Friday, December 17, 2010

Today's koan: when is pork not pork?

When I served this dish to a vegetarian friend from Nanjing, he had exactly the same response as you probably did to the photo on the left: "Wow," he said, "that sure looks like pork." 

I smiled at his apparent nervousness and said, "Now, do you think I would do that to you?" Dr. Li peered closely at the dish before a big grin broke out over his face. "Su Dongpo!" he exclaimed.

Those of you who are fans of Chinese poetry may be wondering why he called out the name of one of the greatest poets of all time. This returns us to a favorite topic of mine from a little while back: the Chinese sense of humor, particularly when it concerns food. It also recalls another dish we looked at, Dongpo Pork.  And it also seems quite in character with my pronounced love for pig meat. Like a good mystery movie, all these disparate threads will come together in the end...

Part of the fun of the best Chinese meals is the element of surprise, of humor, of twisted expectations. This dish does that in spades. In this instance, you serve your guests, preferably vegetarians or vegans, with what appears to be a huge hunk of pig flesh and wait for their reaction. And then you either do as I did and wait for a sophisticated guest to guess the truth, or soothe them by revealing the actual ingredients, or carry the deception further by insisting that they at least try a taste... it all depends upon your guests and their ability to wield heavy cutlery. 

The fried "skin"
What we have here, then, is actually a piece of winter melon (which is actually a squash rather than a melon; more on that later) done up as red-cooked pork belly. 

Yup. That is just a vegetable, folks. But since it looks very much like Dongpo Pork, it's called Su (fourth tone) Dongpo, since su means "vegetarian," a play on the poet's name, Su (first tone) Dongpo.

The genius of this Jiangsu-style dish lies in the ability of winter melon to take on all the attributes of a good piece of pork. Look at that skin on the right, just after it's been fried: that looks just like lovely, crispy pork fat. The "skin" is scored just as pork fat usually is, which carries the deception even further. Finally, the winter melon is braised in a wine- and spice- infused sauce that drenches the very bland squash with a buttery, savory flavor that mimics that of pork. It's no wonder that this culinary trick fools just about everyone. As Mr. Li noted after a few considered bites, the recipe here is only slightly sweet, as is favored in Nanjing, but you can add more sugar if you like and have it in the style of Shanghai; both are equally good.

Winter melon, or donggua, is in season now, and it can range in size from a basketball to the heft and length of one of the pods out from the 1978 remake of The Body Snatchers. The tendency of winter melon to grow to breathtaking sizes is why this vegetable is usually sold in chunks. 

Remove just the green part
Chinese markets carry winter melon during most of the year, as it has a thick skin and so can be stored whole much like its other thick-skinned brethren, gourds and pumpkins. So why is it called a melon if it isn't sweet? For the same reason that other Chinese squash, like bitter melons, got weird translations: gua in Chinese is used for both melons and squashes. Somebody long ago just tacked "melon" on the end of its new English name and, voila, here we are today.

A word of caution when it comes to winter melons. Make sure that the slice you buy is really fresh. It should be completely white all over with no yellow or soft spots on the white flesh, which tell you quite insistently that it has been sitting around for a while. Smell it, as it should have just a faint squash smell and no sourness. Press it gently through the plastic wrap to ensure that it is firm. Finally, cook it as soon as you get home, since it doesn't improve by sitting around and in fact will deteriorate rapidly, turning soft with decaying juices spilling all over your fridge as it devolves into mush. Fortunately, this vegetable is terrific in any number of dishes, particularly soups with some Chinese ham and ginger, as well as this, the divine Su Dongpo.
Braise the squash in the sauce

Vegetarian roast pork belly 
Su Dongpo  素東坡
Jiangsu, Zhejiang
Serves 4 

1 pound piece of winter melon, as flat and square as possible
1/2 cup fresh vegetable or peanut oil
1 finger fresh ginger, thinly sliced
2 green onions, trimmed and cut into 2-inch lengths
1/2 cup Shaoxing rice wine
1/4 cup good-quality regular soy sauce
2 tablespoons sugar or rock sugar
2 star anise
1/2 stick cinnamon or canela
1/4 cup filtered water
1. Scrape off any seeds and fibers in the winter melon, trim the edges so that they are even and white, and cut off the rind with a heavy knife or cleaver; just trim off the green skin, and don't go too deeply into the flesh, as you want the slightly hard area under the green part. Then, score that skin side of the winter melon in a crosshatch pattern in lines about 1/2 inch apart and 1/2 inch deep. Wipe the squash dry with a paper towel so that it doesn't splatter when you fry it. 

2. Heat the oil in a wok over medium-high heat until it starts to shimmer; a wooden chopstick inserted into the oil should immediately be covered with bubbles. Carefully lay the winter melon skin-side down in the hot oil. Fry just the one side of the winter melon until it is an even brown color as shown above. Remove the winter melon to a small plate and drain out all but 1/4 cup of the oil in the wok.

3. Heat the oil again over medium-high heat and add the ginger and green onions; stir-fry them until they are nice and fragrant, then toss in the rest of the ingredients. Bring the sauce to a boil and add the winter melon to the wok, this time skin-side up. 

Vegetable becomes "meat"
4. Reduce the heat to low and slowly simmer the winter melon for about an hour, turning it gently and only two times while it is cooking. At this point you should be able to insert a wooden chopstick into the center very easily; cook a little bit longer, if needed, but try not to add more water unless most of the liquid has evaporated. Once the winter melon is tender, cook it slowly for another 15 minutes so that it becomes deliciously soft, loses its squash flavor, and soaks up the sauce. 

5. You may serve it immediately by using two spatulas to carefully transfer the very tender winter melon to a plate. Strain the sauce, and if it is not yet syrupy, boil it over high heat until it's thick and glossy. Pour it around the winter melon and serve to your unsuspecting guests. 

6. If you want to make this ahead of time, let both the winter melon and strained sauce come to room temperature, place them in a container, and store covered in the refrigerator; steam the winter melon for about 10 minutes until it is completely heated through before serving.


  1. I was just reading an article on wine pairing with su dongpo and landed here after a quick search for a vegetarian variation. Can't wait to try it!

    1. Sorry Kip, I just now noticed your kind comment. Hope that you had a chance to make this and that you liked it!