Let me start by saying I love this dish, with a passion. There is something about the unctuous golden fat and the carmelised, melting pork which create a taste sensation – umami at its best. I didn’t think it would be possible to create such aromatic magic in a relatively short time with a cut of meat – belly of pork – that often requires long slow cooking.
It was Joanne (@dudara) who first alerted me to the cuisine of the southern Chinese province of Hunan and suggested we seek it out when we were in Beijing last June. Hunan is the region Mao Zedong came from. It is a region of bold, spicy flavours, fond of its chillies, and the fiery food seems to shape the spirit of its inhabitants. We didn’t manage to track down a Hunan restaurant in Beijing but, when I got back, Joanne encouraged me to get hold of of Fucshia Dunlop‘s Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook, a seminal book on the food of that region.
When I was in London recently, she pointed me in the direction of Ba Shan Restaurant at 24 Romilly Street, London W1. Sometimes referred to as Bashan, it has a menu of Hunan dishes and is a sister restaurant to the nearby Sichuan Bar Shu. Fuchsia Dunlop advised both restaurants on their menus and Ba Shan features a number of dishes based on those in her book. See Jay Rayner’s review here.
Laoise (@cuisinegenie) joined me for dinner and we tried Chairman Mao’s red-braised pork which is one of the signature dishes of the region. The recipe below, which features in a Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook, came from Mao Anping, a nephew of Chairman Mao. Mao Zedong loved this dish and allegedly ate 2 bowls of it a day to keep his intellect in shape, insisting on it being prepared for him in Beijing.
The Chinese like to attribute medicinal properties to every dish but, to me, this is just aromatic, sticky, treacly and delicious. I was determined to try it out myself and the result was sublime. I actually prefer the recipe below to the version I tasted in Ba Shan which may have been adapted for restaurant use.
Now three months into the blog, most of the recipes I post are Shan’s or my own but, when I started out, I asked Fuchsia Dunlop’s permission to re-print a few recipes from her books. I hope that sharing with you this particular recipe, which is just too perfect to mess with, will encourage you to buy the book which is packed full of Hunan delights.
To make the dish I used a beautiful piece of Irish belly of pork, chosen for me by Fintan at Dunne’s of Donnybrook, Dublin 4 which was recently awarded the Star Shop of the Year by the Associated Craft Butchers of Ireland.
Chairman Mao’s Red-braised Pork – mao shi hong shao rou – 毛氏红烧肉
- 1 kg free range belly pork, skin on
- 4 tbs groundnut or rapeseed oil
- 4 tbs white sugar
- 2 tbs Shaoxing wine
- Chunk of unpeeled ginger, sliced
- 2 star anise
- Small handful of dried red chilli pieces
- Large piece of cassia bark or 2 cinnamon sticks
- Light soy sauce, salt and sugar for seasoning
- A few lengths of spring onion greens
Preparation and cooking:
- Simmer the belly of pork in a pot of boiling water for 6 to 7 minutes until partially cooked. Remove and drain and, when cool, cut into bite-size chunks. (I found a cleaver useful for this. It chopped through the bone with ease).
- Heat the oil and sugar in a wok over a gentle flame until the sugar melts, then raise the heat and stir constantly until the melted sugar turns a rich caramel brown. (This is the tricky bit. Be patient – it takes time. When the sugar began to crystallise in the oil, I thought I was in trouble and was tempted to discard it but I persisted and it came together in a delicious caramel sauce.)
- Add the pork chunks and the Shaoxing wine.
- Add enough water to just cover the pork, along with the ginger, star anise, chillies and cassia/ cinnamon. Bring to the boil, then turn down the heat and simmer, uncovered, for 40 – 50 minutes.
- 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. Add the spring onion greens just before serving.
Serve with rice and a simple stir-fried vegetable such as broccoli.