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Dear readers, thanks so much for voting me into the 2nd round of Project Food Blog! For those of you wondering “WTF is Project Food Blog?”, it’s a hardcore competition where food bloggers cook/photograph/video their way through 10 rounds. If you win, you get a nice 10k. That almost approaches what I make every month on this blog. (Ha. Ha.)
Red braised pork belly, my competition dish.
Anyway, for Challenge 2: The Classics, I was charged with making a “classic dish from another culture” other than French and Italian. It was difficult to pick. I’m honestly not much of a cook – I eat in the college dining hall and burned a peanut butter sandwich recently.
While it may seem antithetical to the prompt of a dish “outside your comfort zone,” I think picking red braised pork was an expression of just how deeply out of sync I feel with Chinese cooking.
The idea of me cooking Chinese food feels almost like a joke. Breaking open my copy of Fuchsia Dunlop’s Land of Plenty feels like a strange facsimile of “cultural” for someone whose childhood featured from LOLcats than red lanterns.
Carving up some pig fat. I was cooking for company, which explains the fancy dress.
There’s nothing more uncomfortably ethnic than your own last wisps of ethnicity, I think.
I picked red braised pork. I’ve never cooked pork belly.
Actually, this was my first time working with pork – I’ve only cooked chicken, shrimp, and hot dogs so far in my 6-month cooking career.
I also never red braised anything in my life. I doubted that my recipe would even work. Since, uh, I missed one essential ingredient.
I also never used star anise in anything. I also rarely make heavy meat dishes.
So off to Allston’s Super 88 Asian supermarket! My Caucasian better half had actually been there several times. This, surprisingly, was actually my first trip.
I found encouragement:
I bought 2 pounds of pork belly, threw in a package of oxtails, then went to the produce section. Bok choy seemed like a good fit.
Hrrm, should I cut my finger open while chopping daikon or flowering chives?
Oh man! I am grinning because there’s mochi in my shopping cart.
Shopping cart full, it was off to unpack.
I began cooking this morning, then realized I didn’t have dark soy sauce. Only light soy sauce. It was ok, I was going to search.
I searched in Trader Joes. Nope.
I searched in Shaw’s. Nope.
I searched in Cherry Mart, an Asian grocery on Newbury Street. The owner, a tired-looking Asian man, looked so sad when he realized he didn’t carry dark soy sauce that I bought a little canister of MSG.
“I can have it tomorrow,” he said in defeat.
“I need it for today,” I responded, equally defeated.
So I tried to account for the flavor difference with some extra sugar and a shot of Worcestshire which, I reasoned, should have more of the mushroomy/molasses flavor of dark soy sauce. But I felt like an ethnic fraud already.
But the show went on.
I got out the pork belly and sliced it into huge chunks. Like little mini heart attacks. I felt my arteries spasming. Charming.
Then I grabbed the scallions. Grr. Don’t lie to me, cooking poster. Yes, I CAN COOK.
In to the pot also went: 2 tablespoons of soy sauce (which should have been dark, not light), three tablespoons brown sugar, 1 tablespoon Shaoxing rice wine, and 3/4 teaspoon salt. They all cooked for two hours. You too, can cook like me.
Then I gave the bok choy a toss in some peanut oil, garlic, and ginger.
Getting there. Sort of. So. Much. Fat.
In my typically anxious manner, I hovered over the pot, fretting about how my pork was not turning particularly red-brown like it should. Were my chunks too big? (I ended up cutting up the pork belly into smaller pieces mid way). Did I cut the scallions the right way? Why did I just get splattered with hot oil? Ow.
I decided to plate it in a more modern way – perhaps to express my cultural disconnect from cooking Chairman Mao’s favorite dish. I also think Chinese food gets a bad wrap for being cheap, and I wanted to present this rustic peasant dish in a more refined light.
Even if I don’t have a lot in common with Mao, he had really good taste in food, as it turns out. The pork belly ended up coated in a thick, sweetened sauce whose scent induced moans of pleasure. Soaked up with rice, it was absurdly rich, the inherent brown sugar sweetness of the sauce complemented by the intense savoriness of pork fat.
My first red braised anything. I can haz cookin skills!
It reminded me that I’m an American (who happens to look Chinese) cooking from a book written by a Brit translating Chinese classics for a Western audience. A reflection of a reflection in a mirror.
I remembered Serious Eats’ Chichi Wang’s reaction when I said I bought the book. “Why don’t you just learn from you mother?” she asked, incredulous.
I never cooked in my mother’s kitchen growing up. Cooking Chinese food, to be honest, feels a lot less natural than making a Thai coconut curry. Did I feel an ethnic rekindling with this strange, foreign cuisine with its exotic ingredients like dark soy sauce?
Not exactly. I did, however, have a full belly.