I couldn't agree more to Stephen of EatingChina when he observes that China is a nation of pork eaters. If truth be told, there're thousands ways to cook this animal -- all different parts of it, in and out. And among all these pork cuisines, the most celebrated and distinguished one is got to be the Dongpo (or Tongpo) pork, or slow-braised pork belly. To me, this dish is indisputably the Monarch of Chinese pork cuisine. While most of you I guess know what exactly it is, and some, I am pretty sure, has even inhaled the fat of it in various occasions, I wonder is there anyone of you really know the story about it. If not, allow me to tell you the funny tale of this pork.
First of all, Dongpo pork is not named after a region, nor after a part of the pork. At the risk of being verbose, I must say it is named after a poet, a writer, a painter, a calligrapher and -- please note -- a damn good gourmet called Su Dongpo of the Sung Dynasty. So fond of pork was Su that not only did he come up with an array of recipes for pork cooking, but also to even write a poem called "Ode to Pork" 《豬肉頌》when he was serving duty in a small county called Huangzhou. The ode goes like this Chinese:
the English translation, by yours truly the amateurish translator, reads like this:
"Pork in Huangzhou is plenty
there it costs utterly lowly
The rich detest it; the poor fluff it
slow the fire, hold the water, it comes alive when the time is right"
Another funny thing is that the legend have us believe that the creation of Dongpo pork is purely the result of a fluke. It says that Su Dongpo prepared the pork and asked his servants to send them to labors with some wine (rice wine, that is) too, which his servants mistook to cook the pork with some wine -- and thence, to the luck of ours, the coming of Dongpo pork.
On the other hand, the keyword for Dongpo pork is "timing." Heat it with the gentlest fire and braise it as slowly as possible to make the texture into the tenderest being (one ancient recipe requires the meat be cooked from sunrise to sunset). The addition of wine all the more makes its texture more fragile. Watch out, it just fall apart upon the tip of your chopsticks.
Though the vast majority of Chinese restaurants tends to sell Dongpo pork as a dish from the Hangzhou region, there are still a handful of places in China to have pork cooked in similar way, regions such as Beijing, Canton, Sichaun and Yunan, to name but a few. In fact, it is customary in Yunan for a marrying couple to share a cassolette (made of ceramic, like that in the picture) of Dongpo-like pork in their wedding banquet in front of guests whereas in Sichuan, the recipe varies a bit since Sichuanese prefers frying to drying the pork briefly before the stew. The Hangzhou version, which claims to be the best of all, prohibits the use of water in total and stews the pork with only Shaxing wine. The result: a pork that is as soft as fresh bean curd. Velvety but never oily, oozing from every bite the perfect match of the distinctive fragrance of Shaoxing wine and the sweetness of meat.
So Mr. Su, on behalf of all carnivores, a toast to your Dongpo pork!