Szechwan-Hunan Pork Threads

渝湘肉絲

Until a year or so ago, I thought, like most everyone else I know, Chinese and Westerners both, that the name of this dish was “Fish-Flavored Pork Threads.” So-called fish-flavored dishes are a hallmark of Szechwan and Hunan cuisine, and while the Chinese are simply content to write the characters for “fish” (yu) and “flavor” (hsiang) on their menus and not think much more about it, Chinese cookbooks go to great pains to describe how dishes that clearly have nothing whatsoever to do with fish deserve such a name. Well, they don’t! Unless I am too preoccupied with thinking in ancient Chinese, it’s a good guess that the word yu actually refers to the Yu (Chialing) River of Szechwan and that the word hsiang actually refers to the Hsiang River of Hunan. Which means that a century or more ago the original characters were forgotten, and that the real name of this dish is “Szechwan-Hunan Pork Threads.”

  • Tricks of Chinese language aside, this is a very simple dish. It is a delicious stir-fry of slivered pork, crunchy tree ears, and dark green broccoli in a light, pungent sauce laced with garlic, ginger, and chili. It has nothing to do with fish and everything to do with the piquant flavors for which Szechwan and Hunan are best known.
  • All the preparation may be done hours or a full day in advance. The final cooking is a matter of minutes.

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Ingredients

  • ½ pound boneless pork loin, trimmed of all fat (weight after trimming)

To marinate the pork

  • 1 tablespoon thin (regular) soy sauce
  • 1 tablespoon Chinese rice wine or quality, dry sherry
  • ½ tablespoon water
  • ¼ teaspoon sugar
  • 2 teaspoons cornstarch
  • 2 tablespoons tree ears
  • 1 pound fresh broccoli with solid stems

Aromatics

  • 2 tablespoons finely minced green and white scallion
  • tablespoons finely minced fresh garlic
  • 2 teaspoons finely minced fresh ginger
  • 1–1½ teaspoons Chinese chili sauce

Sauce ingredients

  • 1 tablespoon thin (regular) soy sauce
  • 1 tablespoon Chinese rice wine or quality, dry sherry
  • tablespoons sugar
  • 2 teaspoons well-aged Chinese black vinegar or balsamic vinegar
  • ¼ cup rich, unsalted chicken stock
  • ½ teaspoon Chinese or Japanese sesame oil
  • 1 teaspoon cornstarch dissolved in 2 teaspoons cold chicken stock
  • 3 cups corn or peanut oil, for deep-frying

Method

Preparations

Slice the pork crosswise against the grain into even slices a scant ¼ inch thick. Cut each slice against the grain into shreds ¼ inch thick, slapping the meat when necessary with the broad side of your cleaver or knife to thin an overly thick edge or make the meat lie flat. Finally, gather the shreds and cut them crosswise into 1½-inch lengths.

In a bowl big enough to hold the pork, mix the soy, wine, water, sugar, cornstarch, and oil, stirring until smooth. Add the pork and toss well with your fingers to coat and separate the shreds. Seal airtight, then set aside to marinate for up to 3 hours at room temperature or overnight in the refrigerator. The longer it sits, the plusher and more flavorful the pork will be.

Put the tree ears in a small bowl and cover with 1 cup of cool water. Soak until supple, about 20 minutes. (They may be left to soak overnight, if you like.) Drain, flush repeatedly with cold water to dislodge the grit from the forest that comes free of charge with the tree ears, then pick through to discard any very tough or gelatinous bits. Tear, if necessary, into nickel-size pieces, then rinse once or twice more for good measure. Cover with cold water until use, refrigerated overnight if you like. Drain well just before using.

With a small, sharp knife, separate the broccoli flowerets from the main stalk at the point where the thin stems join the stalk. Cut any overly large flowerets in half lengthwise. They need not be dainty, but they should be manageable with chopsticks. Cut off and discard the woody part of the main stalk about ½ inch up from the base, then peel off the tough outer bark with a knife or vegetable peeler to expose the celadon-green flesh beneath. Once peeled, cut the stalk into diagonal coins a scant ¼ inch thick, then shred the coins lengthwise into slivers a scant ¼ inch wide. Put the flowerets in one bowl and the shredded stems in another.

Bring a large pot of plain boiling water to a gushing boil over high heat. Add the flowerets, push them beneath the surface of the water, then count 30 seconds. Add the stems, push them down as well, then count another 30 seconds. Drain the broccoli immediately into a colander and flush with cold running water to stop the cooking. Shake off the excess water, then put the broccoli aside to drain. If you are working in advance, put the broccoli on a towel-lined plate, cover the plate, and refrigerate until use, overnight if you like. Bring to room temperature before cooking.

Up to a few hours in advance of stir-frying, combine the scallion, garlic, ginger, and chili sauce in a small saucer. Seal airtight and refrigerate if working in advance. Combine the sauce ingredients, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Stir the cornstarch mixture to combine and leave the spoon in the bowl.

Deep-frying the pork and stir-frying the dish

Have all the ingredients, a large Chinese mesh spoon or heatproof strainer, and cooking chopsticks or a wooden spoon all within easy reach of your stovetop. Put a serving platter of contrasting color in a low oven to warm. Stir the pork to loosen the pieces.

About 10–15 minutes in advance of serving, heat a wok or a large, heavy skillet over high heat until hot enough to evaporate a bead of water on contact. Add the oil, leaving at least an inch free at the top of the pot to accommodate bubbling. Heat the oil to the light-haze stage, 350° on a deep-fry thermometer, when a single piece of pork rises to the surface in 3–5 seconds surrounded by a slow ring of bubbles. Turn the heat off to prevent the temperature from rising, then gently slide the pork into the oil. Expect it to foam on contact. Stir gently with the chopsticks or spoon to separate the slices and fry for only 15 seconds, when the meat is mostly gray to golden. Extract the pork immediately from the oil with the spoon or strainer, then set the strainer over the bowl in which the pork marinated to allow it to drain. Work swiftly to remove the pork from the oil, ideally in one sweep, lest it overcook. It should be undercooked when it leaves the oil, ready to be cooked through in stir-frying.

Leave the oil undisturbed if you have a second pot for stir-frying, so you can wait until it cools to strain it. Otherwise, carefully decant the oil into a heatproof bowl, then wipe the pot clean with paper towels. Once the oil cools, it may be strained through cheesecloth, bottled, and stored in a cool place for future frying.

Return the wok or skillet to high heat until hot enough to evaporate a bead of water on contact. Return .2 tablespoons of the frying oil to the pan, swirl to glaze the bottom, then reduce the heat to medium-high. When the oil is hot enough to sizzle one bit of garlic on contact, add the combined aromatics to the pan. Stir gently to infuse the aromatics in the oil, adjusting the heat to maintain a merry sizzle without browning the garlic. When fully fragrant, in 10–15 seconds, add the broccoli. Toss briskly to combine and heat through, about 1 minute, adjusting the heat to maintain a merry sizzle and dribbling in a bit more oil from the side of the pot if needed to prevent sticking. When the broccoli is hot to the touch, add the pork and drained tree ears, then toss briskly to combine, about 10 seconds. Splash the sauce into the pan and raise the heat to bring the mixture to a boil, tossing to combine.

Reduce the heat to low, stir the cornstarch mixture to recombine, then add it to the pot. Stir until the liquids turn glossy and slightly thick, 10–15 seconds, then turn off the heat.

Decant the mixture onto the heated serving platter, pausing to arrange it prettily, then serve at once.

Leftovers keep nicely 2–3 days, sealed airtight and refrigerated. They are tasty at room temperature, or, if you don’t mind soft broccoli, may be resteamed in a covered bowl over high heat until hot.