pork and its sauce perfect, just like a pate.

  5. This was my first time making the dish, so I stuck to the recipe verbatim. The meat was delicious and the fat custardy! I loved watching the pork's color change through the process. The sauce was a bit tricky though--- I was too conservative in my seasonings, so it tasted mostly of wine by the end. Do you have advice as to what flavors to aim for during the seasoning phase, and at different points as the alcohol evaporates?

    1. So glad you enjoyed this as much as me! The texture of each layer is what fascinates me, too. As for the seasonings, I like lots of ginger in there to balance out the porky flavors, and the warm spices add other layers to the sauce and, therefore, the pork. As with all of my recipes here, these are just my favorite renditions of Chinese classics, so if you don't like cinnamon, say, then toss it in favor of something else. If you have a chance, follow the amounts in the recipe and see whether that doesn't make you happy. If you want, you can even simmer the sauce now with more spices and soak the pork in it overnight.