While the Cantonese roast marinated pork in strips, Chinese of the central and northern coastal provinces, that area that is often called “eastern China,” take a large piece of pork, marinate it in a savory rather than a sweet sauce, and then put it in a cozy pot to simmer and steep for hours. The result is a very versatile piece of meat. It may be sliced thickly and eaten hot, alongside rice or a steamed bun, or slivered thinly and enjoyed cold in the company of wine or other cold foods. It is an extremely simple dish to make, with a homey quality that I find irresistible.
With the broad side of a cleaver or heavy knife slap the garlic smartly to smash it. Pound to a paste with the cleaver handle or in a mortar and pestle, then mix with the hoisin to blend. Put the pork in a medium bowl, then scoop up the hoisin mixture a tablespoon at a time, and massage it vigorously into the meat with your fingers, turning the meat to massage every comer and using all of the hoisin mixture, for a total of 4–5 minutes of vigorous rubbing.
Using a spatula, scrape the paste from your fingers and the sides of the bowl, then spread it evenly over the exterior of the pork. Seal the bowl airtight, then put the meat aside to marinate for 3 hours at room temperature followed by 8–24 hours in the refrigerator. The longer the meat marinates the more flavorful it will be. There is no need to turn the meat while it marinates because the seasonings are wrapped around it like a coat.
Bring to room temperature before cooking.
Transfer the meat to a small, heavy pot with a tight-fitting lid that will hold it snugly. Scrape all of the hoisin mixture into the pot. Smash the scallion and ginger with the broad side or blunt handle end of a cleaver or heavy knife, then add them to the pot with the soy, wine, anise, cassia or cinnamon bark, and the orange peel, if you are using it. Pour the water on top, then set the pot over high heat, scraping any paste from the side of the pot and stirring to blend the sauce mixture as it heats.
Bring the mixture to a near-boil, then reduce the heat to maintain a steady, bubbly simmer. Stir the sauce, cover the pot, then simmer for 30 minutes. After the first 5 minutes, lift the lid to check that the sauce is simmering as required, then replace the cover.
At the end of 30 minutes, turn the meat over gently with the aid of two large spoons to avoid piercing the meat. Scatter a tablespoon of the crushed sugar into the sauce, swishing to dissolve it with a chopstick or spoon. Replace the cover, simmer 30 minutes more, then turn off the heat.
Taste and adjust the sauce, if required, with a further sprinkling of crushed sugar. The taste of the hoisin, soy, and wine you are using will all affect the final balance, so feel free to add more sugar as needed to make the sauce mildly sweet with a pleasant overtone of wine. Stir the sugar to dissolve it and taste carefully after each addition.
After adjusting the sauce, turn the meat over once again with the help of the spoons, then cover the pot. Let the meat steep in the covered pot for 30 minutes, during which time the sauce will grow richer and the flavors will further permeate the meat.
If you are serving the pork immediately, pour the sauce through a spouted fat separator to remove the fat. Slice the pork crosswise against the grain into even slices, a scant ¼ inch thick. Arrange the slices in an overlapping pattern on a shallow platter of contrasting color, then spoon the de-fatted sauce over the meat.
Or, for even better flavor, transfer the uncut pork to a bowl that will hold it snugly, pour the sauce on top, then chill thoroughly in the refrigerator before serving. Scoop off the congealed fat, extract the pork, and slice it crosswise against the grain into even slices ⅛ inch thin. If you are eating the pork cold or at room temperature, arrange the slices in an overlapping pattern on a serving plate. Garnish with the congealed sauce (which is delicious), or heat the sauce briefly to turn it liquid and then pour over the pork. If you prefer it hot, then arrange the overlapping slices in a large, heavy skillet, spoon the congealed sauce on top, then cover the pot and bring to a steaming simmer over low heat. Slide the meat and the sauce onto a heated platter and serve at once.
Leftovers keep nicely for up to a week, sealed airtight and refrigerated. The flavors develop well with reheating, as with most any stew-like dish.
© 1982 Barbara Tropp estate. All rights reserved.