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I'm So Ready to Throw a Comfort-Food Dinner Party Once Again

When I host a dinner party I usually get a big chunk of pork jowl or shoulder or belly: Making a big pork dish is typically my go-to. During the pandemic I found an amazing pork purveyor in L.A., where I'm based, called Peads & Barnetts. They raise Berkshire hogs and sell every part of the pig. I've been missing those big pork dinners, but now that I've moved into a new place with a backyard, I've got an outdoor dining setup that's perfect for hosting in a post-vaccination world. Homestyle and comfort food is usually what I reach for these days, and all three of these dishes are definitely that for me.

I lived in Shanghai for seven years, and one of my favorite dishes from there is red braised pork belly, hong shao rou. This recipe from Betty Liu's My Shanghai has a lot of the same elements, with the addition of preserved mustard greens, which makes it saltier and more savory. Hong shao rou is made with rich, fatty pork-sometimes I use shoulder, but traditionally it's pork belly. (If I use pork shoulder, I'll shred the meat like pulled pork, which you can use in tacos or dumplings.) The sauce is made with dark soy sauce and light soy sauce; the dark soy sauce functions for color and depth of flavor, while the light soy sauce adds saltiness. Rock sugar is also key to the sauce. I find that it's not as sweet as regular cane sugar, and it gives your food a beautiful glaze. When you cook rock sugar with dark soy sauce, light soy sauce, Shaoxing wine, star anise, and cassia bark, it becomes this incredibly aromatic sauce. You can cook it for a long time on super-low heat and the flavor just penetrates the meat, which becomes so, so tender. I can't even describe how good it is.

The preserved mustard greens are called mei gan cai. It's just the leaves of the plant, as opposed to zha cai, which is the pickled stem, or suan cai, which is a combination of the two. (And then there's ya cai, which you'd use in dan dan noodles and is a little bit sweeter.) The difference between them also lies in how they're fermented. Suan cai and ya cai are usually lacto-fermented in a saltwater brine with baijiu and spices. Mei gan cai is sun-dried, salted, and then kneaded until the juices are exuded, and then it's left to ferment. Since regular hong shao rou is quite sweet, the mei gan cai makes this version more savory. It adds a bit of texture as well because the pork just melts in your mouth.

I almost always finish my hong shao rou with a little bit of our Fly by Jing Sichuan Chili Crisp-just a tablespoon. It adds just a little bit of heat but so many more layers of flavor that saves you hours of cooking. Chili crisp already has that depth. I think it just takes it up a notch.

Alongside the pork, I'd serve this recipe for Fish Fragrant Eggplant from Dan Hong's Mr. Hong, which is a beautiful dish. It's really bright, warm, and red, and it has these very complex flavors. The pickled chiles in the fermented fava bean paste, or doubanjiang, add an instant depth of flavor because there's this element of time in the ingredients.

Erjingtiao chiles are the most popular variety of chile in Sichuan, and they're often used in doubanjiang because they are quite mild but really fragrant and flavorful. In Chengdu, for example, the goal is not to get as spicy as you can, but to get the most flavor and balance. Some chiles are closer to ghost peppers, used purely for their heat, but they're not known to be very fragrant. Other chiles are simply brighter in color and make the dish look more appealing. Erjingtiao is usually mixed into a blend because it's mild and you can keep eating throughout the meal-you don't have to stop because it's too spicy.

For this kind of dish, I use a doubanjiang that we carry at Fly by Jing, which is aged for three years. It's got such depth and complexity. It's intense! The best kind comes from Pixian, which is a county about a half hour from Chengdu. There are hundreds of factories there that make doubanjiang, from super-small producers to large industrial ones. If you go to a grocery store in the U.S., you might see different types of doubanjiang, which is sometimes called "soybean paste" in the eastern parts of China. But in Sichuan it specifically refers to fava beans. Fava beans, erjingtiao chiles, and salt are the basic ingredients for doubanjiang, and it's traditionally fermented in big clay crocks that workers mix up every day so that it gets even exposure to the elements.

The varieties available in the grocery stores are typically younger and very red. They're often fermented for less than a month and they're much less complex in flavor than the three-year version we sell. For something like mapo tofu, I would use half of the three-year doubanjiang and half of a younger one so that you get more color.

I love this dish because "fish fragrant" is a classic flavor profile from Sichuan, and it's such a crowd-pleaser with its perfect balance of spicy, sweet, and tart. You might expect it to be fishy, but there's no fish in the sauce. The sauce is really xia fan, or "go down with rice." (Or, in this case, bread.) Eggplant is such a great vegetable for fish fragrant sauce because it soaks up the flavor, and it's really great on rice. 

The typical version of fish fragrant eggplant is a little bit soft. But Dan Hong's version has a batter that makes it super, super crispy. His sauce also contains glucose, which is unconventional, but what results is this glaze that's almost like candy. Along with the pickled chile flavor, the aromatics, the doubanjiang, and that crunch of the eggplant, it just becomes something really special.

Paratha works really well with the sauces for both the pork and the eggplant dishes. Usually you'd serve them with rice, but paratha is just fun. It's pull-apart bread! I love Mandy Lee's recipe from The Art of Escapism Cooking. She just uses oil, but sometimes I'll use lard or coconut oil, which makes it even flakier. I might even add our Mala Spice Mix, which contains 11 herbs and spices, into the paratha dough. 

You can dunk the paratha in our Zhong Sauce or Sichuan Chili Crisp. It'd also be great with a chili crisp vinaigrette, which is made with equal parts soy sauce and black vinegar, some sugar or honey, and Sichuan Chili Crisp. The 10-Year Aged Black Vinegar we sell is so much smoother than younger ones. It's like balsamic-super smooth and umami-rich. You could literally drink it.

I like serving shrub sodas to round out the dinner party. Fly by Jing started as a pop-up restaurant, and a shrub soda would always be the opening aperitif, depending on whatever fruit was in season. It's great for getting your palate ready and for digestion, before you put all this rich, delicious food in your belly.

As told to Matthew Zuras. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


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