Several years ago while living in Rwanda, I ordered the Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook probably from amazon.com. Rwanda’s infrastructure, still recovering from the unbelievable genocide that claimed over a million lives, had regressed to almost a precolonial state. The capitol, Kigali, had very few supermarkets(one, small) and a lot of those little stores that sold the basics; salt, flour, rice etc.
There was one store run by a second generation immigrant Indian couple in their sixties whose grandparents left India for Rwanda in the 1800s . They told me that they had visited India once when they were in their 30s but felt like foreigners and couldn’t wait to return home.
Their store was very “A Bend in the River”. All of the food and supplies were behind a very large counter, the owners manning the cash register and waiting on the customers with the help of two young men for fetching and carrying. You would request items directly from one of the owners, who would relay this to the clerks, who found the items and placed them on the counter. After all the items were bagged and paid for, the clerks loaded them into your car. Very accommodating, if they didn’t have something you wanted, sometimes they could acquire those items through who knows what means. Still, they were friendly, reliable and one of the most interesting families that I met in Rwanda. But even with the help of this resourceful couple, it was impossible to plan menus that involved anything more than meat, potatoes and vegetables in their most basic forms. The Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook languished.
The Christmas of that first year in Rwanda, we decided to spend in our house in France. The cookbook came along with me, as visions of condiments danced in my head.
The Sens market is well stocked with both locally produced and imported meats, vegetables, fruits and cheeses. There is so much to choose from that it is hard to choose. So I calmed myself, looked through the cookbook twice and chose the Chairman Mao’s pork belly recipe. This has become a family favorite; with caramelized sugar, the aroma of star anise and cinnamon, this dish is irresistible. I’ve changed it up a bit from the first time I made it, but the original recipe works just fine. I like to accompany it with a stir fry of noodles and vegetables.
CHAIRMAN MAO’S PORK BELLY
2 lb Pork belly
4 tbsp peanut oil
4 tbsp white sugar
2 tbsp sake or Chinese wine
1 inch piece of fresh ginger, sliced with skin
2 star anise
1 stick of cinnamon broken in two pieces
2 dried red chillies
Light soy sauce, salt and sugar
Score the pork belly, salt the skin well and refrigerate overnight. Prick the skin all over with a fork and roast the pork for about 45 minutes at 425 degrees to brown and crisp the skin if you can. I couldn’t. Remove from oven and cut into squares.
Heat the oil and sugar in a wok over a gentle flame until the sugar melts, then raise the heat and stir until the melted sugar turns a rich caramel brown. Add the pork and splash in the wine. Add water to cover, along with the ginger, star anise, chillies and cinnamon stick. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer for 40-50 minutes.
Towards the end of the cooking time, turn up the heat to reduce the sauce and season with soy sauce, salt and a little sugar to taste. Add the spring onions just before serving.
Wine suggestion: Alsatian Riesling