Chengdu Challenge #8: Twice-Cooked Pork (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.
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.
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.
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.
- 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
- 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.
- 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.)
- 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.
- Add the leeks and stir-fry until softened. Remove to a serving plate.