Only in China can you find something so ridiculously, and occasionally endearingly, funny as 《湘菜烹調技術基本操作規範》(General Operating Guidelines to the Cooking Techniques of Xiang Cuisine). These are the cooking guidelines published by the Food Quality Supervision and Testing Institute of Hunan province, Mao Zedong’s hometown, on Wednesday last week. They were designed to standardize the way the Great Helmsman’s favorite dish and other regional dishes are cooked in an attempt to link their national image and political achievements with Mao’s memory and legacy, and hence indirectly to boost tourism in the region. Amongst those dishes lucky enough to be awarded a space in the guidelines are, of course, Chairman Mao’s pork「毛氏紅燒肉」, stirred pepper with pork 「辣椒炒肉」, steamed pork with pickled cabbage 「酸菜蒸扣肉」, steamed fish head with peppers 「剁椒蒸魚頭」and turtle lamb soup「龜羊湯」。Only restaurants that follow the guidelines will be able to claim they serve authentic Hunan cuisine.
According to the guidelines, to cook stirred pepper with pork you can use either red or green peppers. However, the proportion of peppers to pork must be 3 : 5, and when eaten must possess the quality of “soft, tender meat coupled with the crispiness of the peppers” 「吃起來要具備豬肉軟嫩、青椒柔脆等特徵」 . Chairman Mao’s Pork, on the other hand, must be cooked with the pork belly of the Ningxia pig, an endangered species of Hunan since the 1980s, and must have gone through the process of reduction (收汁) .
I still have not read my thick hardback copy of Jung Chang’s “Mao, the Untold Story”, but according to the SCMP, the people of Mao’s home village, Shaoshan, even claim the dish to be “brain food” which helped him defeat Chiang Kai-shek. If that is the case, then with or without Ningxia pig I must try to reproduce this dish! (I do not have a battle to attend to, but alas, we can always use some brain power in this cruel world!)
I felt sorry for Yuan Mei and Pei-mei (if you are getting confused about this, read my earlier posts), but the gods seem not only to be Mao’s side these days, but also on Fuchsia Dunlop’s. I was not able to find the "official version" of the dish online, so I whipped out Fuchsia's “Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper” book once again and set out to reproduce Chairman Mao’s Pork. What I achieved in return were soft, tender pork pieces, occasionally juicy in their fat, covered in a slightly sticky, mildly sweet, spicy sauce, and just a hint of the soft exotic aroma of star anise and cinnamon lingering in the air.
500g pork belly (preferably including some skin)
2 tbsp oil
2 tbsp white sugar (I used brown, which turned out to be quite nice)
1 tbsp Shaoxing wine
20g ginger, skin left on, sliced
1 star anise
2 dried red chilies
a small piece of cinnamon stick
soy sauce, salt and sugar to taste
a few lengths of spring onions
1. Plunge the pork belly into a panful of boiling water and simmer for 3-4 minutes until partially cooked. Remove and, when cool enough to handle, cut into 2-3 cm chunks.
2. Heat oil and sugar over 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, add the ginger, star anise, chilies and cinnamon. Bring to the boil, then turn down the heat and simmer for at least 45 minutes (I cooked this for 2 hours). Towards the end, turn up the heat to reduce the sauce
Star Rating: 4 out of 5
This is an easy dish that takes hardly any time to prepare - as long as you take good care of the 火候 （according to Fuchsia, something like “fire-time” and referring to the control of the degree and duration of cooking heat), especially during the caramelisation period. Take care not to over heat it. Otherwise it becomes a sticky, hard lump that refuses to come off your spatula. Watch over it as it melts, gently stirring throughout, and you will have a perfectly golden, molten liquid.