Full-flavored pork belly is slowly, tenderly simmered in a sauce of birds’ eye chili, star anise, ginger, cinnamon, soy, rice wine, and caramelized sugar. Hong shao rou is a signature dish of Hunan, the province famed for China’s hottest, spiciest cuisine.
It might have its roots in Hunan, but hong shao rou — red-braised pork belly – is one of the most popular plays on pork throughout China. And it’s easy to see why. This is big, robust, seriously satisfying food. The richly-fatted pork is cooked in an intensely savory, browned-sugar sauce that’s infused with ginger and cinnamon, and underpinned by the subtle, classically Asian taste of star anise.
And being from chili-loving Hunan, it’s a dish with plenty of fire. The heat in our recipe comes from dried bird’s eye chilis (or Thai chilies) — there’s a dozen, ground red ones in the sauce. Now, with their seeds and all, those are pretty potent chilies. But rather than having an immediate, obvious dominance, they only begin to really strut their hot stuff in the sauce’s after-burn. You’ll definitely know they’re there, but they don’t push themselves right to the front of the line.
It takes time to be this good
Making hong shao rou is a grand way to spend a few leisurely, uncomplicated hours in the kitchen. Preparing the surprisingly few ingredients is pleasantly straightforward, and they all get cooked in one big pot. A little of the initial cooking is reasonably hot and fast, the rest is all slow and mostly low.
The hot and fast part is for getting a little lightly golden color onto the chunkily cut pieces of pork and, most importantly, melting-out a little of their flavor-packed fat. That’s important because some quick, hot stir-frying in the pork’s fat encourages the cinnamon, ginger, and star anise to begin releasing their flavors. Then the sugar goes into the hot pot, and gets stirred around until it turns darkly golden and starts to caramelize.
And now for the low and mostly slow part. That spicy, caramelized sugar is the base for a sauce in which the pork belly will slowly simmer for about two hours. By then the meat will be superbly tender and the fat-layered skin will have become meltingly gelatinous. And that slow simmer will have worked wonders on the sauce, reducing it down to a glossy, slightly syrupy consistency.
An interesting addition to hong shao rou: hard-boiled eggs
In her Chinese cookery book, Land of Fish and Rice (affiliate link folks), Fuschia Dunlop gives a recipe for a regional version of red-braised pork that’s much-loved in Shanghai.
What really struck me about this variant was the inclusion of hard-boiled eggs. They’re peeled, lightly scored with slits from top-to-bottom, then added whole to the sauce. Those slits open slightly in the sauce’s heat, and the whites pick up a little of its deeply red color.
Now, not only do they look great, but the highly contrasting flavor and texture of the eggs really is a grand combination with the overall, intense richness of the pork and its sauce. My recommendation? Go for it with the eggs.
A super-rich dish calls for simple sides
To make the very most of the pork’s wonderful sauce, I like long-grained, white rice that’s boiled till it’s just slightly sticky. When cooked like that, I know the rice will help me mop up every last drop of sauce on my plate. Right now, I’m particularly fond of jasmine rice, so that’s what I used.
And for another, completely different contrast in terms of color, flavor and texture, bok choy is a grand choice. Ours is very quickly softened in boiling water, and then just as quickly stir-fried with thinly sliced garlic and a little sesame oil.
Hong Shao Rou (Spicy Red Braised Pork Belly)
For the red-braised pork belly
- 12 red bird’s eye chilies dried, roughly ground, seeds and all
- 3 pounds pork belly in one piece skin-on, bone-in. I bought a slab-like piece that was about 2 1/2 inches thick, 9 inches long, and 6 inches wide.
- 4 scallions or spring onions. Trim off the roots, and cut away the green leaves, leaving about 3 or 4 inches of the firm white part.
- 1 1/2 ounces ginger root finely sliced, skin and all
- 2 pieces whole star anise
- 2 sticks cinnamon I used pieces that were about 3 inches long and ½ inch wide
- 4 ounces palm sugar roughly ground. The hard palm sugar that comes in domed discs is just fine. You need to break it apart and then roughly grind it — a pestle and mortar does the trick for me.
- 4 tablespoons light soy sauce
- 4 tablespoons dark soy sauce
- 6 tablespoons Shaoxing rice wine
- 6 cups hot water
- 1 tablespoon sunflower oil or another plain cooking oil would work
For the optional eggs
- 4 eggs — extra-large hard-boiled, and peeled
For the garlicky bok choy
- 4 bok choy stems removed, and the choy thoroughly washed in cold water
- 4 cloves garlic peeled and finely sliced
- 1 1/2 tablespoons sesame oil
- 1 teaspoon ground sea salt
- Water for boiling the choy
For the jasmine rice
- 2 cups jasmine rice
- 1 teaspoon salt
- Water for boiling the rice
Cooking the red-braised pork belly
- You want a pot that’s easily big enough to hold your slab of pork belly, together with sufficient water to cover the pork by about an inch. I used a large, cast-iron Dutch oven/casserole pot.
- Place the pork skin-side down in the pot, cover it with water, and set the pot on a high heat. As soon as it comes to the boil, drop the heat to low-medium and let the pot gently bubble away for 10 minutes.
- Drain the pork in a big colander, and give it a thorough rinsing in cold water. Then set it aside so that it cools enough for you to cut it up.
- Once it’s cooled, use a sharp knife to cut the pork lengthwise into slices about an inch thick. Now cut the slices into pieces about 1.5 inches wide, with the skin at the top of each chunky piece.
- Set your big pot on a high heat and add the cooking oil. Let the oil heat for about a minute, then add the chunks of pork in a single, evenly spaced layer. Drop the heat to medium-high and let the pork fry for about two minutes on each side. You’ll probably need to fry the pork in two batches, and you’re aiming for the pieces pick up some pale golden color, and for their fat to start melting a little into the pan. Use a slotted spoon to remove the pork and set it aside on a plate.
- Turn the heat under the fatted pot to high and add the cinnamon sticks, ginger, and star anise. Stir-fry them for 90 seconds then add the ground palm sugar. Lower the heat to medium-high. Keep slowly stirring the sugar-and-spice mix until the sugar dissolves and starts to darken as the heat causes it to caramelize and turn syrupy. That’ll take about 5 minutes or so on that medium-high heat.
- Now stir in the 6 cups of hot — and I mean hot — water. It doesn’t need to be boiling, but if it’s cold it will probably cause the hot, caramelized sugar mix to seize into lumps — and that’s most certainly not what you want to happen. Give the mix a thorough stir on that medium high heat, and then stir in the dark and light soy sauces, and the rice wine.
- As soon as the pot comes back to the boil, drop the heat to low, and add the pieces of pork, the ground bird’s eye chilies, and the scallions. You now want the pork to cook – uncovered – at a gently rolling simmer for 2 hours. As the pork cooks, you’re aiming to slowly reduce the sauce down to about a third of its original volume. That’s it, done
- Cover the pot and turn the heat down to its lowest setting. You’re now just keeping it all nicely warm so that it’s ready to serve from its pot once the rice and bok choy are cooked.
- Now, if that reduction hasn’t happened after two hours’ simmering, remove all the pork (and the eggs if using them) with a slotted spoon, and turn the heat to high until the sauce begins to boil. Drop the heat to medium and let the sauce bubble away at a slowly rolling boil until it is does reduce down to a third of its original volume. Then return the pork to the pot, cover it and drop the heat to its lowest setting — just to keep it warm for serving straight form the pot.
Cooking the optional eggs
- If you like the idea of serving your hong shao rou with the hard-boiled eggs, then this is how to proceed. While your big pot is simmering away, cook the eggs for 7 minutes in water that’s running at a gently rolling boil. Remove the eggs and let them cool before peeling them.
- Now use a sharp knife to cut eight, evenly-spaced slits into each egg. Each slit should be about 1/8 inch deep, and run from top to bottom down the egg’s side. Good.
- After the big pot has been cooking for 1.5 hours, gently add the eggs, so they’re covered with the sauce. They’ll stay in the pot until it finishes simmering, and will be served together with your hong shao rou.
Cooking the rice
- Two cups of rice for four people is the way to go — cooked in salted water according to the pack’s instructions.
Cooking the bok choy
- Fill a medium size saucepan with about 1.5 inches of water. Set the pan to boil on a high heat. As soon as it starts boiling, add all the choy. Keep the heat on high, and press the choy down into the pan so that it’s covered by the water. Let it cook on that high heat for 2 minutes, then drain it into a colander.
- Return the drained pan to a medium-high heat and add the sesame oil. Let the oil heat for a minute, then stir in the sliced garlic. You now want to stir-fry the garlic until it just begins to soften and take on a little color — about 90 seconds on that medium-high heat.
- Now quickly add all the drained choy to the garlicky oil and turn the heat to high. Give the choy a good stir so that it gets coated in the oil, and keep stirring it on that high heat for another 90 seconds. Turn off the heat and cover the pan — the choy’s done.
Serving your hong shao rou
- As soon as the choy is ready, turn it into a warmed dish and serve it alongside the sauced pork, the rice, and, hopefully, the eggs.