Explainers

What is red cooking?

We explain hong shao, a common Chinese braising technique that adds rich flavour and a red-tinted finish.

By Lisa Featherby
Red cooking
Red cooking, or hong shao, is a common style of braising originally from the Shanghai region, but now used throughout most of China. The red-cooking technique involves cooking ingredients – pork and other meats, chicken, tofu, eggs and vegetables – in light and dark soy sauce, Shaoxing wine, sugar, and spices, such as star anise and Sichuan peppercorns, resulting in a red-brown colour and a unique rich, caramelised flavour. Adjust the soy and sugar for the particular finish you're after: salty or sweet, light or sticky. There are two main methods: blanching the main ingredient then slowly braising it in the sauce, or browning in oil and the sauce then simmering in water until very tender.

Step 1

Cut 1kg boneless pork belly into 5cm-6cm cubes.
Step 1 Photo: Will Horner

Step 2

Bring a large saucepan of water to the boil, add pork, and blanch until water comes back to the boil (see cook's notes), then remove with a spider or slotted spoon and drain well.
Step 2 Photo: Will Horner

Step 3

Heat 2 tbsp vegetable oil in a large wok over medium-high heat. Add base flavours (such as 1 piece cassia bark, 2 spring onions cut into batons, 2 star anise, 2 dried red chillies and a thickly sliced knob of ginger), stir until fragrant and spices have released oil (1-2 minutes), then add pork.
Step 3 Photo: Will Horner

Step 4

Combine 100ml Shaoxing wine, 60ml light soy sauce and 2 tbsp dark soy sauce in a jug, adjusting soy to taste (this might seem a small amount, but the flavour will intensify as it reduces). Add soy mixture and 60gm crushed rock sugar to wok, adjusting to taste, then pour in enough water to just cover, stir to combine and bring to the boil. Reduce heat to low-medium and simmer, turning pork occasionally and topping up with water as necessary, until liquid has reduced and pork is tender and coated in a sticky sauce (1 to 1¼ hours).
Step 4 Photo: Will Horner

Step 5

Serve pork with steamed rice and thinly sliced spring onion.
Step 5 Photo: Will Horner