Chopstick Challenge: Twice-cooked pork
In a dark moment of Sichuan provinces’s political history, conspirators pledged their loyalty to secret societies by sharing a dinner of twice-cooked pork (huiguorou). Considering how delicious this dish is, this doesn’t seem a particularly arduous initiation, but the tradition accounts for the nickname of the dish: “secret society pork.”
No other dish embodies the ease of preparation and intricacy of flavor better than Sichuan twice-cooked pork. To ensure the thinnest cut and choicest texture, the fatty pork is boiled and cooled before it is carved. Once back in the wok, the slices coil and become translucent while tossed with leeks, cabbage, bell peppers, bread twists or mushrooms.
The "twice-cooked" process is sacred, but the ingredients and spices vary from chef to chef, meaning that there are few "best" recipes, only a host of delicious variations for us to try. We pounded the Shanghai pavement -- and tripped over a few loose bricks along the way -- to try three twice cooked pork recipes for three dramatically different, delectable experiences.
Jiao Tu San Ku 椒兔三酷
1333 Huaihai Zhong Lu 淮海中路1333号, +86 21 6431 5021
The Place: Caught between a parking lot and a bar-cum-arcade, Jiao Tu San Ku gets less traffic than it deserves. The drab interior didn’t prepare us for the explosive flavors we were about to experience. The Sichuan cook here also makes delicious rabbit dishes and charms sweet fire out of everything he touches. This is the real deal.
Price: RMB 32
Features: Spectacular sweet and sour jolt.
The Dish: Jiao Tu San Ku stir-fries bell peppers with slender sliced pork. A startling tangy attack is followed the lasting hotness of chili-infused oil that permeates the meat. This recipe is not "homey" (as is its reputation), but spicy and marvelous.
Comments: Louis, businessman, France: “I’ve never enjoyed bell peppers so much.”
Andre, businessman, France “My god, Louis would love this.”
Wu Qing, realtor, Shandong: “Not ordinary, very Sichuan.”
Verdict: One slice of pork can circumnavigate the flavor wheel.
Yuxiang Renjia 渝乡人家
918 Huaihai Zhong Lu 淮海中路918号, +86 21 6415 9778
The Place: Yuxiang Renjia is simply a nice place, with a kitchen staff we love. The cooks are practiced, versatile and, on occasion, quietly experimental.
Price: RMB 32
Features: Fantastic textures.
The Dish: Yuxiang chefs toss pork with preserved mustard tuber, twisted dried mushrooms and baby leeks. The resulting wavy edges and smokey curves provide good fun for inquisitive tongues -- nicely set off by doughy buns on the margins of the plate. This version is delightfully chewy, spicy, heavy, complex and earthy.
Luba, interpreter, Ukraine : “I don’t know what I’m eating right now, but it tastes great.”
Gert, writer, Austria: “Almost like a French dish -- I think it’s the mushrooms.”
Mahnoo Kwon, university dean, Korea: “Mmm … I think these are pickles.”
Verdict:Sophisticated flavors in a country dish.
Hong Qi Lin 洪齐林老镇
727-2 An'yuan Lu 安远路727-2号, +86 21 6232 9012
The Place: This restaurant economizes on rent, cutlery and pantry space (come late and your favorites are sold out) but spares no effort in the kitchen. The menu is a key rack of narrow wooden tablets nailed to the wall, and the waiters radiate earnestness and nonchalance of young brothers about to conquer the world.
Price: RMB 26
Features: Porcine essence.
The Dish: Honoring the culinary tradition of Shanghai countryside, Hong Qi Lin sweetens the sauce with wheaten paste and just a pinch of chili beans. Sopping up the saltiness of the soy sauce and clinging to the meat, the toasty cabbage proves a perfect companion. If they run out of cabbage and throw in a different vegetable, it doesn’t matter, the cook has mastered the art of bringing out the clean savory essence of cooked pork.
Diana Hoon, designer, Singapore: “The meat is so delicious.”
Mao Mao, student, Shanghai: “This is as it should be. This is classic.”
Owen Huang, photographer, Hong Kong: “Pretty filling… I’m eating too much. ”
Verdict:An exceptional case where Shanghainese treatment perfects a Sichuan specialty.