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.
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.
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.
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…).
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.
- 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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.