China's Flavorful Red-Cooking Technique Uses Just A Few Ingredients

In her book "Land of Fish & Rice," British author Fuschia Dunlop writes of the legend that inspired a dish to be called Motherly Love Pork. It was said to have been prepared by a woman who was waiting for her son to return after taking the imperial civil service tests. She had wanted to greet him with his favorite meal, a braised pork-and-egg stew, but because the journey to the capital city Beijing took much longer than expected, she ended up having to cook the stew off-and-on over a three-day period, which yielded not just more tender pork, but a richer, flavorful sauce, too, per Sous Chef.

Braising is a popular way of cooking up different dishes in China, but it is said to be especially beloved in the northern port city of Shanghai, as is the stewing style known as hong shao or red cooking. Red cooking is a slow braising technique that leaves the ingredients with a reddish hue thanks to its deliciously rich sauce. Ingredients that can stand up to longer periods of cooking can be prepared this way, including chicken, tofu, some seafood like fish, and vegetables.

The essentials for red cooking are probably in your pantry

The essentials for a good red braising liquid include dark soy sauce, rock sugar, and Chinese cooking wine, aka Shaoxing wine (if you don't have Shaoxing wine, dry sherry or Japanese mirin will work too). For spices, you can add cassia bark and star anise, and for aromatics, fresh ginger, garlic, and spring onion are good options.  

The use of light soy sauce as an ingredient in a red braising liquid is a matter of some dispute. Some recipes call for it to be used alongside dark soy, while others dispense with it altogether. From a texture and flavor standpoint, light soy sauce is neither as thick nor as sweet as dark soy, so light soy needs to be tweaked with the addition of sugar or molasses, per The Woks of Life

Once the ingredients for the red braising liquid have been assembled, all you need to work out is what you want to cook. You might find that, like the mother in our story, you've got time on your hands, in which case you might want to cook up Fuschia Dunlop's recipe for braised pork and egg, which will take over a day. But if you're pressed for time, other recipes for red-braised pork or chicken won't need as much time to prep, so you might want to go for that instead. 

The secrets to successful red cooking

In his book "Phoenix Claws and Jade Trees," food blogger and cookbook author Kian Lam Kho points out that the secret to good hong shao or red cooking lies in the cook's ability to keep an eye on the cooking time and temperature. If the cooking temperature is too low, the main ingredient may not properly absorb the flavors of the liquid it is being cooked in. 

Be prepared to play around with ingredients. For instance, red braised fish might only need ginger and scallions — but it will also benefit from Chinese black vinegar added to the original list of liquid braising ingredients. The ingredient list for red braised chicken is more simple than red braised pork: on the list of aromatics, you'll only need ginger and scallions. But there is also corn starch, which is needed to thicken the sauce. 

In terms of cooking times, Kho suggests 90 minutes is needed when you are using the red-cooking method to make pork belly, up to three hours when cooking beef tendon, up to 30 minutes when braising your favorite root vegetables, while fish shouldn't need more than 20 minutes. But no matter what you do, Kho stresses that you need to keep an eye on your pot because the liquid cannot be allowed to run out.