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Pork Simmered in Soy and Spices (Hongshao Zhurou)

Simmering or braising food in a sealed pot is called men in China, but when soy sauce is the dominant ingredient in the cooking liquid, it becomes hongshao, literally "red cooking." It is a popular cooking method for large cuts of meat, tough cuts like pigs feet, and whole poultry, particularly game birds, which require slow, gentle cooking to achieve gelatinous, melt-in-the-mouth tenderness. Certain dishes cooked by this method have a special symbolism and are served on festive occasions, such as New Year or wedding banquets. The Chinese name of a dish of pork shoulder or pigs feet red-cooked with black moss for longevity and lettuce for prosperity translates as "windfall everywhere," while hongshao zhurou earns the poetic Chinese title "peace and harmony."

Brown-sauce cooking is the less evocative description of the richly flavored Shanghai dishes cooked in hongshao style. Popular favorites include freshwater and saltwater eels braised in rich brown sauce and served liberally dusted with white pepper. Wonderfully fragrant dried black mushrooms, fleshy amber abalone mushrooms and eggplant are frequent additions to hongshao dishes. They absorb the rich flavors of the sauce, returning their own intense flavor and textural contributions, as do ginger, crunchy bamboo shoots and chestnuts.

Ingredients:

  • 1 1/2 lb. pork leg or pork shoulder, with
     skin intact
  • 2 1/2 Tbs. hoisin sauce
  • 8 dried black mushrooms, soaked in boiling
     water to cover for 5 to 10 minutes
     and drained
  • 3/4 cup light soy sauce
  • 2 Tbs. rice wine
  • 1 star anise
  • 1 small cinnamon stick
  • 1 tsp. Sichuan peppercorns
  • 1 green onion, trimmed
  • 1 Tbs. peeled and julienned fresh ginger
  • 2 cups water
  • Salt, to taste
  • 1 lb. baby bok choy, halved lengthwise, or other
     Chinese greens, leaves separated
  • 2 tsp. cornstarch dissolved in 2 Tbs. water

Directions:

Using a sharp knife, score the skin of the pork. Using a brush, paint the skin with the hoisin sauce. Let stand for 1 hour.

Place the pork in a saucepan in which it fits reasonably snugly. Add the mushrooms, soy sauce, rice wine, star anise, cinnamon stick, Sichuan peppercorns, green onion, ginger and water just to cover. Place over medium-high heat, bring to a boil and cover tightly. Reduce the heat to low and simmer gently until the pork is tender when pierced, about 1 hour.Transfer the pork to a carving board and cover loosely with aluminum foil. Pick out the mushrooms from the sauce and, using a small, sharp knife, trim off and discard their hard stems, if necessary. Return the mushrooms to the sauce.

Bring the sauce to a boil over high heat. Reduce the heat to medium and boil gently until reduced to about 1/2 cup, about 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, to serve the pork with the bok choy, in a wok or another saucepan over high heat, bring the water to a boil and salt lightly. Add the bok choy and remove immediately from the heat. Leave in the hot liquid for 5 minutes, then drain well and arrange around the edge of a serving platter.

Slice the pork and place in the center of the platter. Add the cornstarch mixture to the reduced sauce and stir over medium heat until it is slightly thickened and becomes clear, about 1 minute. Spoon the sauce and mushrooms over the pork and serve immediately.
Serves 4 to 6.
Adapted from Williams-Sonoma Savoring Series, Savoring China, by Jacki Passmore (Oxmoor House, 2003).