Seriously Asian: Red-Braising with Chili Bean Paste
The term "red-cooked" in Chinese cuisine typically refers to a braising preparation in which meat is stewed in soy sauce, wine, sugar, along with cinnamon, cloves, and star anise as spices. Out comes a very rich, very sweet meat dish that you'll see throughout eastern China.
Red-braising for the Sichuanese, however, is not soy-sauce based but rather, relies on chili bean paste as the main flavoring agent. The bean used in the paste is labeled as "broad bean" on the jars, but we know it better as the fava bean.
The best Sichuan-style bean pastes use nothing more than fava beans, chilies, salt, and wheat flour. Other kinds of bean pastes that contain soy beans and additions like sugar may be used as well, though you'll find that such pastes generally aren't as flavorful. If you're unsure what to buy when faced with all the jars of red paste at the Chinese market, look for chili bean paste that appears chunky but blended, and tastes like chilies and bean.
Of the three bean pastes, one has the distinctly red, well-blended look of a good chili bean paste, the other is less blended and contains soy beans, and the third is too blended and has too many additions, like sugar and MSG.
Though the main flavoring for a Sichuan-style red braise comes from the savory and spicy bean paste, the addition of Sichuan peppercorns and a lesser-known spice, Chinese cao guo, gives the braise the signature Sichuan tongue-numbingness. Cao guo is often called "false cardamom" because of the similar flavors Olive-shaped, this dried fruit is ridged and has the hardness and size of nutmegs. You'll find the spice in most Chinese supermarkets labeled as "Tsao Kuo" or "Drafting Fruit."
If I had to choose one red-braise to live with for the rest of my life, I'm not sure I could turn my back on the sweet, indulgent flavor of fatty pork braised in soy sauce and sugar, a flavor that I associate with my mother and home-cooking. But over the years, I've come to appreciate the deeper, more mature flavors: the salty umami-ness of bean pastes, the spiciness of chilies, and the ineffable magic of Sichuan peppercorns. It's red-braising, take two.