Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Dong Po Pork 东坡肉

Overlooking West Lake from Lei Feng Pagoda.
Hangzhou is the capital and largest city of Zhejiang Province in Eastern China, and is listed as one of the Seven Ancient Capitals of China. It remains one of the most renowned and prosperous cities of China for much of the last 1,000 years, due in part to its beautiful and natural scenery.

Young couple enjoying each others company and the view.

The city's West Lake is its best-known attraction. It's a beautiful lake surrounded by a couple of winding causeways, with various boat rides, and bike rental shops for tourist to fully enjoy all the lake has to offer, and on the day Sam and I were there it was a beautiful spring day with a perfect 68F temperature.

Traditional period boat on West Lake.
Sam and I took a boat ride out onto one of the largest of the three small islands in the center of the lake, literally translated, "The Three Pools Reflecting The Moon". Next to the island are three pagodas partially submerged in the water. These were originally created as land markers when doing the hydro construction. With time and age taking it's toll on the original pagodas, three new ones were constructed a couple dynasties later, and circles were cut out of the top on the new design, that in the moonlight creates reflections of the moon on the water. 

These pagodas are so famous, that they are on the back of the equivalent of the one dollar bill.

Taking an afternoon nap at West Lake.

When researching a name, or information on one thing, I often find that there is a story within a story, and so on, to where I end up down a rabbit hole of history, and information. In looking up the name of the largest of the islands we took the boat ride to, I came across the story as to it's name, but also how and why it got it's name. The name of the island is Little Ying. The story of how it got it's name is rather interesting. The first emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang of the Qin dynasty longed for immortality above all in life. He spent his entire life looking for the cure for death. He turned his best Taoist monks into alchemist, with them spending countless hours mixing potions, and pills. One potion for longevity is actually the discovery of gunpowder. One of Qin Shi Huang's most trusted monks, Xu Fu told him of three islands in the East China Sea, and upon each island is a mountain, upon each mountain lives a god. One is the god of fortune, one is the god of luck, and the other is the god of longevity.
Young boy wearing Qing Emperor costume.
The only way to reach these mysterious islands, is to be pure of heart. Xu Fu asked the emperor for 500 boys, and 500 girls, telling the emperor that with these children he would surely be able to find the islands, and one of the children would be able to obtain the fruit from the god, that once eaten would grant the receiver immortality. Xu Fu knowing that he had created the story in his head, had long since decided to never return, and the legend goes that he settled on one of the mountains that is called Ying. That mountain today is know as Japan. It's has long been whispered among Chinese folk writers that the descendants of modern Japan owe their very existence to this Taoist monk, and the 500 boys, and 500 girls, but factually we may never know.
Older couple having a lakeside nap with umbrella blocking the sun.
Tens of thousands of years ago. Silt then blocked the way to the sea and the lake was formed. A drill in the lake-bed in 1975 found the sediment of the sea, which confirmed its origin. One folk story goes Tens of thousands of years ago. Silt then blocked the way to the sea and the lake was formed. A drill in the lake-bed in 1975 found the sediment of the sea, which confirmed its origin. One folk story goes that during the Spring Festival of this year, people brought him gifts that during the Spring Festival of this year, people brought him gifts of pork and a local wine called Shaoxing. Su Dongpo thought that he should share his bounty with the workers, so he told his chef to prepare the pork and send it to the workers. Much to his surprise, his chefs had cooked wine and meat together, but the result was the pork was extraordinary delicious. Su Dongpo being a widely eulogized, and respected governor received the honor that when pork that was prepared in this manner, it was then referred to as “Dongpo Pork“ by the local people, and has become a famous traditional dish of Hangzhou.

Mother and daughter playing in the water at west Lake.
Another story goes that Su Dongpo Created this dish quite by accident at some point in his life more than 700 years ago during the Song Dynasty (960-1279). He was stewing some fatty pork, and became deeply involved in a chess match and forgot about the dish braising over the fire. He remembered only after the pork sent fragrant wafts from the cooking pot. To his surprise it had produced a very tasty meal and was greatly pleased with the results, and quickly added it to his recipe repertoire.

Distance shot of causeway bridge at West Lake.
With China being the only remaining civilization still intact from the ancient world, there are many stories as to the history of a dish, and it's origin, but most of them I often find tend to be wrapped in romanticism, and less historical fact, but either way they make the dish a bit more appealing, and interesting to me. This is one such dish.


This is a delicate textured meat dish with a huge flavor. The layers of texture between the skin, fat and meat are what makes this dish so appealing to me personally. The sweetness of the "red braising" is but just an added bonus. I do recommend that you have an equal meat to fat ratio, or the meat tends to become too dense, and tough.

2 lb  pork belly, skin on
2 T Vegetable oil
1/2 Cup (or more, if you like it sweeter) Chinese brown sugar, smashed into bits.
Cotton string
1. Boiling cleaned pork belly to remove any smell and blood. Drain and, cut the pork belly into 2 inch squares. Tie each piece of belly with string so that the meat keeps its shape and stays intact.

2. Put the oil into an unheated wok and add the smashed sugar, cooking over low heat until sugar has dissolved. Add the pork and stir fry on all sides well until the meat turns a golden brown. Then remove from heat and set aside.
WARNING: The fat will splatter, and pop. You must have a lid handy.

3. In a medium-sized heavy based pot, put all the following together in a pot and bring it to a boil and simmer for 5 minutes:

1 1/4 cups Shaoxing wine
3 Whole pieces of star anise
1 Piece cinnamon bark, about 2 inches long
1 Large bunch of spring onions, tied into a bundle
3 Thick slices of fresh young ginger
3 T dark soy sauce*
4 T light soy sauce*
1/2 t Sesame oil

*The Dongpo pork flavor relies heavily on the quality and flavor of the dark soy sauce used, so be sure you use one that's good. For the dark soy, I recommend Shinho 6 months fermented soy sauce. It tends to have a sweet hint to it.

4. Add the pork pieces and the sugar syrup into the boiling sauce, reduce the heat to low and let it simmer for 1 1/2 hours. You can adjust the seasoning of the sauce at this point but remember that the sauce will thicken and be saltier.

5. Put the pork pieces and sauce into a big heat-proof bowl or dish and steam for at least 3 hours. If kept overnight at this point and re-steamed for another hour or more the next day, it's even better. If the sauce is thin, pour it into a small pot (without the pork) and heat it on high to evaporate and thicken it. Pour the thickened sauce over the pork pieces to serve.

Cooks Helpful Hints: I have prepared this in the crock pot with reasonable success. You just put everything in a crock pot after step 3. and put it on low for 5 hours or so. Just remember the longer you cook it, the more tender it becomes.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Chopstick (筷子), History, and Etiquette

Chinese people have been using chopsticks as main tableware for more than 3,000 years and were first used about 5,000 years ago.The earliest evidence of a pair of chopsticks made out of bronze was excavated from the Ruins of Yin near Anyang, Henan, dated roughly around the time of the Shang dynasty (1766-1122 BCE) It is thought that people cooked their food in large pots which held heat for a long time, and hasty eaters then broke twigs off trees to retrieve the food. By 400 B.C., because of such a large population, and dwindling resources, food was chopped into small pieces so it could be cooked rapidly to conserve fuel. The pieces of food were small enough that they negated the need for knives at the dinner table, and thus, chopsticks became staple utensils. It is also thought that during The Han Dynasty (206 BC – AD 220) Confucius, who was a vegetarian, advised people not to use knives at the table because knives would remind them of the slaughterhouse.

Chopsticks have been made from a variety of materials. Bamboo has been the most common, and popular material because it is inexpensive, readily available, easy to split, resistant to heat, and odor. Cedar, sandalwood, teak, pine, and bone have been used to make chopsticks as well. Throughout out history, the very wealthy had chopsticks that have been made from various different materials including jade, brass, coral, ivory, bronze, silver, and gold.

In the times of the dynasty periods, it was thought that silver chopsticks would turn black if they came into contact with poisoned food. It is now known that silver had no reaction to arsenic or cyanide, but if rotten eggs, onions, or garlic were used, the hydrogen sulfide they released might cause the chopsticks to change color.Traditionally Chinese chopsticks are usually 9 to 10 inches long and rectangular with a blunt end, as opposed to the sharp point sometime seen.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Pork with Beijing Sauce (京酱肉丝)

I made this Beijing dish the other day upon Sam's suggestion, before I had ever tried it. It's always a surprise to me when I have Sam translating a recipe for me, and I have no idea what the dish will eventually taste like. In Chinese cooking I've found that many times you have to use the exact amount called for or you throw the dish off so to speak. I think a lot of this has to do with the Chinese cuisine being so delicately balanced. This is one dish that this proved to be true for me. Even though I had no idea what it was going to taste like, or even what it was supposed to taste like while I was preparing it. I added just a shade to much catsup, and so it threw off the sweetness, into too much of a tomato taste. Up to this point I've only had a few Beijing dishes, but I've enjoyed everyone I've had. For my western readers, I'd say this is closer to what you may be use to compared to many of the other dishes I've posted. Most restaurant at least here in my area tend to prepare mainly Cantonese dishes, and this is kind of along those lines. Most westerners who are familiar with moo shu pork will find this dish similar. The difference being moo shu pork has wood ear mushrooms, carrots, and soy sauce, and sometime shredded eggs. This dish is more of a restaurant style dish, where moo shu is more of a "home style" dish.