The Secret To This Melt-In-Your-Mouth Pork Is In The (Soy) Sauce

The key to authentic hongshao rou, or red-braised pork, is to use two different types of soy sauce — light and dark. (Courtesy of Oliver Wang)

Oliver Wang is a professor and occasional NPR music reviewer — not a professional cook. But he's spent years trying to perfect a common Chinese dish: hongshao rou, or red-braised pork.

"It's actually more of a deep brown, made from bite-sized morsels of pork belly, layered with skin, fat and meat, all deliciously braised in a salty, sweet sauce to become melt-in-your-mouth tender," he says.

In search of a recipe, he turned to his friend Gary Wang, a pork aficionado and restaurant owner in Shanghai. Gary says few places outside of China know how to make the dish correctly. They either slice the pork too thinly or add cornstarch to thicken the sauce.

The key, Gary says, is to use two different types of soy sauce — light and dark. The light, sheng chou, is the most common one used in Chinese cooking but is not the same thing as low-sodium brands sold in the U.S. Sheng chou is actually saltier than the dark, lao chou, which is thicker and sweetened.

"Lao chou basically gives the meat a dark color instead of the saltiness," Gary says.

Despite his expert opinions, Gary doesn't actually serve hongshao rou at his restaurant, The Grumpy Pig, because he doesn't have the right gas stoves to make it, he says. But you can still steal his recipe below.

Shanghainese Red-Braised Pork (Hongshao Rou)

One key difference between this and other recipes is the use of two different soy sauces to help balance color and flavor (see the note at bottom). Also, the long precook time will help guarantee a lusciously tender piece of pork, while finishing a hot braise with sugar will give the pork a tangy, caramelized exterior.

2 pounds pork belly, ideally with skin on and bone-in

4 tablespoons Chinese yellow cooking wine (huang jiu) or a dry sherry

1/4 cup Chinese dark soy sauce (lao chou) — you can substitute a low-sodium soy sauce/tamari but the color will be lighter

3 tablespoons Chinese light soy sauce (sheng chou)

6 thin slices of raw ginger

4 large sprigs green onion, cut into short pieces

3 tablespoons rock sugar (bing tang) or regular sugar

1/3 cup soybean or vegetable oil

Cut the pork belly into large cubes approximately 1 1/2 inches across. Rinse the pork, then place into a pot, covering it completely in cold water. Bring the water to a moderate boil, and cook pork for 10 minutes to remove scum. Discard cooking water and rinse the pork again.

Return the pork to the clean pot*, covering with cold water (add even more water this time, about 25 percent more than before). Add four slices of ginger and half the green onions to the pot. Bring the water to a boil at and then add two tablespoons yellow cooking wine and reduce to a minimum simmer. If you're cooking with a wok, precook time will average 90-120 minutes, but with a heavier Dutch oven, you may want to check the pork at 60-90 minutes instead. You want the meat to be tender but not on the verge of falling apart. Carefully set the pork aside but retain the cooking water as a pork broth.

Heat the oil to near smoking and then add the pork pieces into the wok/Dutch oven (be careful of splashing oil). Saute briefly to coat pork evenly with oil, add the remaining yellow cooking wine and let alcohol cook off (about 30 seconds).

Lower to a low boil, add some of the reserved pork broth, with just enough liquid to almost cover the meat. Mix in the rest of the ginger, green onion, and add the dark soy sauce, cooking for 10 minutes. Add light soy sauce, mixing evenly with pork. Lower heat to a simmer, cover with a lid, and continue braising for about 30 minutes. Occasionally mix the pork and liquid to ensure even flavor and color. The liquid should reduce significantly, and the meat should take on the rich brown color of the soy sauce during cooking.

Return the wok/pot to high heat. Add rock sugar, broken into small pieces. The sauce will caramelize quickly — within a minute or so. Turn and mix the pork to make sure the meat is covered evenly. Taste and adjust for sweetness. Remove from heat and serve in large bowl or clay pot.

*When using a Dutch oven or frying pan instead of a wok, be careful not to disturb the meat excessively as this could cause the pork to begin to fall apart. You will also want to adjust the heat down slightly as a heavy Dutch oven or pan will retain heat more than a wok normally would.

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Our Found Recipes series returns today with a story about a man, his friend and some pork.

OLIVER WANG, BYLINE: I can make a decent carnitas. And I've even roasted a whole pig in my backyard. But one dish that's eluded me is a favorite of my parents', who grew up in China and Taiwan - hongshao rou.

BLOCK: Hongshao rou - red-braised pork. Oliver Wang usually reviews music for us. But today, he wants to talk food. And we're going to let him.

O. WANG, BYLINE: Last fall, I went to Shanghai to attend a wedding of an old friend.

GARY WANG: Hi, I'm Gary Wang from Shanghai, China.

O. WANG: Gary and his wife Eileen (ph) wrote their own vows. And this is how Gary's vows began.

G. WANG: (Speaking foreign language).

O. WANG: To translate, he basically said before I met you, my loves were good music and pig meat. Gary owns the Shanghai eatery called The Grumpy Pig.

G. WANG: I named it Grumpy Pig because I'm grumpy.

O. WANG: I asked him about his favorite pork dish - hongshao rou, a.k.a red-braised pork. It's actually more of a deep brown, made from bite-size morsels of pork belly layered with skin, fat and meat, all deliciously braised in a salty-sweet sauce to become melt-in-your-mouth tender.

G. WANG: It's very savory. And, you know, the sauce of hongshao rou is really really good with the rice - white rice.

O. WANG: Hongshao rou is incredibly common throughout China. Yet Gary says no one outside of the country seems to get it right. He recently went to a Chinese restaurant in San Jose, California and sampled their version. Problem one...

G. WANG: They cut the pork belly pieces too small - really really small.

O. WANG: Problem two...

G. WANG: Not sweet enough - it's pretty salty.

O. WANG: And problem three...

G. WANG: They put cornstarch in the dish, which is - I really hate it.

O. WANG: Gary takes his hongshao rou seriously and says that another problem he's encountered outside of China is that you need more than just one kind of soy sauce. You need lao chou and you need sheng chou.

G. WANG: Lao chou is a dark and sheng chou is a lighter - and lao chou is basically give the meat the dark color instead of the saltiness.

O. WANG: Gary doesn't even serve the dish at The Grumpy Pig. They don't have the right gas stoves to make it the way he thinks is proper. But he has been thinking of opening up a second restaurant here in the States. Maybe once that happens, there'll finally be someplace outside of China where Gary can find his hometown's hongshao rou done right. In the meantime, I got his recipe and I'm giving it a try.

BLOCK: That's Oliver Wang, who's sharing his friend's recipe for hongshao rou on our Found Recipes page. It's at And here's a tip. Those soy sauces are key to this dish. And they can be found in specialty stores or online. Enjoy. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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