Chengdu Challenge #25: Yu Xiang Pork (Yu Xiang Rou Si)

This Is Not Pork in Garlic Sauce~~

I guess I should have put a fully English translation in the title of this dish, yu xiang pork, but I’m annoyed by the one it is normally given in the U.S.: pork in garlic sauce. Yu xiang is not a garlic sauce. The literal translation, fish-fragrant pork, is just as misleading. The yu xiang flavor has no fish ingredients, nor any fish smell or taste. However the sauce originated as one for fish, so the name stuck for anything that later got favored with the same super flavorful sauce, such as this pork or the pinnacle of yu xiang—yu xiang eggplant.

Not to diss this dish, which is fantastic. But yu xiang eggplant is my family’s favorite. It’s always been Craig’s favorite Sichuan dish, and now it’s moved into first place for Fong Chong. What I don’t understand is that when I look at the stats for this blog, yu xiang eggplant, which was Chengdu Challenge #3, way back in June 2014, is criminally overlooked. I think it’s one of my best recipes, so I’m guessing that it might be because of the name confusion, the fact that non-Chinese, or at least Americans, are unfamiliar with its real name and expect  it to be called eggplant in garlic sauce.

I suspect I’ll have the same problem with this recipe for yu xiang pork. But I can’t call it garlic sauce. It’s so much more than a garlic sauce. It’s sweet-and-sour-and-chili-and-garlic sauce. To me, it is what sweet-and-sour sauce should be, but more intriguing and deep. It’s got the tang of Zhenjiang vinegar just barely tamed by sugar, plus the trinity of garlic-ginger-scallions. But garlic does not dominate, it is just perfectly balanced with the slightly sweet-and-sour and the spicy chili element.

Yu Xiang Pork (Pork in Garlic Sauce)

The main ingredients: pork, celery (or, traditionally, celtuce), wood ear mushrooms, a combination of chili bean paste and pickled chili sauce

The chili element has been the problem with this recipe for me, and the reason it is just now making it into this blog. Yu xiang eggplant is traditionally made with Pixian douban jiang, or fermented chili bean paste, while the chili in yu xiang pork is traditionally provided by long, red, pickled erjintiao chilies. However the pickled chilies are the one Sichuan ingredient that I have found impossible to source in the U.S. Whenever I have spotted them at an Asian market, they’ve always looked old and tired, past their expiration date.

Readers have told me of finding good-looking, fresher ones, but I still haven’t. Below is a photo of the ideal Sichuan pickled chili in a wholesale spice market in Chengdu, showing how bright and red they should look in a perfect world.


Pickled chilies and ginger for sale at the Chengdu wholesale spice market

In the meantime, I decided to use my own la jiao jiang for this recipe. I have long made this fresh, red, slightly pickled chili sauce as a substitute for pickled chilies, but I assumed it wouldn’t be quite right for yu xiang pork, and I was correct. I tried it, but it didn’t have enough body or depth.

So then I got to thinking about all those plates of yu xianged things I ate at Chengdu Taste in Los Angeles last summer. The renowned restaurant’s yu xiang—and in fact all its dishes featuring douban—seemed to hover somewhere between douban jiang and pickled chilies, not as funky as douban and not as bright as pickled chilies, but with notes of both. And that’s when I got the brilliant idea of combining the two. Chengdu Taste probably just uses a different brand of Pixian douban than I do, but nonetheless, combining the two sources of chili heat has been the answer for me.

I start with the kind of Pixian douban jiang—and it must be made in Pixian, as the douban made outside Sichuan tastes and looks very different—that has added oil, because it is lighter-bodied and redder than the kind without oil, then I lighten and brighten it more with my chili sauce. For those of you who don’t keep a freshly made chili sauce on hand, you could substitute a chili sauce from Sichuan or, in the U.S., Huy Fong’s Sambal Oelek. Or just go the traditional way and use chili sauce only, without the douban jiang.

Pixian chili bean paste

A top brand of Pixian douban jiang, this one with added oil; U.S.-made sambal oelek; homemade la jiao jiang

The other ingredients in a proper yu xiang pork include asparagus lettuce, or celtuce, and wood ear mushrooms. I almost never see thick-stemmed celtuce in my Asian market, but if you do you could use it here. I substitute either Western or Chinese celery, cut in thin strips so they cook faster. The dried wood ear mushrooms are easy to find in Asian markets, labeled either black fungus or wood ear. They do grow to resemble an ear when they are soaked in hot water. (The Cookbook off-puttingly calls them Jew’s ear…).

Yu Xiang Pork (Pork in Garlic Sauce)

This package of wood ear mushrooms calls them black fungus but helpfully shows them growing on wood

Yu Xiang Pork (Pork in Garlic Sauce)

Once soaked in hot water, they do resemble ears

One final note that applies to almost all of my stir-fry recipes. Everyone’s ingredients, wok, stove, humidity, altitude, etc., are different, so your version will never be just like mine. So if you are nearing the end of a dish and the sauce is too thick, just splash in a little chicken stock; if it is too thin, add a bit more of a cornstarch slurry. I always have both ready to go if I need them.  But you really can’t go too wrong with yu xiang; it’s good no matter what and it goes with everything. You could put it with chicken or fish or tofu. The Cookbook even puts it on English peas.

Put it on anything you like. Just don’t call it garlic sauce.

Yu Xiang Pork

Pork in Garlic Sauce is really Pork in Sweet-and-Sour-and-Chili-and-Garlic Sauce

Chengdu Challenge #25: Yu Xiang Pork (Yu Xiang Rou Si)
Adapted from Sichuan (China) Cuisine in Both Chinese and English, published in China in 2010 by the Sichuan Higher Institute of Cuisine and the Sichuan Gourmet Association.
  • ¾ to 1 pound lean pork, cut in thin strips or slivers about 2 inches long
  • 1 tablespoon Shaoxing wine
  • 3 stalks Western celery or 6 stalks Chinese celery or equivalent amount of celtuce, cut in thin strips (save leaves for garnish)
  • A handful of dried wood ear mushrooms, to make about ½ cup when rehydrated
  • 1 tablespoon minced ginger
  • 2 tablespoons minced garlic
  • 3 tablespoons minced scallion
  • 1 tablespoon Pixian chili bean paste (douban jiang)
  • 3 tablespoons pickled chili sauce (la jiao jiang), preferably homemade (see recipe on The Mala Project)
  • 3 tablespoons Zhenjiang black rice vinegar
  • 2 tablespoons sugar
  • 1 tablespoon Chinese light soy sauce
  • 1 tablespoon Shaoxing wine
  • 3 tablespoons chicken stock
  • 1 tablespoon cornstarch mixed with equal amount of water
  • ¼ cup canola or peanut oil
  1. Prep ingredients: slice pork into thin strips, which is much easier to do if it is slightly frozen. Marinate pork strips in Shaoxing wine. Cover wood ear mushrooms in boiling water and let sit for about 15 minutes, drain and slice thinly. Slice celery (or celtuce) in thin strips to match pork strips. Mince ginger, garlic and scallions.
  2. Mix sauces: combine chili bean paste and pickled chili sauce in a small bowl. In a larger bowl or measuring cup mix Zhenjiang vinegar, sugar, soy sauce, 1 tablespoon Shaoxing wine and chicken stock. Mix cornstarch and water in another small prep bowl.
  3. Heat wok over high flame until heat starts to rise. Add ¼ cup oil and when hot add the pork strips. Spread them out and let them cook, stirring and flipping them every so often until just cooked through. Move the pork to the sides of the wok with your spatula and add the ginger, garlic and scallions to the well in the center. There should be plenty of oil to briefly cook them. Add chili sauces and cook briefly. Mix pork into the sauce, then add celery and wood ear strips. Mix all together and stir-fry until celery starts to wilt.
  4. Add vinegar sauce mixture and distribute well, then add cornstarch slurry a bit at a time, continuing to stir-fry, until sauce thickens (you might not need it all). Plate and garnish with celery leaves.

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22 Responses

  1. AWEST says:

    Great idea on the sauce blending. Fish-fragrant pork is one of the great recipes.

  2. Will K. says:

    Great looking recipe! I collect the wood ear mushrooms in the wild and dry them for use in Asian dishes. The common name is off-putting, but it’s also referred to as Judas’ ear because it frequently grows on elder, the tree on which Judas Iscariot reportedly hung himself (the Latin name is Auricularia auricula-judae). I often find them fruiting on dead box elder (a maple- unrelated to elder) and dead elm.

    • Taylor Holliday says:

      Thank you for that fascinating explanation for the name. Now it’s a bit less off-putting. 🙂

      Thanks also for the foraging info. I never thought about doing that in the U.S.

  3. Steve says:

    One of my favorites. BTW, you need to move to NJ. We have a chain of asian markets here, appropriately named “Asian Market”. The one near me usually has the asparagus lettuce in stock. I’ve also bought pickled peppers there, made from the long red peppers you show in the photo.

    • Taylor Holliday says:

      Well, I’m jealous of you, but I’m probably not moving to NJ. 🙂 Actually, I think I fall in the middle of Americans as far as access to real Asian ingredients. I can get more locally than a lot of people can in their cities, but less than those who live in a community with a lot of Asians. My rule for food that always tastes like Sichuan is to substitute fresh ingredients when you have to but always use Sichuan-made pantry items and seasonings. Happy cooking!

  4. Christopher says:

    I have been dying to try the Yu Xiang eggplant, but I never could find the Chinese eggplant in my stores. Maybe it’s not the right season. Anyway, I tried this recipe tonight with pork, as you suggested. It was super delicious!

    I even found the exact brand of wood ear fungus! I had had that on my last trip to Shenyang at a little malaban restaurant and I loved it but didn’t think I would ever find it here. Thank you for sharing both this recipe and the fungus!

    I have one comment on the recipe. In this one, you said to cook the meat first, then the garlic, ginger and scallions. And the taste of the ginger came out a little too strong for me. In your other recipes with the trinity, you cooked these first then added the meat. I will make this again tomorrow for a friend and I think I will cook the aromatics first and see how it differs.

    Thanks for sharing this awesome recipe, Taylor!

    • Taylor Holliday says:

      Hi Christopher,
      I’ve been thinking about your questions. Firstly, I often substitute good old American eggplant for the Asian to no serious detriment.

      As for cooking order, that’s a very good observation. For these recipes, I usually follow the cooking order that The Cookbook specifies, and in this case, the order was meat, aromatics, vegetables. I believe it worked because the vegetables are so thin they don’t need to cook long and the wok wasn’t overcrowded. Generally, however, I cook the meat first and remove it from the wok. Then the aromatics go in the clean wok on their own, followed by the vegetables, and only when they are almost done is the meat returned to the wok with the sauce. So if you thought the ginger was too strong, you might try this process instead. I would not suggest the order of aromatics, meat, vegetables, as I think the ginger and garlic would be overcooked/burned by the end. Hope that makes sense. Thanks for asking!

      • Christopher says:

        Thanks for the reply!

        Yes, the garlic does get overcooked that way, haha! I know! I will try removing the meat as you suggested.

        Now I need to stock up on the celtuce. By the way, I asked a friend from Chengdu about that. They call it wosun (莴笋). That might help others find it in their Asian markets…

        Happy cooking!

  5. Paul Winalski says:

    I made this last night, using celery and Sambal Oelek for the pickled chiles. It was delicious!

  6. Ian says:

    I continue to be amazed by (and grateful for) this fantastic resource. I made another large batch of “Hong You 2” oil about two weeks ago and it’s the best yet. But next on my list is this Yu Xiang Pork–I know it’s just a photo, but this just looks so delicious…

  7. Bill says:

    WOW ! Am I glad I found you !! I have only been to Chengdu twice, in 2002 and 2003.! Fell in love.. I HOPE I can go back in July…. to EAT EAT EAT.. I decided to do my best to try learn to cook Szechuan about 3 months ago… and am enjoying the process enormously. I have EVERY GRAIN OF RICE and MRS CHIANG’S SZECHUAN COOKBOOK, for starters.. But—- this place is a gold mine !! Thank you !!!!!

  8. Rebekah says:

    I woke up today with a craving for this Sichuan dish. My husband said it would be too spicy when I showed him the recipe. Undeterred, I made it as written. He had two helpings and continued to peck at it until I put the leftovers in the fridge. THANK YOU!!!

  9. Nick says:

    Met your husband at a conference and learned of the site. Great writing and wonderful recipes.

    • Taylor Holliday says:

      Thank you so much, Nick! Craig is my best publicist. 😄 (And sorry for the delayed response while I’ve been traveling.) Appreciate your checking it out.

  10. Daddio says:

    I’ve now made Yu Xiang Pork three times and the recipe has inspired me to join your mailing list and, of course, try some other recipes! I love the Challenges and Dan Dan Noodles is next. So happy to have found your site. Thank you!

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