This is my first multi-course lunch.
Motivated by the momentum of last night’s impromptu baking of my peanut butter and banana cake, and encouraged by how good the cake actually tasted (it has been a hit with the family – even my brother wondered how come my attempt seemed a lot better than his), I woke up this morning feeling a burst of creativity. In fact, I was so inspired, I headed straight to the supermarket after waking and washing up.
For my lunch this afternoon, I decided to cook two dishes: a simple cabbage and carrot soup, and a Peranakan classic, cincalok pork belly.
First of, I have to say that I don’t possess any natural culinary talent. A lot of my accummulated “experience” comes from my stint as a food writer, watching BBC Lifestyle and TLC and getting inspired by personalities like Gordon Ramsay, Rachel Khoo, Rick Stein and Anthony Bourdain, and of course, the web, for step-by-step easy recipes. I believe in simple recipes, and coming out with dishes that taste rich and sophisticated.
Cincalok Pork Belly
Cincalok hails from Malacca, and is subsequently, one of the most ubiquitous condiments in Peranakan cuisine. It’s essentially made of fermented small shrimps and krill, and has a salty taste with a sour spinoff. Cincalok pairs really well with fried or barbecued seafood such as fried fish steaks or barbecued stingray. The fermented shrimp also plays a central theme in a classic Peranakan dish, cincalok pork belly.
The most extreme Peranakan cuisine purists get really particular about the quality of the shrimp and the fermentation, treating it in the same vein as wine appreciation. However, in recent years, perhaps because of consumer demand or relaxed trade agreements, the ones you get off-the-shelf at supermarkets in Singapore are nowadays virtually the same product you’d find in the hometown of cincalok, Malacca, and are very high quality.
This recipe (I can’t remember the site) that I adapted from, is actually from an Australian Chinese (former Malaysian) food blogger, so it’s not actually the classic way it’s done. However, it’s a good initiation for anybody who hasn’t tried the dish because the flavors are slightly muted (cincalok is, as I mentioned earlier, very pungent) while it still retains the essence of what the dish is about.
Pork Belly: Make sure you choose a cut which has the layers of skin, fat and meat. The richness of the belly is really one of the few cuts of pork which can really balance the intensity of the cincalok. You may replace the pork belly with chicken, but again, choose a cut which has the skin on.
Lemongrass: Just one stalk will do. I got a packet of 10 stalks for just SGD 0.85, and I’m considering doing an ice-cold lemongrass tea beverage over the weekend to alleviate the warm, humid weather here in Singapore.
Shallots: Sliced red onions.
Sliced Red Chili: I bought the piping hot Vietnamese red chili, which looks like a cross between chili padi (bird’s eye chili) and regular red chili. I find the level of spice just nice: between the numbing spiciness of the chili padi, and the relative mildness of the regular red.
Garlic: Sliced and diced.
My kitchen knives these days are so blunt, I’ve difficulty slicing through raw meat. So, I boiled the pork belly for 5 to 7 minutes, not to cook them, but to make them cuttable. You can go straight to slicing 2-inch thick pieces, but I’m not sure if it was the effect of cooking them rare, but it later made for a quicker stir-frying.
On a skillet, begin frying your garlic, lemongrass, shallots and red chili at high heat. Also, throw in 2 tablespoons of cincalok (drain them first). Then, add your pork belly and give it several tosses and it’s ready to serve.
The Australian Chinese food site also suggested adding a few drops of dark soy sauce to give the dish a little sweetness, which I did. It should be noted that this is where the recipe deviates, but I found that the sweetness of the dark soy sauce balanced against the acidity of the cincalok and lemongrass. I think perhaps adding brown sugar might be a better alternative, if you don’t want your meat to look so dark.
Cabbage and Carrot Soup
I literally, wanted a soup that was very clean and clear to offset the heaviness of the pork. Despite the fact that my family does quite a fair bit of cooking, the soups prepared at home often comes in the extremes. My mother would boil elaborate soups stuffed with dried scallops, lotus root, celery, carrots, peanuts and other spices to create a very “Soup Restaurant”-like broth. My father on the other hand, would throw in winter melons or cabbages into a pork rib or chicken soup and leave it on high heat for hours on end, creating overcooked meats, melted cabbages or winter melons, and a broth that tasted no more fragrant than hot water.
Therefore, you can imagine that all my life, I was dearly missing a “home-styled” simple clear soup – something that’s extremely ordinary, you know?
I sliced cabbage, carrots, and threw a bag of freshly bought yellow tail fish balls, spiced it with nothing more than a sprinkle of salt, pepper, some fried shallots and fried anchovies (always gotta stock those at home – they make the most ordinary of dishes extra special), and left it to boil for a couple of minutes. And for the first time ever, I got my “home-styled” simple soup!