Thursday, November 29, 2012

Twice-cooked pork

When we lived in Taipei, at least once a month like clockwork my husband would want to hit our favorite home-style Hunan restaurant, Tianrentai. Located across the street from my vision of heaven on earth – South Gate Market, a traditional assortment of food stalls and homemade charcuterie and wet markets and busy ladies making pastries by hand – Tianrentai was old-school Hunan food, the type that is pretty much impossible to find outside of the homeland.

I really loved that one little section of Roosevelt Road for another reason: it had a fairy-tale like building just next to the restaurant. A big banyan tree grew out the middle of this house, and the whole structure enveloped it as if it were an elf’s home. It looked so strange and out of place on that busy street, but at the same time the tree was endowed with such a feeling of wonder and otherworldliness that it somehow just looked very, very safe from rabid real estate speculators in bustling downtown Taipei.

Back at the restaurant, we would do our usual ritual of glancing over the menu before J.H. announced his choice, which was invariably Twice-cooked Pork. I’d always aim for something different, as I am one of those people who like to have at least one thing new every time I eat. But even though I’d mutter a bit about certain people being stuck in the mud, I would be more than happy when that big plate of steaming vegetables and meat hit the table.
The beautiful main ingredients

One thing that I really liked about Tianrentai’s take on this classic is that there was always lots of Hunan style cured pork, rather than fresh bacon, in the mix, and the meat was balanced with an equal amount of thinly sliced pressed bean curd. Now, that might not seem like much on the surface, but in fact it allowed for a brilliant balancing act between the salty, dry, meaty cured pork and the bland but slightly juicy tofu. But then again, this is a dish that is open to any number of interpretations, so make it as spicy or salty or meat-laden as you like.

Today I found some fresh green garlic at the market, and there was only one dish that immediately came to mind: this re-creation of a beloved classic from days long past.

Twice-cooked pork 
Huíguō ròu 回鍋肉
Serves 4 to 6 as part of a multicourse meal
Fry the cured meat with the ginger

4 ounces (or so) Hunan style cured pork (larou)
2 squares pressed bean curd (doufu gan) of any kind
½ sweet red pepper
6 stalks of green garlic or 1 large leek
(2 thinly sliced cloves of garlic if you’re using the leek)
2 tablespoons peanut or vegetable oil
1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh ginger
3 tablespoons toasted sesame oil
1 tablespoon bean sauce (doubanjiang)
1 tablespoon hot bean sauce (la doubanjiang)
1 teaspoon regular soy sauce
2 teaspoons sugar

1. Rinse the cured pork and pat it dry. Cut off and discard any rind and tough tendons or stringy fat. Slice the pork thinly against the grain into pieces no larger than 1 inch in the other two directions. Lay the pressed bean curd on a cutting board and slice the squares horizontally into very thin pieces; cut the pieces to around the same size as the pork. Remove the seeds from the pepper and cut it into pieces about the same size as the pork. Trim the green garlic (or leek), being sure to wash out all of the sand that lurks in the bottom of the leaves; cut the bulb ends in half and then cut the garlic into 1-inch pieces.

Scoot finished things up the side
2. Heat the oil in a wok on high until it shimmers, and then add the ginger. Stir-fry it for a few seconds to release its fragrance, and then add the cured pork. Move the meat around in the hot oil to sear the edges and brown it up a little before scooting it up one side of the wok. Toss in the bean curd and stir-fry this too until it is lightly browned; move it up another side of the wok to join the pork. Add the pepper and quickly brown it before edging it up against the bean curd. Finally, toss in the green garlic (or leeks and garlic) and quickly wilt them. Scrape the meat and veggies out onto a serving platter, leaving any extra oil in the wok.

3. Heat the wok again over high heat and add the sesame oil, bean paste, hot bean paste, soy sauce, and sugar. Stir it around for a few seconds and adjust the seasonings. Return the meat and veggies to the wok and toss everything together over high heat until all of the surfaces are slicked with the sauce. Taste again, adjust the seasoning as desired, and serve, preferably with hot steamed rice.


If you find that your cured meat is dry or hard, steam it for about 10 or 15 minutes until a knife can be easily inserted into the center.

Just like I remembered...
The sauces here have wildly varying levels of saltiness, so start with a smallish amount if it's the first time you've used a brand, as you can always add more. The same goes for levels of heat and sweetness... it's all subjective, which is why you should do lots of tasting as you cook.

I keep a jar full of plastic spoons next to the stove both to shovel Chinese sauces and pastes into the wok and to test the flavors. That way the spoons can be tossed over into the sink after one use.

As with all bottled sauces, be sure to cook the sauce in some fat to both remove the canned flavor and to perk up the aromas.