Chengdu Huiguorou, Twice-Cooked Pork (回锅肉)
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.
I usually make this with Fuchsia Dunlop’s recipe, but going to try yours next (I don’t believe that her version has the bean paste). One thing I rarely do though, is pre-boil the pork. I understand that this makes it “once cooked” and not “twice cooked”, but is there really a noticeable difference in the end product? I have always thought that the first cooking was primarily to get rid of bad smells from not very fresh pork — a problem I don’t have — but is there more too it? Many thanks for a wonderful website.
Thank you, Rob!
That is a very good question. In many dishes, a first, quick dip in boiling water is meant mainly to clean the meat of impurities and blood traces. But in this case, where it’s cooked completely through, I believe it must be for other reasons. Whenever I want to “once-cook” this dish I use lean pork loin or pork shoulder, so I’ve never once-cooked fatty pork belly, and I’m not sure what happens. I’m guessing that the first cook rids it of some of the fat. Do you end up with tons of oil in the dish? I’m also guessing that the first cook affects the texture of the finished dish, and would be necessary for this specific dish. But, in any case, if you like it once-cooked, then you might as well make it that way!
P.S. I’m sure Fuchsia’s recipe uses chili bean paste, cause it isn’t hui guo rou without it!
Thanks for the reply Taylor. I did it the authentic (and much longer) way today, and cooked it twice, letting it cool after it simmered for 20 minutes. It was delicious of course, but I’m not really convinced that it adds anything. I’ll try it again soon, skipping the first cook so as to be able to compare the two while they are fresh in my memory. I do think that you are right that the dish is a bit less oily this way — though there must have been some flavor left over in the water that cooked the pork, that might have been better in the dish.
I went back and looked at Fuchsia’s “Every Grain of Rice”, and she says that the first cook is important because once cooked and cooled, it is able to be sliced thinly without falling apart. If that is the main reason, I think that a sharp knife should solve that problem easier than the first cook/cooling. Often I will use lightly smoked pork belly for this dish (bacon), which I have the butcher slice for me using a slicing machine, and perhaps that is why that has never been an issue for me. I do enjoy that smokiness, and highly recommend that you give that a try.
You are quite correct regarding Fuchsia’s recipe, but I wasn’t referring to the Sichuan broad bean paste, but rather the “sweet bean/wheat paste” which I didn’t recall being in there. Of course, it is. While I have Pixian spicy broad bean paste, I only have access to Koon Chun”Bean Sauce” from Hong Kong, so had to use that instead (I live in South America, where none of this stuff is easily available, so most of my ingredients are brought back on trips to the US). I suspect that the Koon Chun is not quite the same as the Sichuanese product — but it all went down ok.
Many thanks again.
In my experience, even after it’s boiled, a pork belly is very difficult to slice thinly unless you refrigerate or freeze it first (which she recommends too). There has to be another reason! I’m surprised you didn’t find a big difference in texture. I now want to try it without the first cook…
I’ve also found that the sweet bean and sweet wheat sauces taste pretty similar, so I’m sure your sauce is tasting authentic.
I’m really glad you mentioned the smoked pork version. I have had a similar dish to twice-cooked pork with smoked pork belly several times in Chengdu. I’m not sure if it was once-cooked or twice-cooked, but it was amazing. I would guess that a smoked version definitely wouldn’t need the boiling step. Yum! I’m going to see if I can find my pictures of it now. Thanks for sharing your experiments!
I’m a little surprised you don’t have ginger and chinese rice wine in your boiling step. Those are almost certainly a major reason for the boil: imparting flavor. I add about two tablespoons of rice wine and a thumb for roughly cut ginger to my boiling water.
Also, in order to maximize your meat’s flavor, I suggest a longer simmer (as Rob said) rather than a boil.
Taylor, I am finding your website immensely informative. Thank you very much for all the food research, which has helped me finding ingredients.
I was sticking pretty closely to the recipe in the Sichuan Higher Institute of Cuisine’s cookbook, which did not call for those flavorings, but that’s a good idea. As for boiling, I misspoke in the text and said gently boil when I meant simmer. The recipe does say to simmer, fortunately.
I’m glad the info has been of help. Thanks for letting me know!
I made this today and it came out really salty. I didn’t use much soy sauce, I’m guessing the salt was from the preservatives in the various pastes. Any adjustments you would suggest? Less douchi maybe?
Love the website btw.
Thanks for your note. I’m always curious how the recipes go for others. If you used the full one pound of pork belly for the recipe, then I am going to assume that the culprit was the chili bean paste. Pixian douban jiang can be very salty, depending on the brand and how long it was aged. It is just broad beans and chilies preserved in salt. The two tablespoons work for me, but my advice would be to decrease the amount you use if you try it again. Also, sometimes you find douban jiang mixed with oil, which I am actually starting to prefer, since it is a bit less intense and salty. Good luck!
In my experience the boil changes the property of the fat and skin – softening them and affecting the texture to make it more palatable. Also, when I make this dish I add the sliced pork to a dry pan on a medium heat and allowed the fat to render then turn the heat up and go. This is how I learned from a Sichuan friend and you will find you won’t need to throw any of that lovely lard away.
Yes, I agree that the boil positively affects the texture. Though I’m not convinced about the lard, since a really fatty piece of pork belly renders a lot of lard, does it not? It depends on your belly!
Been waiting and waiting to try this recipe from you. Here are my notes:
1. Based on the earlier comment I added a thumb of ginger (sliced), 4-6 peppercorns, 2 bay leafs, 2 cloves of garlic (smashed) and 1/8 cup Rice wine to the boiling liquid. it certainly didnt do any harm and perhaps imparted some additional flavor to the meat.
2. I had no problem at all finding the pork belly as I live in Washington DC and we have tons of good Asian markets around us. I have never had to use the wheat paste or the douchi, but with a little help, I found them also at my Asian market. Wanting to learn what everything tasted like I was surprised that the douchi seemed to have a texture not unlike cheese. Interesting stuff!
3. I can without hesitation say that my niece and I and our 2 guests absolutely loved this recipe. In fact, my niece (who loves to take your mapu tofu for lunch each day) was highly offended there was nothing left for her to take for lunch this week! It absolutely got rave reviews from everyone at the table and will be on our MUST MAKE AGAIN SOON list.
Oh, BTW – We made Szechuan wontons in red chili sauce (yes, from scratch) for appetizers and they were great. There are many variations out on the web, so I am hoping you will post a recipe for this soon. They were a real hit. The fragrant red chili was simple to make and absolutely delicious!
Hi Jim! Thanks for your notes. I agree that it can’t hurt to flavor the water for the first cook. As for the douchi, I wonder if you ended up with a brand from Sichuan? Theirs is kind of a paste, while Guangdong’s (which I prefer) are little dry beans.
So glad this recipe was a hit for you. As for dumplings in red oil, there are indeed many versions/recipes out there, and I do myself have a recipe here for the sauce that tastes very much like I’ve had them in Sichuan restaurants.
Always great to hear from you!
I think my favorite Chinese restaurant in Charlottesville VA just got a new chef. Previously, their Twice-Cooked Pork was magnificent. But yesterday, I ordered it and got something entirely different. Some leeks, yes, but lots of white onion, red bell pepper, jalapeno slices and an overabundance of thinly-sliced garlic. And celery.
Which makes it all the more critical that I cook this recipe sooner rather than later. Thanks for posting all these wonderful recipes.
Ooh, I hate it when that happens! Unfortunately, these chefs move around a lot. Especially when they are good, they get poached by other restaurants. That’s why I cook my own too. Good luck!
Hi Taylor, it looks yummy.
Is it true that the origin of this dish is for cooking what ever left over pork dish from yesterday’s meal and cook them again with new seasoning ?
Ha! I haven’t ever heard that, but it wouldn’t be surprising. The sauce in this recipe tastes good on any kind of pork, that’s for sure.
Tried this the other night having managed to source the right ingredients in the UK. Definitely close to that which I used to eat in Shanghai when I lived there. I put way too much Douban Jiang in though.. (I assumed you’d skimped on it…). Will definitely be making this again
Glad to hear it! I don’t usually skimp on the seasonings because we like things bold around here, but too much douban jiang can make the dish just too salty. As you learned. Hope your next one is perfect!
I finally got around to cooking this a couple days ago. It was magnificent, equal to or better than any I’ve had in a restaurant. I had two problems, tho. First, even after simmering the pork belly and chilling overnight in the fridge, I still didn’t slice it thinly enough. Can’t blame the knife, it was sharp enough. Guess I’ll have to try again to get it right. Problem two: I made the mistake of offering up a sample to a co-worker, now I don’t have much in the way of left-overs. A pound of pork belly doesn’t go far. That’ll teach me about being a nice guy and sharing.
Related issue … the sauce was amazing. I can see myself using that as a basic stir-fry sauce for other protein-vegetable combinations.
Thanks for this great feedback! I hear you about getting the pork thin enough. It’s really important, and it’s really hard. Partially freezing it is the only way I’ve been able to do so. I agree about the sauce as well. There’s a reason Sichuan chefs names this dish as their own favorite…
I have a recipe that calls for la doubanjiang, a spicy red sauce. Is that the same as the 3 year Pixian chili bean paste that you sell?
Yes, it’s the same.
This is a wonderful recipe! Thank you for posting it and making the necessary ingredients available. I add a Tbsp of baijiu to the water when boiling the pork and it adds another layer of depth without specifically tasting like baijiu!
You will probably be shocked and horrified but I made this dish using chicken (and the chili bean sauce knock-off you complain about). I absolutely understand it is not authentic but I am embarrassed to say I loved it. It was so tasty. Sorry and thank you 🙂
Hi Afra, thanks so much for reading and sharing your feedback. “Authenticity” isn’t everything it seems. We’re just glad to inspire you in your cooking journey and there’s nothing embarrassing about loving something delicious! Someday you’ll have to try the original dish and then you can appreciate both 🙂
I made this dish tonight, but I had to use LKK pastes. It turned out *amazing*, and it was all that I could do to not eat the entire thing. My wife and I are doing keto this month and even though the sauces are a *little* high on sugar, they more than make up for it with the fat from the pork belly. I’m lucky, though- there’s a market two blocks from my house where they sell pre-sliced pork belly which works perfectly in this dish. I look forward to trying it again with the products that y’all sell though, I’m sure it’ll add a level of depth (and I’m always a fan of fewer ingredients!). For fun, I parboiled a pack of shiratake noodles, cut ’em up, and threw ’em in. The texture played amazing well with the pork belly slices and crunch from the leeks and scallions!
So great, Scott! Thanks for reading and sharing your experience. Can’t wait for you to try it with our stuff. We’ve never managed not to eat the entire thing in one sitting, you have much more self-restraint than our family 🙂