I first tried this recipe from Fuschia Dunlop’s cookbook ‘Revoltuionary Chinese Cookbook’ when I wasn’t vegan. I remembered the flavors being so unique. There were spices I was not used to cooking with in savory recipes like cinnamon bark and star anise. But in addition to that, Fuschia starts off this recipe essentially making a dark caramel with sugar, so the dish was actually sweet-savory, which I love.
So the technique of cooking “hong shao rou” is called “red cooking” or red braising. The red color is really more of an orange brown and comes usually from a dark soy sauce. In this recipe, the initial caramel made with peanut oil and sugar also add to this.
When I was trying to find a substitute for the pork belly, the natural choice was jackfruit, which rips very much like meat. In addition to jackfruit, I wanted to try it with a smoked tofu, which I thought could substitute for the meatiness of pork. I like both options, but the jackfruit was the clear winner because it soaked up the flavors of the sauce so well.
A word of caution is to be careful in the beginning when you are browning the sugar and the peanut oil. Although it doesn’t bubble too much like caramel, the mixture gets amazingly hot, so when you add in the jackfruit and spices, be careful. After that initial step, the rest is smooth-sailing and the recipe is quite amazing in taste for how much effort is involved.