Chengdu Huiguorou, Twice-Cooked Pork (回锅肉)
Published Aug 01, 2014, Updated May 30, 2023
Chengdu Challenge #8: Pork Belly, The Secret to a Long Life
Though 回锅肉 (huíguōròu) is actually quite easy to make, it challenged me more than any other dish so far. I had to test it so many times that “twice-cooked pork” became dozen-times-cooked pork before I got it right. But just as I did, I was rewarded with this news story about Sichuan’s oldest living resident, a 117-year-old woman who attributes her longevity to three meals a day of huiguorou.
Pork belly and Pixian doubanjiang is really all it takes to make one of the great dishes of all time, in any cuisine. But you have to have both of them. Do not make huiguorou if you do not. But if you do, it will taste very much like it does in restaurants in Chengdu (and good ones in the U.S.). My problem was not following the rule; I learned the hard way by trying various cuts of pork that were either too lean or too fat before finding the perfect belly.
It wasn’t The Cookbook’s fault. The recipe actually calls for pork rump—which is the cut they use in Sichuan—with the fat layer and outer skin still attached, which is assumedly the 50/50 lean-to-fat ratio this dish is meant to have. But that’s not a cut you easily find for sale in the U.S., since it’s used for ham. Pork belly is the cut that is generally used here, but the problem is that it is often too fatty for this recipe.
The pork belly I got at Whole Foods was about 75 percent fat, 25 percent lean, which was too fatty for my liking. My butcher then talked me into trying untrimmed pork loin, with a thick layer of fat still attached, or about a 50/50 fat-lean ratio. But that didn’t taste like the real thing, because the lean meat itself was too lean and dry, when it should actually be marbled and moist. I then tried a pork shoulder (pork butt), which is semi-fatty, and this was satisfactory, but not superb. So I decided to go back to the pork belly, but to hold out for one that was more lean—perhaps a pig who hadn’t been so piggy.
I found just that at a Chinese market, each belly weighing in at about one pound, the perfect size for a dish of huiguorou. It rendered just the right amount of fat to make a sauce and left big swaths of toothsome lean pork amid the succulent fat.
The only tricky part about making twice-cooked pork is remembering to do the first round of cooking in advance. The belly is simmered whole in barely boiling water until it’s partially cooked, about 15 to 20 minutes. Some people cook it longer so that it is entirely cooked through, but I prefer it to still be a bit pink inside.
You then need to let it cool and tighten up in the refrigerator for a few hours before slicing it for the stir-fry round. It’s still a little difficult to slice, but do so as thinly as possible, shooting for the thickness of a slice of bacon. Or better yet, freeze it for an hour or two, and that makes it much easier to cut thin. Thick, meaty slices are just the wrong texture for this dish.
When I stock up on bellies, I boil them all at once, let them cool, and freeze them. That way, when I want to have twice-cooked pork, the first cook is already done, and the second one is done in minutes.
The easy part is the stuff straight out of Sichuan, the Pixian chili bean paste (doubanjiang) and sweet wheat paste (tianmianjiang). I did fib a bit when I said you only need the chili bean paste, because you also need sweet wheat paste. But once you’ve got these in your pantry, you’ve always got on hand the exact flavor combo you need for this classic dish. If you want to gild the belly, you can also throw in some fermented black beans (douchi), which many Sichuan cooks do, and which I do because we love douchi.
And there should be no substitution on the Pixian doubanjiang, if you want to feel like you’re eating in Sichuan. I can’t stress this enough, because the other, easier-to-find versions of chili bean paste—I’m talking to you, Hong Kong-made Lee Kum Kee—do not taste like the real thing in any way. (See more of this rant here, along with lots more info on Pixian doubanjiang.)
In Sichuan, a dish of twice-cooked pork is usually half green onions/leeks and is often served with steamed bao, so you can stuff the pork and leeks into yeasty, fluffy, little breads. You want to do this. You can buy bao frozen in Chinese markets or, better yet, make them yourself with this recipe.
Once you have the right ingredients, huiguorou is a breeze to make. Fans of pork belly, in particular, owe it to themselves to try it. And contrary to popular belief, the more you eat, the longer you may live.
For the cured pork belly version of huiguorou, try my Stir-Fried Bacon in Sichuan Bean Sauces (Chao Larou, 炒腊肉) and Kathy’s mom’s homemade version, Cured Pork Belly Stir-fry (Chao Larou, 炒腊肉)!
Chengdu Huiguorou, Twice-Cooked Pork (回锅肉)
- 1 pound pork belly, at least half-lean approx. 450 grams
- 1 tablespoon Pixian doubanjiang (chili bean paste)
- 1 tablespoon tianmiangjiang (sweet wheat paste)
- 1 tablespoon douchi (preserved black beans)
- 1 tablespoon Chinese light soy sauce (Zhongba preferred)
- 1 teaspoon sugar
- 2 thin leeks, or one fatter, American-style leek (soft inner leaves only), cut vertically into thin strips about 2 inches long
- 8 scallions, cut vertically into slivers about 2 inches long
- Bring a pot of water to a boil and add the whole pork belly. Reduce heat and simmer belly around 15 to 20 minutes, until just partially cooked through. Remove pork and allow to cool, then place in the refrigerator for a few hours or the freezer for 1 to 2 hours, which will firm up the meat and make it easier to slice. Slice very thinly, into pieces about 2-3 inches long and 1/8-inch-thick (or even thinner, like a slice of bacon).
- Mix chili bean paste, sweet wheat paste, preserved black beans, soy sauce and sugar in a small bowl.
- Heat a dry wok until hot. Add 2 tablespoons peanut or canola oil, and when wisps of heat begin to rise add the pork. Cook the pork slices, stirring and flipping occasionally, until they just lose their pink color and begin to curl.
- Push the pork to the sides of the wok, leaving a well of fat in the middle. Add the sauce mixture to the fat and cook it briefly before mixing it into the pork. Add the leeks and stir-fry until they are just softened. Add the scallions and stir-fry briefly, until just softened. Remove to a serving plate.
Tried this recipe?