Hui guo rou, which literally means "back-in-the-pot meat," is the most famous and profoundly loved of all the dishes of Sichuan. This quirky combination of intensely flavored, fragrant pork and fresh green vegetables is a source of great nostalgia for Sichuanese people living abroad, and it often seems to be tied up with elderly people's childhood memories. One Chengdu roast duck vendor, Mr. Liu, told me that in the preindustrial days, when pork came from free-range, naturally fed pigs, a whole neighborhood would know immediately if someone was eating hui guo rou, so captivating was its smell. According to one of my written sources, the dish was eaten with ritualistic regularity at meetings of Sichuan's notorious secret societies — before the communists wiped them out. It is still nicknamed "secret society meat" (pao ge rou) in some parts of western Sichuan.
Hui guo rou derives its name from the fact that the pork is first boiled, then fried in a wok, with plenty of hot, beany flavorings, until it is sizzlingly delicious. Sichuanese cooks traditionally use a cut of pork thigh that is split evenly between fat and lean, with a layer of skin over the top. The cooking method makes it extraordinarily tasty, and if you eat it with plain steamed rice, it makes a wonderful meal. The old Chengdu word for the curved shape of the pork pieces in the final dish is deng zhan wo xing, "lamp-dish slices," because they look like the tiny dishes that were filled with oil and used as lamps in pre-revolutionary China.
Sichuanese cooks traditionally use a vegetable known as green garlic or Chinese leeks (suan miao) in this dish. Baby leeks are a very acceptable substitute. Ordinary leeks can be substituted if they are green and leafy, but since they are less tender they must be prefried (just toss them in a wok over a high flame, with a little peanut oil, for less than a minute to "break their rawness," and set them aside. The fried leeks can be added to the wok at the same time as the baby leeks in the recipe). The cut of pork favored in Sichuan is hard to come by, so I've suggested using pork belly, which is of a similar character and available in Chinese as well as Italian and Hispanic markets.
Please note that the pork is best cooked at least a couple of hours in advance of the main wok-frying (it can be cooked the day before).
Serves 2 as a main dish served with plain rice, 4 with two or three other dishes as part of a Chinese meal
3/4 pound fresh, boneless pork belly, with skin still attached
6 baby leeks or 6 tender, leafy leeks
2 tablespoons peanut oil or lard
1 1/2 tablespoons chili bean paste
1 1/2 teaspoons Sichuanese sweet wheaten paste or sweet bean paste
2 teaspoons fermented black beans
1 teaspoon dark soy sauce
1 teaspoon white sugar
1. Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add the pork, return to a boil, and then simmer at a gentler heat until just cooked — this should take 20-25 minutes, depending on the thickness of the pork. Remove the pork from the water and allow to cool (don't forget that you can reserve the cooking water and add it to the stockpot). Place the meat in the refrigerator for a couple of hours or more to firm up the flesh — this makes it possible to slice it thinly without the fat and lean parts separating.
2. When the meat is completely cold, slice it thinly. (In Sichuan, each piece would be about 2 inches by 1 inch and half fat and half lean meat, with a strip of skin at the top.)
3. Chop the leeks diagonally at a steep angle into thin, 1 1/2-inch-long "horse ear" slices.
4. Season the wok, then add another 2 tablespoons of oil or lard over a medium-hot flame, add the pork pieces, and stir-fry until their fat has melted out and they are toasty and slightly curved. Push the pork to one side of the wok and tip the chili bean paste into the space you have created. Stir-fry it for 20-30 seconds until the oil is richly red, then add the sweet bean paste and black beans and stir-fry for another few seconds until they too smell delicious. Mix everything in the wok together and add the soy sauce and sugar, seasoning with a little salt if necessary.
5. Finally, add the leeks and stir and toss until they are just cooked. Turn onto a serving dish and eat immediately.
The core of this legendary dish is the fat-lean pork, first boiled and then fried, but there are infinite variations. Some cooks use red or green bell peppers instead of leeks; others add deliciously crunchy pieces of deep-fried flatbread (guo kuei) in the final stages of cooking to make what's called guo kuei hui guo rou (deep-fried pita bread can be used instead). Long, green Chinese scallions can also be used instead of leeks.
Reprinted from Land of Plenty: Authentic Sichuan Recipes Personally Gathered in the Chinese Province of Sichuan by Fuchsia Dunlop. Copyright (c) 2001 by Fuchsia Dunlop. With permission from the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.
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