Monday, June 09, 2008

Caramelised plum and soy flavoured pork

This is a Chinese style dish my mum showed me. The pork ends up very tender and coated in a delicious sticky coating of a dark, complex, caramelised sauce, the result of frying the ingredients for a very long time. The cooking transforms the individual flavours of the ingredients into something quite different and much greater than 'the sum of the parts'.

Warning: I've written a really long description of the dish. I've tried to capture the rationale behind the use of the ingredients and the method, so you can understand why it's done that way.

Main ingredients

  • Pork, 1.5kg (if the cut contains bones, then more like 2kg)
    Use a cut of pork that you'd use for roasting, like some sort of pork leg or shoulder. You want it to be fairly fatty, so it can fry for a long time. You can drain the excess fat off at the end.
  • Plum jam/conserve, about 6 tablespoons.
  • Miso paste, about 6 tablespoons.
    This comes in white and red types, but I don't think it matters which you use.
  • Soy sauce
    Why soy in addition to the miso, considering that they have similar flavours? Even though the miso is fairly salty, for some reason you seem to loose that in the dish, but at the same time you don't want to add too much miso or it’d probably make the dish too soupy. So add some of the stronger, saltier soy. The combination of miso and soy probably adds a bit of a depth to the flavour.
  • Garlic, 8-10 cloves
  • Ginger, about 5 cm piece, but pureed ginger from a jar is fine (enough for about 6 tsp)
    These quantities of garlic and ginger might seem like a lot, but because the dish cooks for so long, and involves a lot of other strong flavours, you don’t really notice distinct garlic or ginger flavours at the end.

Secondary ingredients

These aren't necessary, but just add additional depth to the dish. In some of the cases, I'd need to experiment more with the dish to better see what difference they really make to it
  • Star anise, 2 or 3
    Definitely nice if you've got some. Alternatively, add some chinese five-spice powder towards the end of cooking (I think the flavour of it tends to get lost, otherwise).
  • Onion, 1
  • Red chillis, 5
    Use the ordinary red cayenne chillis. If you want it hot, you could use bird's eyes.
  • Green shallots
    Recommended - to add at the end, for the look and the texture.
  • Chinese rice wine
    Not sure how much difference this makes, though the dish is tasty with or without it.

Serving suggestions

Goes best with rice.
As the flavours are so strong, it’s nice to have it with some fairly mild vegetables.
Like some fairly simple chinese greens. I fry them with a little garlic and soy, then wilt them down.
And some lebanese cucumbers, sliced into little rounds. These are a nice refreshing foil to the dish's richness.
To make it look more special, you could sprinkle it with some sesame seeds, and then garnish it with some coriander and finely sliced red chilli. Visually, the white, green and red looks nice in contrast with the near black colour of the meat.
I think the nuttiness and slight sweetness of the sesame seeds goes well with the sauce.

Method - the basic idea

You have to cook the dish for a long time (I’d say at least 2 hrs). Basically, you’re frying the ingredients, to turn the mixture from a fairly light brown colour to a very dark, essentially black, colour.

It’s not very touchy about when you add all of the different ingredients, as long as once they’re all in, it gets to fry for quite a while. It seems to be the longer you cook it, the better it comes out. The flavours come out better, and the meat gets more tender. Because of the fat in it, as long as the temperature is not too high, I think it’s hard to overcook it.

Usually, I cut the meat up first, get that browned at a high-heat, and then start preparing the other ingredients and adding them when they’re ready. You want to turn the heat down a bit before any of those other ingredients get burnt.

Method - specifics
  • Preheat the pan at a fairly high temperature, for browning the meat. Add a fair amount of oil (you'll drain of excess fat later).
  • Chop up then brown the meat
    Debone the meat, then cut the skin and the fat under it off it. You can add the bones and the fat for flavour (and take them out later).
    Cut the meat into fairly large chunks -- at least an inch square, on average -- as the strong flavours of the sauce would be a bit overwhelming with small pieces.
  • One at a time, finely chop then add each of the following
    If any of this starts to look like it's going to burn, turn the heat down
    • the onion, if using
    • garlic
    • ginger (or just add the ginger puree).
    • chilli
      Cut fairly coarsely. It’ll cook for a while, so will become quite soft and coz everything gets covered in the thick dark sauce, you can’t see the chilli if it’s too small.
      If you don’t want it hot, remove the seeds and the dish won't be hot at all.
    • star anise, if using
  • If you haven't already, turn the heat down so it's frying at a moderate level
  • Then add the miso and jam, a few splashes of soy sauce, and a generous spash of rice wine.
    It’s probably better not to add them all at once, so you can keep it frying, rather than steaming/boiling (but it's ok to add them both at once.. once it's dried out enough it’ll be frying for ages anyway).
    With the miso and jam and juice from the meat, it'll proably look like its boiling, but if you scape the wooden spoon / spatula along the bottom of the pan, you should hear a frying sound. It should be gentle-moderate, not too vigorous. You basically want to keep this going the whole time.
  • Stir from time to time (I probably wouldn't leave it for more than 20 minutes without stirring).
    It’s ok if you get a bit stuck to the bottom of the pan – that’s probably a good part of the caramelisation process. Just unstick it with the wooden spoon. If it gets too dry or is sticking too much, you can add some water to help deglaze it, and then just evaporate that off over time.
  • The dish is done when the sauce has turned black.
    I'd expect the meat to be tender at this point, but if it isn't cook it longer (if necessary, add some water).
    You definitely want to keep cooking it until the sauce gets very dark and quite reduced (so it’s mainly coating the meat, rather than like a free liquid – it’s too strong to just have by itself). The flavour there is just so much better. It starts out with a relatively light brown colour, and while it’s at the stages before it gets really dark, the flavours just aren’t as good.
  • Chop the green parts of the green shallots into approx 3cm long lengths, and add them to the dish, and cook till they wilt. You can probably turn the heat off when you add them.
    You want long bits because it wilts a bit and folds up, and it looks nicer against the fairly large pieces of meat, and I think you need more sustantial bits of it to get the flavour against the very strong sauce.
  • Before serving, you can drain off the liquid fat that's pooled on the surface - which might not sound so nice, but you'll be getting rid of it.

Thoughts / variations

Pork seems to go well with these flavours. Which makes sense given that pork is the meat most commonly used in asian dishes, and asian flavours basically seem designed to work well with it. I haven't tried it with beef or lamb (which'd be interesting to do). You could possibly use chicken thighs. Though not something like chicken breasts, which wouldn't be robust enough for the long cooking.

My mum tells me you can also use orange marmalade instead of the plum jam. Apparently as a kid they used dried orange peel in it (I guess along with some other source of sugar), but marmalade works well.

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