'The true cook is the perfect blend, the only perfect blend, of artist and philosopher. He knows his worth: he holds in his palm the happiness of mankind, the welfare of generations yet unborn.'

Sunday, 30 September 2012

Red-braised pork belly with watermelon and bamboo shoots 西瓜竹筍紅燒肉

I guess one of the reasons why China never turned Muslim (well, or Jewish :P) was that Chinese people are addicted to pork. It is by far the most consumed meat in Chinese cookery - in fact my mum almost cooks pork exclusively... really! Among the many Chinese pork dishes, 紅燒肉 or red-braised pork is among the heartiest and most common across different regions in China. It is the dish that a lot of Chinese people overseas would wax nostalgic about - the ultimate Chinese comfort food.

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:

A good piece of pork belly. A nicely marbled/layered one that looks like this. You can't expect a tender result if your meats was as lean as a fillet!

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.

 3. Now add the pork belly and stir fry on high heat, stirring hard so that all the surfaces have a chance of touching the bottom of the pan.

4. Add the soya sauce and shaoxing wine and stir fry for a few more minutes. The precise amount depends on how much meat you are cooking. Try not to add too much soya sauce since you can always more later but you don't want to to be too salty at this point (excessive sodium in the braising liquid will draw out the moisture from the meat, i.e. dry meat). I tend to be rather generous with the rice wine though.

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.

11. Now the important part: season! There should be enough sweetness because of all the watermelon that went into the sauce. Is the sauce salty enough to make it remain in the savoury realm rather than dessert? Add soya sauce accordingly. Add a splash of wine since most of the fragrance would have been burnt off by the lengthy cooking process. You can also skim off the copious amount of fat with a slotted skimmer at this point if you want, or you can wait till the dish has spent a night in the fridge before skimming the hardened lard off.

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.

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