Dongpo pork [东坡肉]
This braised pork belly dish, Dongpo rou or Dongpo pork, is one of China’s classic dishes. Everyone in China loves pork, and praises the gelatinous and soft layers of pork belly to no end… the ultimate comfort food for cold days. The story is this dish is the invention of the famous poet Su Dongpo, who was an government official in the city of Hangzhou, 900 years ago. He not only wrote poetry and braised pork slabs, but had a long dike built in the West Lake as well, on which you can still stroll today and enjoy the lake’s beautiful views.
For this recipe, you will need:
1 to 1.5 kilos of pork belly in once square piece
1 bowl of Shaoxing rice wine
1/2 bowl of soy sauce (ie Kikkoman) for flavor, a little bit of dark soy sauce for color
1/2 bowl of white sugar
a bunch of spring onions
a piece of ginger
preferably: a Chinese clay pot (they come cheap in Chinese supermarkets, 8 euros will get you one)
Take a pot or wok, fill it with water, and put in the pork belly. Raise the heat until the water starts to boil, lower the heat and let simmer for about 2 minutes. Take out the meat and discard the water.
After cooling, cut the meat into perfect squares of 6.5 cms wide (2,5 inches). To make it perfect, trim off odd pieces of meat. The precooking has made the meat shrink, so it will keep its proper size.
Take your Chinese clay pot – this is an earthenware cooking vessel with a lid, glazed on the inside, perfect for stewing on a low fire. Line the clay pot with a discarded piece of sushi mat, or some wooden satay skewers. This is to keep the juices from burning your meat afterwards. (Well- I skipped this step and it happened to me, so you know). Then put long pieces of spring onions on the bottom (fit to size), smash your piece of ginger with a knife and add on top. Now fit in your pieces of pork, skin side down on the spring onions. You might have to force them a little bit but don’t worry, the pork will shrink during the cooking process and will have ample room later.
Add 1 bowl of Shaoxing rice wine. If you think that is too much – you are not alone. There are a few versions of this Dongpo pork, this of them being ‘stewed without any water’. Braising pork in only rice wine and soy is of course going to be super delicious. Then add half a bowl of nice soy sauce. Sprinkle around 7 to 8 spoonfuls of white sugar on top of the meat, cover with a lid and put the fire on. After you start to hear the juices bubbling, put it on the lowest possible heat and simmer for 2 hours.
Be careful though – your fire might not be as low as you think and then your sauce might thicken, caramellise and burn – so do check now and then and add a little water or rice wine to the stock in the clay pot to prevent it from sticking. You don’t need to touch the meat.
After 2 hours, the meat will be juicy, soft, and almost falling apart. Take the pieces out carefully and put them, now skin side up, in a serving bowl (with lid). Put the bowl in a steamer and steam for at least half an hour. The whole steaming process sounds like quite a hassle, but believe me, you will be very happy with the results! You can also do the cooking beforehand and the steaming just before you want to eat, so you can finish some rice and green vegetables to go with this dish.
There are some variations to Dongpo pork – for example, in some recipes the first step involves frying; some recipes use way more water than rice wine; and some recipes call for steaming the meat in the end for 2 to 3 hours (improving its softness). Some wrap the chunks of pork in strings of bamboo leaves or ‘tribute greens’, to create beautiful looking ‘gifts’, and some recipes add star anise, cinnamon or Sichuan peppercorns to the braising liquid. This recipe is the basics – which you can adapt to your liking. Enjoy!
Quick version of steps:
precook (shrink) pork; cut into cubes; line clay pot with sticks, spring onions & ginger; add pork- skin down; add rice wine, soy, sugar; braise 2 hours; take out; change to serving bowl with lid; steam half an hour.
Pictures: Dongpo pork
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