Carolyn Phillips • Los Altos, CA
Dongpo Pork is something that few restaurants in the West serve simply because the sublime dishes of Jiangsu province – Asia’s answer to France, when it comes right down to it – remain shrouded in mystery just about everywhere outside of China.
Even the few places that actually manage to offer it here don’t do it justice. The reason for this is that this dish requires excellent ingredients, a more than lavish touch with the wine bottle, and the willingness for time and heat to work their magic. Only then can one take a sensuous mouthful and luxuriate comfortably in the screams of sensory delight bouncing around between the tongue and the brain.
Dongpo Pork is deservedly famous in China, mostly because it’s just way too good to be ignored and also because it’s supposed to have been the brainchild of one of China’s greatest poets, Su Dongpo.
I first tasted this dish in Taipei when I accompanied my museum boss on one of his gourmet dinner runs. As his interpreter, it was my pleasant duty to translate for him whenever he wined and dined bigwigs, which included everybody from Cambridge scholar Charles Needham to former Metropolitan Museum celeb Thomas Hoving. A native of Jiangsu province, Director Ho had a soft spot for the food of his homeland, and when he wanted to impress, we were treated to incredible dishes by master chefs who – like the director – had fled the Mainland for Taiwan.
Few dishes remain in my memory bank with as solid a footing as Dongpo Pork. To be honest, I think of this dish as requiring a touch of alchemy more than cooking because the results are so much more than the components. It’s as if gold were woven out of dross, for just a few ingredients simmer away for a few hours on the stove as one suspends one’s expectations long enough for the magic to happen.
When I make this dish according to the traditional recipe, I start with a superb piece of pork belly with the skin still attached, as it’s the skin that ends up supplying the tantalizingly sultry texture to the sauce. After cutting the pork into four equal squares, each piece is bound with a thick strand of dried grass before being blanched and then simmered in a mixture of caramel, soy sauce, and a ludicrous amount of Shaoxing wine.
Over the course of a few hours, these mingle with a bouquet of cinnamon, star anise, ginger, and green onions to create the most magical of all pork dishes: tender and flavorful flesh sandwiched between pillowy layers of fat, the skin a silky raft for everything that went into the pot, the sauce a divine liquor that envelopes each chewy grain of rice and caresses my lips like a lover’s kiss.
Every once in a while, we humans stumble upon a way to cook animals that seems divinely inspired, one that is more manna than meat. Dongpo Pork is one such gift of the culinary gods.