Monday, October 24, 2011

Red-Cooked Pork Belly:

I was seven years old, and I was terrified. I peered down at the water sparkling below the high dive at our local pool and cringed.

I’d been shivering up there for a while, over twenty minutes, while those behind me waiting for their turns shot my parents dirty looks. Finally, the lifeguard climbed up the ladder, joined me on the board, and tried to coax me into jumping off. I refused. I’m sure he tried reasoning with me, but my seven-year-old brain remained set. Too embarrassed to climb back down, and too scared take the plunge, I was stuck.

So he did the logical thing. He shoved me off.

I managed to avoid a painful belly flop upon impact somehow, and when I surfaced, I was stunned to realize that I hadn’t perished in the water.

Note: I am not trying to imply that I am a piece of delicious pork belly

I swam to the ladder and got out of the pool. Then I walked back to the line at the high dive, waited, climbed up the ladder, and jumped again. And then again. And Again. I must have jumped off the high dive over fifteen times that afternoon.

So, what does this story have to do with anything? Hold on, I’m getting to it.

Nineteen years later, on Wednesday morning, I was experiencing a feeling similar to what I experienced on my first attempt at the high dive all over again, though I was nowhere near a pool and wearing substantially more clothing than a swimsuit. I was sitting at my desk, re-reading an email that had just arrived.

This past Wednesday afternoon, I resigned from my job of over four years at a law firm downtown.

It’s a little scary to change careers, admit it. Though real estate law isn’t exactly the most interesting thing in the world, I’m very good at my job. It pays well, provides nice benefits and I like the people I work with. It’s stable and reasonably secure. But it’s never been what I want to do with my life. It’s not even what I went to school for.

So when the opportunity to join a downtown advertising agency opened up, I found myself standing on a different sort of precipice, peering down at the possibility below and reasoning with myself.

A few lingering doubts kept trying to surface.

What if I don’t succeed like I think I will? What if it’s nothing like I imagined?

I countered with the positives.

A job where you’d like what you do and be excited to go to work every morning. A job where you can create new things on a daily basis. A job where your talents can be put to good use. Not being forced to use Internet Explorer.

And I jumped. And then David and I made pork belly to celebrate.

This recipe (also known as Hong Shao Rou) is adapted from Appetite for China, which is in turn adapted from one of Fuchsia Dunlop's books. Red Cook also has detailed tips for perfect red-cooked pork.

  • 1 lb. pork belly
  • 2 tbsp. peanut oil
  • 2 tbsp. cane sugar
  • 1 oz. strong wine (Shaoxing is traditional, but dry Oloroso or Amontillado work too)
  • 1 in. piece ginger, peeled and grated (or 1/4 tsp. powdered ginger if you're lazy)
  • 2 whole pieces star anise
  • 2 whole dried bird's eye chili
  • 1 whole cinnamon stick
  • 2 tbsp. naturally brewed soy sauce
  • A few sprigs of green onion, sliced
  • 3 - 4 cups of cooked white rice
  1. Bring a quart of water to boil.
  2. Briefly parboil the pork belly (about 4 minutes). You may have to cut the pork belly in half or thirds to fit in your pot.
  3. Remove the pork and let it drain on paper towels.
  4. When cool enough to handle, cut the pork belly into bite-sized pieces, about 1/4 to 1/2 inch thick.
  5. In a wok, add the oil and sugar, and set to a medium-low heat.
  6. You must watch the wok intently. When the sugar begins to liquefy and brown, set the heat to low.
  7. Gently swirl the wok and observe the color of the sugar. When it turns a deep ruddy-brown, you are ready to add the pork. If the sugar begins to bubble, foam, or blacken, it's burnt. Throw it out and try again at a lower heat or for a shorter time.
  8. Add the pork belly pieces and stir vigorously to coat in the caramelized sugar and oil.
  9. Add the wine, and turn the heat back up to medium. Continue to stir quickly until the meat in the pork firms up a little and the edges are slightly brown.
  10. Add enough water to cover the pork (about 2 - 3 cups depending on the shape of your wok) and add the ginger, star anise, chili, and cinnamon.
  11. Bring to a boil and let simmer uncovered for an hour (now is a good time to crack open some booze). Every 10 - 15 minutes, check on the water level and give it a quick stir. Don't allow the water to evaporate completely; the sauce will burn and you will be sad. Add extra water if you have to.
  12. Toward the end of the simmer, you may need to adjust the heat up or down to achieve the right sauce consistency. Ideally, it should be silky, but not syrupy.
  13. Remove the cinnamon stick, star anise, and chili pieces.
  14. Add the soy sauce and green onion, and stir to combine.
  15. Place pieces of pork on cooked rice, and drizzle with sauce. Depending on how lean the pork belly is, you may need to drain off some of the rendered fat first.
  16. Stuff your face full of crazy delicious salty-sweet pork.

Stirring the sugar and oil while the wok heats up

The sugar has started to caramelize

The sugar likes to stick to spatulas. You might want to use chopsticks to stir on this step.

Commence face stuffage


  1. Laura,

    Oh, what a beautiful post. Having the courage to take that leap (both literally and figuratively) says a lot about you. This is indeed part of the reason it's really a privledge to call you guys my friends.

    Very creative recipe, too. I buy pork belly and instantly think "low and slow," but now you've changed my thinking a bit. I'll have to try!


  2. Thanks for sharing a well written and inspiring story. Congratulations on your sweet new job! -Heather513

  3. Laura,

    So glad to read the job search paid off--good luck at your new positions!

    Love the Appetite for China website. Have you made it to Uncle Yips yet?



I try to be honest, fair and keep a good sense of humor in my posts--I would appreciate if you follow the same policy with your comments.