Classic Shanghai Pork Belly: Hongshaorou (红烧肉), Red-Cooked Pork
Published Sep 11, 2016, Updated Aug 05, 2023
Inspired by Red Cook: Hongshaorou
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve red-cooked something. I’ve red-cooked the traditional pork belly many a time and have also tried red-cooking pork shoulder, chicken thighs and beef short ribs. But I’ve never settled on a favorite 红烧肉 (hóngshāoròu), red-cooked meat, recipe or method. Perhaps because I’m not Chinese, and my mom (or other family member) did not hand one down to me. But I have to have one. Because I have to pass the family red-cooking recipe down to my Chinese daughter. Otherwise, how will she have one?
For those who don’t know, red-cooking, or hongshao, simply means braising a protein in a caramelly Shaoxing wine-soy sauce-sugar liquid, tossing in some Chinese spices and aromatics to make it interesting, and letting it cook into a meltingly tender piece of meat with a redish-brown glaze. Even though red-cooked dishes originated in Eastern China, around Shanghai, every region of China, including Sichuan, cooks them, and every region has its own style. In fact, just as with American beef stew, every family has its own style of this ultimate comfort food.
Seeking my own, I tried the versions in my usual Sichuan cookbooks. But none were quite right—either the ingredients or the method were off and my red-cooked dishes just weren’t as tasty as I knew they could be. And I do know what the ideal hongshaorou should look and taste like, by the way, because on my 2014 trip to China I went out of my way—making a reservation weeks in advance and still waiting in line for an hour—to eat at Old Jesse, considered by many to be the best Shanghainese restaurant in Shanghai at the time and the mothership of hongshaorou.
To tell you the truth, it was the very last night of an emotional, stressful and ultimately rewarding three-week trip to China—Fongchong’s first return to her country and village in Guangzhou as well as trips to Chengdu and Shanghai—and our little family was fed up with both restaurants and each other by that time. But despite our sour selves, the shimmering cubes of melt-in-your-mouth fat and deeply flavorful meat were a magical thing that pulled us out of our heads and into the moment, ending our trip on a sweet note.
In 2016, longtime blogger and new cookbook author Kian Lam Kho asked me (and several other bloggers) to cook from his cookbook, the IACP-Award-winning Phoenix Claws and Jade Trees, to celebrate the Mid-Autumn Festival, promising a copy of the book for me, and another for one of my lucky readers. “I’d be happy to cook from your book,” I told him. “But you don’t have to send me one in order for me to do it, because I bought one as soon as it came out.”
Kian’s book is unique among Chinese cookbooks, organized not by courses, ingredients or regions, but by cooking methods. It’s designed almost as a cooking course, guiding you through the many cooking methods of Chinese cuisine—not just the many different stir-frying techniques, but different braising techniques as well as steaming, roasting, smoking and pickling.
I decided to try his recipe for hongshaorou, since Kian and his blog go by the name Red Cook and red-cooking is how he started his “adventures from a Chinese home kitchen.” If anyone has the tastiest red-cooking recipe, it should be Red Cook, right?
And he does.
As is my usual approach, I didn’t try his recipe just once, I tried it three times. And is also my MO, I tweaked it a bit. He calls for caramelizing the parboiled pork belly in a wok and then transferring it to a clay pot, but I wanted to dirty only two pans, so after the parboil I made it from start to finish in a clay pot. As often happens, however, when caramelizing meat in a sugar water, the caramel started to burn, and I had to rescue it with a little added oil. That’s probably why the recipe suggests a wok for that step.
The second time, I tried using pork-shoulder chunks, which provide a lot more meat, a lot less fat, and are less decadent for a Tuesday night. These I cooked in a cast-iron dutch oven and they were terribly good, both that day and the next, when Fongchong heaped them on some instant ramen noodles.
For my next attempt at the pork belly, I used a nonstick dutch oven. Unlike the other two attempts, I did not have to add oil during the caramelization process, because the nonstick surface allowed me to get the meat quite darkly caramelized without burning. That was a triumph, because a dark caramelization adds to both the color and flavor of the dish. Another big plus is that I was able to parboil the belly in the same pan, so I only dirtied one pan for the whole process. This pan produced by far the most successful hongshaorou, with beautiful caramelization and, later, a quickly reduced sauce.
The dutch oven retains moisture during the cooking process, which is good for a tender braise, though you’ll have to reduce the sauce at the end of the process to get that lovely glaze. With pork belly you’ll want to de-fat the sauce as well, though with pork shoulder you won’t need to. If you have a fat separator, that would be ideal, but I found that the reduced sauce quickly separates and it’s easy to just pour off a lot of the extra fat, which runs out first as you tip the pan.
You can serve the pork over rice or, as we prefer, stuffed inside homemade fold-over bao as luxe little sandwiches. A pillow of savory-sweet meat with a blanket of yeasty bread. Comfort food, indeed.
Finally, it seems, my search for the perfect family hongshao recipe has come to an end as I adopt, and slightly adapt, the Kho family recipe. I love the flavor combination he uses—lots of Shaoxing wine and lots of star anise are the major notes. But Kian would be the first to tell you to use his recipe as a guide to create your family’s own red-cooking recipe. Believe me: You’ll want to pass it down through the generations.
Classic Shanghai Pork Belly: Hongshaorou (红烧肉), Red-Cooked Pork
- 1½ pounds pork belly
- 3 tablespoons sugar
- 3 cloves garlic, peeled
- 2 scallions, cut into 2-inch pieces
- 2 whole star anise
- 2 tablespoons Chinese dark soy sauce
- 1 tablespoon Chinese light soy sauce
- ¼ cup Shaoxing rice wine
- Put the pork belly, in one or two pieces, into a dutch oven or soup pot, preferably nonstick (which makes it easier to caramelize the meat without burning in the next step). Add cold water to cover. Bring to a boil, then turn the heat down to medium and cook, uncovered, on a low boil for 20 minutes, skimming off the scum that forms on the surface. Remove the pork belly and allow it to cool enough to cut into pieces about 1½-inch wide, each piece retaining fat and meat.
- Wash the pan, and add 3 tablespoons sugar and 4 tablespoons water. Cook over a medium fire until the caramel starts to turn a light brown. This will take a few minutes, but watch the sugar carefully because when it starts to turn color it does so quickly. Add the pork pieces and let sear and caramelize on one side until they are a nice dark color. Turn the pieces over and caramelize the other side. The sugar should be a deep brown but not burning.
- Add 1½ cups water with the garlic, scallion, star anise, dark soy sauce, light soy sauce and Shaoxing wine. Bring to a boil, then lower heat and cook, covered, at a just-bubbling simmer for about 1 hour and 15 minutes, stirring every 15 minutes or so, until the meat is tender.
- Remove the pork pieces to a bowl, and cook the sauce over a medium-high heat until it reduces to your desired consistency (anywhere from a thick sauce to a thick glaze), about 5 minutes for a thick sauce. When you are ready to serve, add back the pork pieces and reheat. Then remove the pork to a serving bowl. Let the sauce sit for a minute to separate, then carefully pour off the accumulated fat, which will pour out first as you tip the pan. (Or use a fat separator.) Pour the remaining sauce over the pork and serve with rice or with fold-over bao as sandwiches.
Tried this recipe?