Chairman Mao's Red-Braised Pork

(Mao Shi Hong Shao Rou)

Red-braised pork is a dish that in Hunan is inseparably bound up with the memory of Chairman Mao: many restaurants call it "The Mao Family's red-braised pork." Mao Zedong loved it, and insisted his Hunanese chefs cook it for him in Beijing. It's a robust concoction, best eaten with plain steamed rice and simple stir-fried vegetables, but the sweet, aromatic chunks of meat are irresistible, and it's always a favorite at my London dinner parties.

In keeping with traditional Chinese gastronomy, which seeks to make a medical virtue out of every dietary predilection, the people of Mao's home village, Shaoshan, recommend red-braised pork as a health food: "Men eat it to build their brains," Chairman Mao's nephew Mao Anping assured me when I met him there a few years ago, "and ladies to make themselves more beautiful." His friend and neighbor, the Shaoshan communist party secretary, told me he ate two bowlfuls a day to keep his intellect in shape.

Note: Vegetarian variations of this recipe use garlic gloves, deep-fried bean curd, preserved mustard greens and water chestnuts as main ingredients.

The one that uses water chestnuts is a particular favorite of mine. In Shaoshan, cooks traditionally leave the skin intact for maximum succulence, and cut the meat into rather large chunks, perhaps 1 1/2 inches long: I tend to make the pieces a little smaller. The recipe below takes its color from caramelized sugar, which gives it a lovely reddish gloss, but many people just use dark soy sauce at home.

1 lb. pork belly (skin optional)

2 tbsp. peanut oil

2 tbsp. white sugar

1 tbsp. Shaoxing wine

3/4 in. piece fresh ginger, skin left on and sliced

1 star anise

2 dried red chillies

a small piece cassia bark or cinnamon stick

light soy sauce, salt, and sugar

a few pieces scallion greens

1. Plunge the pork belly into a pan of boiling water and simmer for 3-4 minutes until partially cooked. Remove and, when cool enough to handle, cut into bite-sized chunks.

2. Heat the oil and white sugar in a wok over a gentle flame until the sugar melts, then raise the heat and stir until the melted sugar turns a rich caramel brown. Add the pork and splash in the Shaoxing wine.

3. Add enough water to just cover the pork, along with the ginger, star anise, chiles, and cassia. Bring to the boil, then turn down the heat and simmer for 40-50 minutes.

4. Toward the end of the cooking time, turn up the heat to reduce the sauce, and season with soy sauce, salt, and a little sugar to taste. Add the scallion greens just before serving.

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