Ode to Dongpo Pork (东坡肉) | Zoe Yang
A Poet’s Ode to Pork and Hongshaorou~~
Dongpo pork (东坡肉, dōngpōròu): pork belly cubes braised in soy sauce with ginger, scallions and other aromatics. If this is sounding a lot like red-braised pork (红烧肉, hóngshāoròu), don’t worry, it’s not just you. The number of Baidu search results for “difference between dongporou and hongshaorou” suggests that even Chinese people aren’t clear on the nuances.
Here’s how I think about it: hongshaorou is your generic, workhorse pork braise. It can accommodate different cuts of pork; it can veer sweet, savory or spicy, depending on personal taste; it can be braised with various accompaniments (turnips and dried tofu skin, 腐竹, fǔzhú, are especially popular with my family); and it all comes together fairly quickly—an hour or less.
Dongpo pork is a specific style of hongshaorou, and it’s named after the great Song Dynasty (960–1279 CE) poet, essayist, civil servant and gourmand Su Dongpo (also known as Su Shi; Dongpo was his nom de plume). There are various legends that credit him as the inventor of this dish, but no actual evidence, and anyway, I think these stories are less interesting than what he actually left by his own pen:
猪肉颂 / Ode to Pork
净洗铛，少著水 / Clean your pot, add but a little water
柴头罨烟焰不起。/ light the stove, keep the smoke at bay.
待他自熟莫催他，/ It’s done when it’s done—how pointless to rush,
火候足时他自美。/ with heat and time, a thing of beauty emerges.
黄州好猪肉，价贱如泥土。/ Huangzhou has good pork, and cheap as dirt.
贵者不肯吃，贫者不解煮，/ The rich won’t eat it; the common-folk don’t know how,
早晨起来打两碗，/ I eat two bowls for breakfast,
饱得自家君莫管。/ and I’m satisfied, with not a care in the world.
Su Dongpo wrote the above lines after he had been exiled to Hubei, and I think this poem has it all: his trademark cheerfulness despite difficult circumstances, as well as his Buddhist sensibility, reflected in the eternal lines “待他自熟莫催他/火候足时他自美”. Perhaps, we are all pork bellies, maturing on our own time. There’s even a hint of his governance views in the last three lines—he wants pork, well prepared, to unite the classes and feed the masses. So, it doesn’t really matter that Su Dongpo didn’t leave us an official recipe, this poem is a whole tidy treatise!
Refined Enough for the Rich, Accessible Enough for Everyone
Pork should be the star here, and Su doesn’t list any other ingredients, so what else should go into the dish? By the time Yuan Mei, another great classical scholar and gastronome, wrote Recipes from the Garden of Contentment 700 years after Su’s time, he could document three ways of red-cooking pork:
One can use sweet sauce, autumn sauce, or neither of these two sauces. For each jin of meat, add three qian of salt, and braise it in jiu. If one uses water to cook the pork, it must be boiled away to reduce the cooking liquid. All three methods of preparation produce pork with color as red as amber, thus there is no need to stir-fry the sugar in order to color it.
(Passage from Sean J.S. Chen’s brilliant 2018 English-language translation of Yuan Mei’s magnum opus, itself a magnum opus. Note from Taylor: A more approachable and affordable trade edition entitled The Way of Eating was published in 2019.)
Yuan has added some new information on ingredients for us: salt, jiu (probably a yellow wine like Shaoxing, since he was based in Jiangnan) and sugar. It’s all so beautifully simple, perhaps deceptively so, because Yuan is also keen to stress:
The pork for this dish should be cut into rough cubes and braised until its edges and corners have become round and soft, and the lean meat melts in one’s mouth. The success of this dish depends wholly on the strength of the cooking heat.
This passage exemplifies the way that Yuan, indisputably the most important food writer in Chinese history, helped shape Chinese food into the utterly texture-crazed cuisine that it is. Here he is defining one of the core texture profiles (unctuous but not greasy) AND the techniques used to achieve it (precise shapes, low heat). As someone who went to cooking school in China in the 2000s and heard teachers say exactly the same things, I completely geek out over this. This is the definition of textbook.
I’m also struck by how closely Yuan’s directions hew to Su’s Ode to Pork: pork, very little liquid, very low heat, and as much time as it needs. Is it such a leap to conclude, then, that the texture and mouthfeel that Yuan describes is what Su envisioned could be a dish elegant enough for the elite?
Yuan does not call this dish dongporou, but in modern culinary vernacular, Dongpo pork has the exact hallmarks of what he describes, qualities that ultimately set it apart from ordinary hongshaorou: wine-bathed, generously reduced, Jello-soft.
The recipe below does not deviate from what these two great hungry poets of ancient China have already laid out for us (how could it!), but I would like to add a couple of small pieces of tactical advice.
- On pots: Earthenware is best, thick and evenly heating is a must, as is a lid with a vent hole. Use the smallest pot you can fit all the pork belly cubes into, since this dish is all about flavor concentration.
- On shopping: Here in the U.S., I tend to see pork belly that’s already cut into strips. This is fine, but try to select wider strips. The larger your cubes are, the better they’ll stand up to the shrinkage of cooking. (And if you want to serve them skin side up, which is the classic presentation, the surface area helps.)
- On chopping: The pork belly I see in stores also tends to be too thick. An ideal bite of Dongpo pork is one in which you’re getting gelatinous skin, pillowy fat, and tender lean meat all at once. I’ve found that the recipe turns out MUCH better if a layer of muscle is removed from the bottom of the pork belly so that the slab is no more than an inch and a half thick/tall.
For more of Zoe’s recipes and Chinese food history, try her Shaoxing Drunken Chicken and Danjiao Egg Dumplings!
Ode to Dongpo Pork (红烧肉)
- 1 pound slab of boneless, skin-on pork belly, trimmed to be an even 1½ inch thick/tall* depending on thickness, 2 pounds pre-trimming will yield 1-1½ pounds (see instructions)
- 5 generous slices ginger
- 3 whole scallions
- 1 cup Shaoxing wine
- ¼ cup light soy sauce (Zhongba preferred)
- 2 tablespoons oyster sauce (Megachef preferred)
- ⅓ cup rock sugar
- 1 3-inch piece cassia bark optional
- ½ teaspoon whole red Sichuan peppercorn optional
- ¼ teaspoon whole fennel seeds optional
- Inspect the pork belly’s skin for bristles. A few stray hairs is fine, but if there are a lot of bristles, heat up a wok til it’s smoking and press the skin against the wok to singe off the hairs. Blanch the pork by placing the whole slab in a pot, covering with cold water, and bringing to a boil on high heat. Boil for one minute, then remove from heat and drain, rinsing off any scum clinging to the pork with cold water. Set aside.
- While the pork is cooling, prep your aromatics. Slice off five good pieces of fresh ginger and chop 3 whole scallions into rough segments (chopping them in half and then half again should do it). Choose a pot (preferably heavy earthenware, with a lid and vent hole) that will hold the belly cubes snuggly in one layer. Scatter the scallions evenly across the bottom of your pot, then lay the slices of ginger on top. Try to make sure the bottom of the pot is completely covered.
- *If your pork is thicker in some parts, or generally a lot thicker than 1½ inch: Use your fingers and a paring knife to remove a “layer” of lean muscle from the bottom. Since the meat is blanched, it should be easy to find the seam between muscles. Use the knife to help peel back the silverskin, but try to avoid piercing or cutting the muscles. Once you have a neat, trimmed slab, slice it into even squares. Set aside the extra lean meat for some other use.
- Lay the squares of blanched pork belly skin-side down on top of the bed of scallions and ginger. If using spices, measure out ½ teaspoon red Sichuan peppercorns and ¼ teaspoon fennel seed. Tie them up in a cheesecloth and tuck the bundle into the pot as well. Add 1 cassia stick.Add 1 cup Shaoxing wine, ¼ cup light soy sauce, ⅓ cup rock sugar and 2 tablespoons of oyster sauce to the pot. The pork belly cubes should be half submerged in liquid.Cover the pot and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. As soon as it reaches a boil, turn it to the lowest possible setting to simmer lazily.
- Simmer for 2 hours, then check the pork—it’s done when the fat looks more translucent than white, and a chopstick slides into the skin with no resistance. If the meat isn’t ready yet, cover and continue simmering and checking for 30 more minutes at a time.
- When the pork has reached the right texture, flip the cubes skin-side up and turn heat to medium-high. (If you leave them skin-side down, the skin will stick to the bottom of the pot as the braising liquid reduces). Cover and let the liquid reduce via the steam hole for 20 minutes, which helps keep the skin from drying out. The liquid has adequately reduced into a rich sauce when it starts looking very foamy. Be careful to not let the sauce get too thick or burn while reducing—there will be a thick layer of oil over the sauce that may deceive you. You can test the sauce by spooning it over the pork—it should coat the pork, giving it a deep chestnut gloss.
- If serving immediately, gently scoop up and plate the pork belly cubes skin-side up. Pour off some of the excess grease from the sauce and strain the remainder, then spoon the sauce on top of the pork belly.If serving the next day, refrigerate overnight and remove the congealed fat from the top. To reheat, plate pork belly and sauce (right over raw baby bok choy if you’d like) and steam for 10 minutes.
Excellent writing! I really liked that you found the poem Ode to Pork and connected throughout your recipe. Just love to read your stories of your recipes.
Thanks for reading, Iris. I agree!
Fabulous!!! Made my mouth water just reading this article!! I think I will be dining on Chinese food tonight!
Thanks for reading, Feona. Definitely feel the same!
I made this the other day and it was so yummy. Thank you!!
Jess, that’s great! Thanks so much for reading and sharing your feedback.