We called it the food of the gods, the amber nectar. It was our solace after a long day’s training, a reason for living after endless hours practicing forms and running up countless steps. For years, a friend of mine sought the recipe, only to discover that he was unable to replicate its magical taste; he couldn’t quite match the zest or sweetness of the sauce, or achieve the required crispness that gave its batter that gorgeous pop-corn crunch we remembered so well.
I speak, of course, of guobaorou (锅包肉), the famous Dongbei (东北)-cuisine pork dish I discovered in 2002 as a student of the Northern China Shaolin Martial Arts Academy at Yehe Ancient Castle in Jilin Province.
While studying kung fu and living in the castle, we ate rice three times a day, ranging from fermented glutinous rice soup for breakfast, through plain old steamed rice for lunch, to the luxury of egg-fried rice for dinner. There were other things to pick at, but it was not uncommon to have roaches running through the vegetables and other dishes. It didn’t matter: we were so hungry we didn’t care.
All that changed when we discovered guobaorou at a restaurant in the nearby Ye He village (叶赫村）. We became addicted, stealing out of the castle with increasing frequency to gorge ourselves on the tasty deep-fried porky goodness. Once smitten, we couldn’t look back. After two months subsisting on variations of rice, guobaorou was like a Michelin-star meal every time we ate it.
Now, 10 years later, our food editor He Juling has done the legwork to give the dish the historical and cultural fanfare it deserves.
Zheng Xingwen (郑兴文), the private chef for the highest officials in the Harbin government, first whipped up the dish in the early 20th century. Zheng’s technique was simple. He quickly stir-fried the pork in a hot wok, then poured a salty and thick sauce onto the pork so the meat absorbed its flavors, giving the dish its original name – guobaorou (锅爆肉, stir-fried pork in the wok). At the time, the Harbin government often welcomed Russian guests, but the original recipe was a bit too heavy for their tastes, so Zheng remodeled the dish by introducing its now distinctive sweet and sour flavor. The Russians were delighted, and much like the Ye He kung fu students 100 years later, ordered the dish every time they visited. However, the foreign guests had problems when they tried to pronouce the dish in Chinese, leading its name to morph to its current form, guobaorou (锅包肉).
Before the Xi’an Incident (1936), the northeastern provinces were administrated by Zhang Xueliang’s (张学良) family, and dishes cooked up for top Harbin government officials were kept a closely guarded secret.
During the International Plague Conference held in Shenyang in 1911, Zheng Xingwen (郑兴文)’s cooking technique was highly praised by visiting international dignitaries, and he was awarded a plaque reading: 滨江膳祖 (Bīnjiāng shàn zǔ, the creator of Bīnjiāng cuisine).
Guobaorou was unanimously voted one of the chef’s most delicious dishes, triggering the spread of its fame across the country and beyond. After Japan occupied Heilongjiang Province, Zhang Xueliang began to lose his grip on northeast China, and his government’s secret recipes gradually began to seep out of Harbin and into the wider world. During a process akin to Chinese whispers, guobaorou was slightly altered as it traveled, with cooks in Liaoning Province adding tomato sauce as the final step, and other regional flourishes emerging according to taste.
If you want to enjoy authentic guobaorou, you still need to go to Harbin, or at least northeastern China. It’s said that it basically means nothing if a person can make all the northeastern cuisine dishes except for guobaorou, but those who have mastered guobaorou are instantly qualified to open a restaurant.
One guobaorou recipe goes as follows:
Ingredients: (serve 2 – 3 people)
200g pork loin, cut into thin slivers about 2mm thick
1 tbsp light soy sauce
2 tsp Chinese cooking wine
1/2 cup potato starch or cornflour (cornstarch)
a little over 1/4 cup water
oil for frying
1 red chilli cut into long thin strips (about 1 tbsp)
2 – 3 spring onion (scallion) cut into long thin strips or long slices
1 (thumb size) piece of ginger shredded into very fine thin strips
5 tbsp Chinese red or black rice vinegar
2 – 3 tbsp sugar
2 tsp light soy sauce
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
a little fresh cooking oil or meat frying oil
extra spring onion and chilli for garnish
- Marinate the pork slivers with soy, a touch of salt and rice wine and leave for 15 – 20 min.
- Mix chilli, spring onion, ginger, vinegar and sugar together. Leave aside.
- Mix 5 tbsps flour, a third of a cup of water and 1/2 tbsp vegetable oil to make dipping batter. If the starch mixture is too thick or hard, add a touch more water. The starch should stick to the meat in an even thin film.
- Heat the oil till hot. You can test with a few droplets batter; if they sizzle rapidly without burning too quickly the oil is hot enough.
- Take one piece of battered meat at a time, make sure you spread it out like a little blanket (I find picking up the meat with both hands is much easier). Gently lay the meat into the hot oil. Fry a few pieces of meat at a time till golden brown and the coating is hard and crunchy.
- Take the meat out and drain on kitchen towel. (You can keep the cooked pieces in a warm oven to keep them hot.) If the meat pieces are quite large, cut into smaller pieces. If you really want to maximise the crunch, allow to drip dry and then rapidly refry one more time.
- Pour out most of your frying oil, leaving about 1 tbsp (or you can use fresh cooking oil). Fry the garlic with it then add in the vinegar mixture. Let this come to the boil. Turn the heat off and add in the meat pieces and toss quickly. There should not be much sauce left. The coated meat should look glossy yet remain crunchy. Put this on a serving plate and top with a little garnishes.
- Serve hot.
How about another Chinese pork dish. It’s a little strange to look at, though.