Skin-on fatty pork simmered with ginger, soy sauce and rock sugar until the skin is supple and shiny and the meat falls apart. Before my grandmother died, we had this all the time. Now, less. Chinese women of her generation believed that eating a small hunk of pork fat each day was the secret to a long life. Chinese women of my mother’s generation believe in eating as little meat as possible, and fill in the gaps with French pastries. Go figure. Guess which view I have more sympathy for.
My grandmother lived to be 88, so I’m thinking pork fat is not a bad health plan. Not that living to be 88 is some kind of brass ring. Live fast, die young, stay pretty. My father always used to say that. And why not? Old age is humiliating and slow. Pork fat is good. And the old Chinese ladies were wrong: eat enough pork fat and it’ll surely kill you before your time. We kill pigs, pigs kill us. I’m beginning to think that this is not the worst thing.
Not to get all morbid on you, reader. I know the Western appetite is not exactly whetted by death-talk. But to be Chinese, or half-Chinese, or to shop where the Chinese shop, is to be acquainted with the very close relationship between death and our more luscious nourishments. Take a stroll around your average teeming Chinese market and you’ll find flies eating rotten fruit, fish heads with macabre death-faces, live crabs ripping each others’ claws out, whole hanged hogs, bricks of cooked & raw pork blood, pig’s ears, hoofs, stomachs, hearts, and something called pork bung, and again, the flies, everywhere.
None of this strikes me as gross. Actually it strikes me as honest, uncompromising. Chinese markets are nothing like the shrink-wrapped high-end grocers of the well fed suburbs, those deathless mausoleums where meat is divorced from context and the fruit is always under ripe. And thank god. In Chinese markets the fruit is ripe, sometimes rotten. The fruit is ripe and the meat has a face. In Chinese markets there is no attempt to mask the horror of eating something that was once (or is still) alive.
But I hesitate to make this about us and them. For one thing, I’d have no way of saying who the us is or who the they are. I shop just about everywhere. At the Whole Foods for cheese, at the Korean market for peaches, at the Filipino market for seafood, at the Mexican market for limes, at Vons for bread.
And I shop at the Chinese market to remind myself who I am–that is, finally, an organism, a beating heart, a thing of cruelty and frailty and appetites and, at last, a body that will certainly decay. I think we’d do well to remember this from time to time, even when we eat, if it does not put us off our dinner. I find myself wondering why the truth should.
Hong Shao Rou (Red-Cooked Pork)
– 2 lbs. skin-on pork shank or shoulder, cut into large chunks
– 8 eggs
– 2/3 cup Chinese cooking wine (substitute dry sherry)
– 1/2 cup Mushroom Flavored Dark Soy Sauce (Li Kum Kee)
– 1/3 cup Premium Soy Sauce (Li Kum Kee)
– 2 tbsp ginger, cut into large chunks
– 2-3 tbsp rock sugar (substitute brown sugar)
Bring a pot of salted water to a boil. Cook the chopped pork for a minute or two, until the water gets murky. Strain the pork and run each piece under cold water. The purpose of this is to get all the scuzzy stuff off the meat, so that the stewing liquid will be clean and scuzz-free.
Meanwhile, place eight eggs in another pot, fill it with water, and bring it to a boil. Once the water boils, cut the heat, and let the eggs sit for ten minutes. Then remove the eggs, run them under cold water, peel, and set aside.
Place rinsed pork in a clay pot or small dutch oven over medium heat. Add ginger and cooking wine. Allow to simmer until wine cooks off. Then add rock sugar and both kinds of soy sauce. Lower heat. Do not add water.
Simmer for three hours until the pork meat can be easily pierced by a chopstick and the skin is supple and tender. Remove pork from clay pot, reserving the liquid.
Add peeled boiled eggs to the clay pot and simmer in the cooking liquid for ten to fifteen minutes, until the eggs soak up the color of the soy sauce. We cook the eggs separately so they don’t get tough.
Finally, serve. Return the meat to the clay pot or arrange the stew on a plate with the juices spooned over. Best to enjoy this with white rice and a large crowd.