Chengdu Challenge #8: Twice-Cooked Pork (Hui Guo Rou)

hui guo rou

Pork Belly: The Secret to a Long Life~~

Though hui guo rou  is actually quite easy to make, it challenged me more than any other dish so far. I had to test it so many times that “twice-cooked pork” became dozen-times-cooked pork before I got it right. But just as I did, I was rewarded with this news story* about Sichuan’s oldest living resident, a 117-year-old woman who attributes her longevity to three meals a day of hui guo rou.

Pork belly and Pixian bean paste is really all it takes to make one of the great dishes of all time, in any cuisine. But you have to have both of them. Do not make twice-cooked pork  if you do not. But if you do, it will taste very much like it does in restaurants in Chengdu (and good ones in the U.S.). My problem was not following the rule; I learned the hard way by trying various cuts of pork that were either too lean or too fat before finding the perfect belly.

It wasn’t The Cookbook’s fault. The recipe actually calls for pork rump—which is the cut they use in Sichuan—with the fat layer and outer skin still attached, which is assumedly the 50/50 lean-to-fat ratio this dish is meant to have. But that’s not a cut you easily find for sale in the U.S., since it’s used for ham. Pork belly is the cut that is generally used here, but the problem is that it is often too fatty for this recipe.

The pork belly I got at Whole Foods was about 75 percent fat, 25 percent lean, and it rendered half a cup of oil in the wok when I stir-fried it, which had to be mostly poured off before adding the sauce ingredients. (Though one thing I learned from my many experiments is that you don’t want to pour off all the oil; you want a good three to four tablespoons to combine with the flavorings to make a sauce that’s not too dry.)

My butcher then talked me into trying untrimmed pork loin, with a thick layer of fat still attached, or about a 50/50 fat-lean ratio. But that didn’t taste like the real thing, because the lean meat itself was too lean and dry, when it should actually be marbled and moist. I decided to go back to the pork belly, but to hold out for one that was more lean—perhaps a pig who hadn’t been so piggy.

I found just that at a Chinese market, each belly weighing in at about one pound, the perfect size for a dish of hui guo rou. It rendered just the right amount of oil to make a sauce and left big swaths of toothsome lean pork amid the chewy fat.

twice-cooked pork

Look for a pork belly like these that is no more than half-fat

The only tricky part about making twice-cooked pork is remembering to do the first round of cooking in advance. Once you’ve got the perfect pork belly you’ve got to gently simmer it until it’s cooked through and let it cool and tighten up in the refrigerator for a few hours before slicing it for the stir-fry round. It’s still a little difficult to slice, but do so as thinly as possible. Or better yet, freeze it for 20 to 30 minutes, and that makes it much easier to cut thin—and thin is important.

When I stocked up on bellies, I boiled them all at once, let them cool, and then froze them. That way, when I want to have twice-cooked pork, the first cook is already done, and the second one is done in minutes.

twice-cooked pork

Boiled and sliced pork, reddish Pixian chili bean paste, sweet wheat (or bean) paste, and dried soybeans (douchi)

The easy part is the stuff straight out of Sichuan, the Pixian chili bean paste (douban jiang) and sweet wheat paste (tian mian jiang). I did fib a bit when I said you only need the chili bean paste, because you also need sweet wheat (or bean) paste. But once you’ve got these in your pantry, you’ve always got on hand the exact flavor combo you need for this classic dish. If you want to gild the belly, you can also throw in some fermented black beans (douchi), which many Sichuan cooks do, and which I often do because we love douchi.

And there should be no substitution on the Pixian chili bean paste, if you want to feel like you’re eating in Sichuan. I can’t stress this enough, because the other, easier-to-find versions of chili bean paste—I’m talking to you, Hong Kong-made Lee Kum Kee—do not taste like the real thing in any way. (See more of this rant here, along with shopping tips.)

Once you have the right ingredients, this recipe is a breeze to make. Fans of pork belly, in particular, owe it to themselves to try it. And contrary to popular belief, the more you eat, the longer you may live.

~~

*Via @ChuBailiang

May 2015 Addendum: If you like bacon, try an even easier version of this dish that I call once-cooked pork: Stir-Fried Bacon in Sichuan Bean Sauces.

twice-cooked pork

Explosive umami from three kinds of fermented beans

Chengdu Challenge #8: Twice-Cooked Pork (Hui Guo Rou)
Author: 
 
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.
Ingredients
  • 1 pound (450 grams) skin-on pork belly, half-lean/half-fat
  • 1 heaping tablespoon Pixian chili bean paste (douban jiang)
  • 1 tablespoon sweet wheat paste (tian mian jiang)
  • 1 tablespoon preserved black beans (douchi)
  • 1 teaspoon Chinese light soy sauce
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
  • 2 thin leeks, or one fatter, American-style leek, cut in ½-inch sections
Instructions
  1. Bring a pot of water to a boil and add the whole pork belly. Reduce heat and simmer belly until cooked through, around 30-40 minutes. Remove belly and allow to cool, then place in the refrigerator for a few hours or the freezer for 20-30 minutes, which will firm up the meat and make it easier to slice. Slice crosswise very thinly, into about ⅛-inch-thick pieces.
  2. Heat a dry wok until hot. Add 2 tablespoons peanut or canola oil, and when it just begins to smoke add the pork slices. Stir-fry until the pork slices are about half-way done and begin to curl. (If the pork renders more than about 3 or 4 tablespoons fat, pour the excess off, though do leave enough to make a sauce.)
  3. Stir in the Pixian chili bean paste, sweet wheat paste, preserved black beans, soy sauce and sugar, mix well and continue to stir-fry until aromatic.
  4. Add the leeks and stir-fry until softened. Remove to a serving plate.

 

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15 Responses

  1. Rob says:

    I usually make this with Fuchsia Dunlop’s recipe, but going to try yours next (I don’t believe that her version has the bean paste). One thing I rarely do though, is pre-boil the pork. I understand that this makes it “once cooked” and not “twice cooked”, but is there really a noticeable difference in the end product? I have always thought that the first cooking was primarily to get rid of bad smells from not very fresh pork — a problem I don’t have — but is there more too it? Many thanks for a wonderful website.

    • Taylor Holliday says:

      Thank you, Rob!
      That is a very good question. In many dishes, a first, quick dip in boiling water is meant mainly to clean the meat of impurities and blood traces. But in this case, where it’s cooked completely through, I believe it must be for other reasons. Whenever I want to “once-cook” this dish I use lean pork loin or pork shoulder, so I’ve never once-cooked fatty pork belly, and I’m not sure what happens. I’m guessing that the first cook rids it of some of the fat. Do you end up with tons of oil in the dish? I’m also guessing that the first cook affects the texture of the finished dish, and would be necessary for this specific dish. But, in any case, if you like it once-cooked, then you might as well make it that way!
      P.S. I’m sure Fuchsia’s recipe uses chili bean paste, cause it isn’t hui guo rou without it!

  2. Rob says:

    Thanks for the reply Taylor. I did it the authentic (and much longer) way today, and cooked it twice, letting it cool after it simmered for 20 minutes. It was delicious of course, but I’m not really convinced that it adds anything. I’ll try it again soon, skipping the first cook so as to be able to compare the two while they are fresh in my memory. I do think that you are right that the dish is a bit less oily this way — though there must have been some flavor left over in the water that cooked the pork, that might have been better in the dish.

    I went back and looked at Fuchsia’s “Every Grain of Rice”, and she says that the first cook is important because once cooked and cooled, it is able to be sliced thinly without falling apart. If that is the main reason, I think that a sharp knife should solve that problem easier than the first cook/cooling. Often I will use lightly smoked pork belly for this dish (bacon), which I have the butcher slice for me using a slicing machine, and perhaps that is why that has never been an issue for me. I do enjoy that smokiness, and highly recommend that you give that a try.

    You are quite correct regarding Fuchsia’s recipe, but I wasn’t referring to the Sichuan broad bean paste, but rather the “sweet bean/wheat paste” which I didn’t recall being in there. Of course, it is. While I have Pixian spicy broad bean paste, I only have access to Koon Chun”Bean Sauce” from Hong Kong, so had to use that instead (I live in South America, where none of this stuff is easily available, so most of my ingredients are brought back on trips to the US). I suspect that the Koon Chun is not quite the same as the Sichuanese product — but it all went down ok.

    Many thanks again.

    • Taylor Holliday says:

      In my experience, even after it’s boiled, a pork belly is very difficult to slice thinly unless you refrigerate or freeze it first (which she recommends too). There has to be another reason! I’m surprised you didn’t find a big difference in texture. I now want to try it without the first cook…

      I’ve also found that the sweet bean and sweet wheat sauces taste pretty similar, so I’m sure your sauce is tasting authentic.

      I’m really glad you mentioned the smoked pork version. I have had a similar dish to twice-cooked pork with smoked pork belly several times in Chengdu. I’m not sure if it was once-cooked or twice-cooked, but it was amazing. I would guess that a smoked version definitely wouldn’t need the boiling step. Yum! I’m going to see if I can find my pictures of it now. Thanks for sharing your experiments!

      • Josh says:

        I’m a little surprised you don’t have ginger and chinese rice wine in your boiling step. Those are almost certainly a major reason for the boil: imparting flavor. I add about two tablespoons of rice wine and a thumb for roughly cut ginger to my boiling water.

        Also, in order to maximize your meat’s flavor, I suggest a longer simmer (as Rob said) rather than a boil.

        Taylor, I am finding your website immensely informative. Thank you very much for all the food research, which has helped me finding ingredients.

        • Taylor Holliday says:

          Hi Josh,
          I was sticking pretty closely to the recipe in the Sichuan Higher Institute of Cuisine’s cookbook, which did not call for those flavorings, but that’s a good idea. As for boiling, I misspoke in the text and said gently boil when I meant simmer. The recipe does say to simmer, fortunately.

          I’m glad the info has been of help. Thanks for letting me know!

  3. James says:

    I made this today and it came out really salty. I didn’t use much soy sauce, I’m guessing the salt was from the preservatives in the various pastes. Any adjustments you would suggest? Less douchi maybe?

    Love the website btw.

    Thanks!

    • Taylor Holliday says:

      Hi James,
      Thanks for your note. I’m always curious how the recipes go for others. If you used the full one pound of pork belly for the recipe, then I am going to assume that the culprit was the chili bean paste. Pixian douban jiang can be very salty, depending on the brand and how long it was aged. It is just broad beans and chilies preserved in salt. The two tablespoons work for me, but my advice would be to decrease the amount you use if you try it again. Also, sometimes you find douban jiang mixed with oil, which I am actually starting to prefer, since it is a bit less intense and salty. Good luck!

  4. Joel Street says:

    In my experience the boil changes the property of the fat and skin – softening them and affecting the texture to make it more palatable. Also, when I make this dish I add the sliced pork to a dry pan on a medium heat and allowed the fat to render then turn the heat up and go. This is how I learned from a Sichuan friend and you will find you won’t need to throw any of that lovely lard away.

    • Taylor Holliday says:

      Yes, I agree that the boil positively affects the texture. Though I’m not convinced about the lard, since a really fatty piece of pork belly renders a lot of lard, does it not? It depends on your belly!

  5. Taylor,

    Been waiting and waiting to try this recipe from you. Here are my notes:

    1. Based on the earlier comment I added a thumb of ginger (sliced), 4-6 peppercorns, 2 bay leafs, 2 cloves of garlic (smashed) and 1/8 cup Rice wine to the boiling liquid. it certainly didnt do any harm and perhaps imparted some additional flavor to the meat.

    2. I had no problem at all finding the pork belly as I live in Washington DC and we have tons of good Asian markets around us. I have never had to use the wheat paste or the douchi, but with a little help, I found them also at my Asian market. Wanting to learn what everything tasted like I was surprised that the douchi seemed to have a texture not unlike cheese. Interesting stuff!

    3. I can without hesitation say that my niece and I and our 2 guests absolutely loved this recipe. In fact, my niece (who loves to take your mapu tofu for lunch each day) was highly offended there was nothing left for her to take for lunch this week! It absolutely got rave reviews from everyone at the table and will be on our MUST MAKE AGAIN SOON list.

    Oh, BTW – We made Szechuan wontons in red chili sauce (yes, from scratch) for appetizers and they were great. There are many variations out on the web, so I am hoping you will post a recipe for this soon. They were a real hit. The fragrant red chili was simple to make and absolutely delicious!

    • Taylor Holliday says:

      Hi Jim! Thanks for your notes. I agree that it can’t hurt to flavor the water for the first cook. As for the douchi, I wonder if you ended up with a brand from Sichuan? Theirs is kind of a paste, while Guangdong’s (which I prefer) are little dry beans.

      So glad this recipe was a hit for you. As for dumplings in red oil, there are indeed many versions/recipes out there, and I do myself have a recipe here for the sauce that tastes very much like I’ve had them in Sichuan restaurants.

      Always great to hear from you!

  6. John says:

    I think my favorite Chinese restaurant in Charlottesville VA just got a new chef. Previously, their Twice-Cooked Pork was magnificent. But yesterday, I ordered it and got something entirely different. Some leeks, yes, but lots of white onion, red bell pepper, jalapeno slices and an overabundance of thinly-sliced garlic. And celery.

    Which makes it all the more critical that I cook this recipe sooner rather than later. Thanks for posting all these wonderful recipes.

    • Taylor Holliday says:

      Ooh, I hate it when that happens! Unfortunately, these chefs move around a lot. Especially when they are good, they get poached by other restaurants. That’s why I cook my own too. Good luck!

  1. September 26, 2016

    […] We also talked about twice-cooked pork (hui guo rou, 回锅肉) , one of Wang Ye's favorite meals. Here's a recipe. […]

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