Red-braising refers to the technique of slow-simmering meat for a long period of time with soya sauce and sugar until the sauce has a reddish hue and a syrupy consistency. The meat should emerge tender and the fat deliciously melting. While this method of cooking could be found all across China, it is the speciality of the eastern regions of China, where food tends to be on the sweet side and their 紅燒肉 isn't as salty (thankfully) as those from other regions. This summer I saw an article in a newspaper in Hong Kong about how a chef came up with the idea of adding watermelon to 紅燒肉. Even though I'm open to outrageous sweet-salty dishes like Heston Blumenthal's bacon and egg ice cream, the addition of a fruit to so well-known a savoury dish made me rather sceptical. Anyway, my curiosity got the better of me and I tried to give it a go myself, and dare I say it was a resounding success. I cooked it for many sceptics and they were surprised that the watermelon blended so beautifully with the soya sauce. The fruit adds a mellow sweetness as well as an attractive reddish hue to the sauce. It is certainly not an authentic dish if one wants to be purist about it, but it works beautifully. Try and see if you are convinced.
(I'm afraid the photos aren't of very good quality - I didn't pay attention to lighting, angle etc. when I was taking them. Sorry!)
You will need:
Other ingredients include:
Sweet watermelon, chopped into cubes
Light soya sauce
Shaoxing rice wine
3-4 spring onions, cut into a few sections
A few slices of ginger
1. Cut the pork belly into biggish cubes.
2. In a big saucepan, add a little oil and stir fry the spring onions and ginger on medium-high heat until fragrant. Add a few tablespoons of sugar to the pan and cook till the sugar turns a light caramel.
5. Add the watermelon cubes. There should be enough to cover the pan. (Mine was so overripe that I just scooped the flesh and juice and dunked everything in.)
6. Add just enough water so that the pork is nearly submerged in liquid. Don't add too much as the watermelon will melt into the sauce as it cooks and there'll be extra liquid.
7. Skim the scum that rises to the surface with a slotted skimmer or a spoon.
8. Put the lid on, and simmer gently on very low heat for 1-2 hours. It's up to you how long you braise it. The lower end of the range would give you a chewier texture that some people like. I like the fat to be absolutely melting so I went for 2 hours.
9. When you think that you've braised it long enough, remove the pork from the pan and start reducing the sauce on high heat.
10. Reduce until the liquid is less than a quarter of the original volume, appears syrupy and would coat a spoon lightly. I skimmed off the watermelons this time, but you could leave them in the sauce, and they would have wilted like cooked tomatoes - no-one would be able to guess that they're actually watermelon.
12. Reintroduce the pork into the sauce. Stir through gently so that each piece is nicely coated - don't be too rough since the meat should be quite tender by now. I added some bamboo shoots near the end of the braising, but it's totally optional.
Serve with plenty of plain white rice. Any thought of diet has to be suspended temporarily.