Braised pork belly is such a cornerstone dish in Chinese cookery, and the secret to its luscious, shiny glisten is rock sugar. Rock sugar is a specialized type of unrefined crystallized sugar, usually sold in large chunks. Weight by weight, it’s significantly less sweet than its refined counterpart and is used a lot in savory cooking because of its subtlety.
Here’s how this dish is made: A tough piece of meat is cooked gently for hours over low heat in a sweet and savory broth of mostly soy sauce and rock sugar. After a while, the meat begins to break down until it’s fork-tender. Then, the sauce is reduced down until it becomes a syrupy coating on the meat. That glisten gives it an appealing mahogany glow. The final sauce is like molasses and pairs beautifully with white rice.
Of course, this dish can be made with refined white sugar, but it doesn’t give off the same sparkle. In Asia, rock sugar comes in all different sizes and shapes. I like using relatively small chunks of them, but if these smaller pieces aren’t available, crush the large crystals with a mortar and pestle. The sugar will break down and distribute more evenly this way. It’s also important to make sure the sugar is lightly caramelized before adding in the rest of the aromatics.
Finally, it’s important to choose a quality cut of pork belly. This dish works the best with fattier chunks of meat; get one with a nice marbling and a thick layer of fat on top.
This recipe is a really minimalistic rendition of a classic Chinese dish. To add a bit of spice to it, toss in half a teaspoon of five-spice powder or a couple chunks of star anise. The soy sauce to sugar ratio is also quite forgiving, so feel free to adjust it to your liking. My recipe errs towards the sweeter side, but I like this because it reminds me of the renditions I’ve had in southeastern China.
Cooking time: 2 hours
1. In a pot over medium-high heat, swirl in the vegetable oil and add in the ginger, garlic, and scallion. Sauté until aromatic.
2. Add in the rock sugar, and cook until the sugar turns amber brown. Add the pork belly, stirring it so that it browns evenly. Then add soy sauce, wine, and water.
3. Put on the lid, and bring the mixture to a boil. Then turn the heat down to low, until it’s simmering. Simmer on low heat for 60-90 minutes, or until the pork belly is fork-tender.
4. Take off the lid and turn the heat back to medium-high to reduce the liquid. This will take about 10 minutes. It is ready when the sauce starts to become as thick as honey and can easily coat the back of a spoon.
5. Turn off the heat and serve with white rice.
East West Bank serves as a cultural and financial bridge between the U.S. and China. For more home recipes, follow Clarissa’s deep dive into how to use popular Chinese pantry products.