Friday, March 27, 2009

Highlight #161: Red cooked pork - Restaurant: Jesse (Shanghai)

For many Shanghainese, Jesse is almost synonymous with "classic home style Shanghainese" cooking. Unlike the much larger and fancier banquet halls, this twelve table spot does not go for glamor or variety, but rather excels in a few signature dishes. Its immense success over the years led to the opening of a number of child restaurants, but each still follows the same formula of limited seating and simple food. The most famous of Jesse's classic dishes is probably "grandma's red cooked pork," a textbook perfect rendition of the genre-defining cooking style.

Here the dish is served glistening in a clay pot. The color is of the most alluring deep dark red, a result of highly caramelized pork fat and what the Chinese call "red sugar" (kinda like brown sugar, but the molasses content imparts a more intense red than brown). If you look carefully, you can see my husband's chopsticks at the ready in the background. He couldn't wait for me finish the photo so he can dig in.

For red cooked pork or hong shao rou, the cut of pork used is as important as the cooking. By that I mean that it requires the most perfectly proportioned belly meat to provide a top layer of chewy skin, a huge cushion of translucent fat, and a comparably thinner layer of lean. Essentially, this dish is more about the treatment of the fat than probably any other part. Very slow cooking renders some of the fat, which combines with the red sugar and dark soy to create that lip sticking sauce. But the fat that remains turns completely soft and white jade-like in appearance and melts in the mouth like the most luxurious candy. (Imagine the melty fat part near the bone of a very tender bbq pork rib and you've pretty much got the mouth feel). My favorite part, however, is the skin. It chews like a savory and sweet gummy bear that makes your lips stick together.

At the bottom of the pot are these soy skin knots. Soften by the fat and soak with all the juices, they taste entirely meaty with a faint nuttiness.

To counter the intense luxuriousness of the red cooked pork, we also ordered a light vegetable medley and this village style chicken soup pot. While what you notice first is a whole chicken in the pot, this pot is more about the soup than the chicken. Just a slow rendering of chicken flavored with some goji berries, the soup illustrates the essence of a free range village chicken, which, unlike what you find at the supermarket, is largely comprised of dark meat, more prized here in China than the white bland stuff.

To illustrate that point, I've taken some meat from near the chicken breast here. I don't think you can really call this white meat.

The famous dessert here (although it's not billed as dessert on the menu) is the adorably nicknamed "soft and tender in the heart." The soft and tender part is a sweet mochi, which is stuffed inside a seeded red jujube. After boiling, the mochi stuffed jujubes are quickly glazed in a hot wok with molten sugar. It comes to the table scorching hot (they don't worry about possible burn liabilities here in China. Diners are responsible for injuries caused by their own lack of common sense or stupidity. What a concept! :)) The key is to eat this slightly cooled, but not too cold so that the sugar cause everything to stick together. It's quite a trick, but one worth mastering for the pleasure.

Every few years I return to Jesse for the same dishes to reinforce my memory of their goodness.

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