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My year of travelling continues, this time closer to home with a long weekend in Glasgow. I was there both for work and to see family and old friends, so I didn’t have a huge amount of time for culinary planning. (Please feel free to translate this as ‘I didn’t do anything in my spare time except drink terrifying quantities of gin’.) Luckily, I know the city well and even on autopilot can steer myself toward deliciousness. Glasgow is a pretty good food city, especially in the West End where I was based. There’s a strong emphasis on new Scottish cuisine, in which traditional dishes are reimagined and local ingredients blended with the flavours of the city’s South and East Asian immigrant cuisines. You can have amazing local seafood, game, and vegetables here but we never forget the importance of a good curry. As my friend D says, the nan bread up here is giant and pillowy. I did have a proper old-school Glasgow curry but, unsurprisingly, I was far too drunk to photograph it, so you’ll have to take my word on that one. After the jump, a walk through some of the highlights both Scottish and cosmopolitan.
A few years ago, I had the world’s best pork knuckle in Barcelona. It wasn’t long after the Great Portuguese Custard Tart Fight of 2007, in which Mr Lemur and I nearly came to blows in Lisbon after the ill-advised scoffing of the last custard tart by persons who shall remain nameless. Suffice it to say, I was aggrieved and ready for some revenge in the world of Iberian eating. Sweet sweet justice came along when we arrived in Barcelona and went to lunch in an unassuming bar that had been recommended to us. Sadly, I can’t remember the name of the bar, which was fairly central and nothing at all to look at, but filled up with locals at lunchtime. There were a few specials but the one that stood out immediately to me was pork knuckle in garlic.
Long-cooked meats are one of my favourite things and something about the phrase ‘pork knuckle’ just tells you it’s going to be good. Pork knuckle. Even saying it is appealing. Go on. Pork knuckle. Mr Lemur, however, did not share my enthusiasm because he hates eating meat on a bone if he thinks it might be finicky or that he’ll have to use his fingers. For him, the phrase ‘pork knuckle’ conjured up horrifying prospects of trying to wrest shards of meat from a giant bone without getting his fingers messy, and in public no less. He opted for the stuffed aubergine. I don’t think I have to tell you who won. My pork knuckle was sublime, with tender meat and a rich covering of very garlicky braising liquid. The meat fell away from the bone at the slightest touch. Mr Lemur was pissed off and the Custard Tart injustice was avenged. But ever since, pork knuckle has exerted a powerful force on my culinary imagination.
Of course, the problem is that I can never ever make pork knuckle that good. I haven’t even tried to replicate the Catalan dish because that way disappointment lies. But I often see pork knuckles at my local butcher and this weekend I decided to try something else to take advantage of all that piggy potential. Rather than a straight up braise, I cooked the meat propped up in a moat of flavouring liquid: that way, the meat gets imbued subtly with the flavour of the sauce while still remaining dry enough to produce crackling. Meanwhile, the liquid becomes intensely flavoured with rendered pork fat – you can skim most of it off at the end, but you still get a lovely rich sauce to soak the meat. After the success of the Nyonya braised beef I made a couple of months back, I thought I’d try some similar aromatic flavours for this rich pork dish.
Malaysian roast pork knuckle
- 1 pork knuckle, on the bone
- 4 shallots
- 6 cloves of garlic
- a thumb sized piece of ginger
- 3 star anise
- 3 cloves
- a chunk of cinnamon bark
- 6 dried red chilies
- 2 tbsp rice vinegar
- 2 tbsp dark soy sauce
- 1 tbsp palm sugar
- 1-2 cups water
- 4 tbsp oil
Chop the shallots in a mini prep until they become a paste. Fry in a large oven-friendly pot in the oil. It seems like a lot of oil but the shallots drink it up and you’ll be getting rid of it later anyway. Chop the garlic and ginger finely. When the shallots are beginning to colour, add them and sauté for a couple of minutes. Add the star anise, cloves, cinnamon and dried chilies and fry for just a minute until the spices release their aromas. Now add the vinegar, soy sauce and sugar, along with water to about 2 inches up the pot and stir well.
Score the skin of the pork (or have your butcher do this) and pat it carefully till very dry. Rub salt and pepper generously into the skin. Add the pork to the braising liquid, meat-side down so that all the skin remains dry. Bring the liquid to the boil and then transfer (uncovered) to an oven set very high at first (to help crisp up the crackling) and, after 15 minutes on high, turned down to gas mark 4 / 350 F / 180 C. Cook for about three hours, checking occasionally to make sure the liquid isn’t drying up.
When it comes out of the oven, the skin should already be nicely golden and fairly crispy. However, to finish the cracking, cut the skin off the meat and pop it back in the oven on a baking tray and turn the temperature right up until the skin really crisps up. (I should say that I didn’t plan this dish around crackling – if it’s your main objective, you’re probably better with pork belly and straight-up roasting it. The crackling on this dish wasn’t perfect but it was pretty good all the same.) While the meat is resting and the crackling crisping, skim most of the fat off the sauce with a spoon. Finally, cut the meat up roughly and serve pork, crackling and rich sauce along with rice and greens.
I’ve often bemoaned my lack of an Asian grandmother to teach me the kind of cooking that I love, but I also really value what I’ve learned from cookbooks. I had a really interesting discussion recently about how we learn unfamiliar cuisines with Eating Asia‘s Robyn and Dish a Day‘s Aaron. Aaron had just completed a fascinating project of cooking a dish every day for a month from David Thomson’s book Thai Food. Despite having lived in Thailand and knowing quite a bit about the cuisine, he found the rigour of following the recipes changed how he thought about Thai cooking. In fact, he concluded that we should all be cooking more from recipes. Those of us who love to cook often think of recipes as props for the incompetent, but in fact, we can get lazy when we throw flavours around, knowing we can easily make something tasty. Following a traditional recipe not only forces us to do things properly, but teaches us the complex foundations of a cuisine through its techniques and processes. Even with a cuisine we think we know, we can become better cooks by cooking from good recipes.
I thought of this discussion when D and J, two of my oldest friends, came to stay this weekend, because I wanted to make a Nyonya feast to celebrate their visit. Sure, I could have thrown together something vaguely Malaysian, based on what I’ve learned over the years, but I was drawn instead to cook more rigorously and to try out some more of James Oseland’s carefully sourced recipes from the wonderful Cradle of Flavor. D is a fantastic cook, and I knew he’d enjoy spending an evening in the kitchen pottering about and watching dishes gradually emerge. I’ve always been a believer in Nigel Slater’s ethos that helping the cook means keeping her company and making sure her wine glass is full, so we settled in with several bottles of red and guests in the dining room within chatting distance of the stove.
I’ve cooked quite a bit from Cradle of Flavor, and it has truly been an education in the cuisines of Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore. Oseland has spent a long time researching the book, and many of his recipes have clearly been patiently teased out of friends and people he has met on his travels. The two I cooked for D and J are Nyonya Shrimp Curry with Fresh Pineapple and Tomatoes (courtesy of a Malaccan acquaintance called Kenneth) and Spiced Braised Nyonya Pork (courtesy of Jennifer Kuan). There’s a sense of knowledge shared here that pleases the researcher in me: Oseland’s book really delves into the foodways of Malaysia, and cooking these recipes carefully as written paid off. We were a bit tipsy by the time the dishes came triumphantly to the table but they were both spectacularly good. And the homey feel of the food (“like a great big hug” as Jennifer Kuan says) definitely translates from Malacca to Brighton. We had a lovely evening with the boys, talking, drinking, and pulling heads off shrimp around the table.
Nyonya Shrimp Curry with Fresh Pineapple and Tomatoes
I followed as close to the recipe as possible, but this is what I cooked, rather than exactly what Oseland stipulates. For instance, the original recipe calls for 2 stalks of lemongrass, but our lemongrass is kind of crappy, so I doubled it. I think if your lemongrass is not super fresh, you end up needing quite a bit more to achieve the same amount of flavour. He also offers a range of chili options: I went for the maximum numbers. For his original version, of course, you should check out the book, if you don’t already own it!
For the flavouring paste:
- 4 stalks lemongrass
- 3 shallots, coarsely chopped
- 1 clove garlic, coarsely chopped
- 7 fresh red Holland chilies, chopped
- 4 fresh green Thai chilies, chopped
- 2 inches fresh turmeric, peeled and chopped
- 4 candlenuts
For the main dish:
- 3 tbsp oil
- 2 cups fresh pineapple, cut in triangles
- 2 cups water
- 2 tbsp palm sugar
- 3/4 tsp salt
- 1 ld medium size shrimp (prawns in the UK) in the shell
- 2 small tomatoes
- 1 cup coconut milk
First make the flavouring paste. Put all the chopped ingredients into a mini-prep and blend till smooth. You may have to push down bits that remain too big and add a little water if they stubbornly refuse to blend.
Heat the oil in a large pot over medium-low, and sauté the paste. It should sizzle nicely but not aggressively, or it will stick. Cook for 5 minutes until it doesn’t smell raw. Oseland says the oil will separate from the paste but I never manage to achieve this effect. Add the pineapple and mix well. Next add the water, sugar and salt, bring to the boil, then lower the heat and simmer for about 5 minutes.
Add the shrimp/prawns and stir. Continue cooking gently till the shrimp are cooked, a few more minutes. Add the tomatoes and cook for 2 more minutes.
Add the coconut milk and stir for another couple of minutes.
As Oseland says, at this point the dish goes a gorgeous orange colour. It’s really awfully pretty. Taste for salt, and allow the dish to rest for 10 minutes before serving. (This is easy if you are drunk and have forgotten to put the rice on until now.)
Sambal ikan, or fish sambal, is a subgenre of Malaysian dishes that includes both sambal ikan bilis (with the little anchovies that go into nasi lemak) and sambal ikan goreng, a popular dish of fried fish with sambal sauce. Of course, I am interested in anything that starts with funky dried shrimp sauce, but when I was recently told that I should eat more oily fish, I started thinking about how I might combine mackerel with sambal flavours. There is a Malaysian dish called sambal ikan tenggiri, which translates as mackerel sambal. However, the fish used is kingfish, which is in the mackerel family but much bigger than the kind we see usually in the UK. Thick steaks of kingfish are cooked in a sambal sauce, but that approach seemed like it would be fiddly with the smaller, bony mackerel of the south of England. So I came up with the idea of simplifying things by using smoked mackerel fillets and turning the dish into more of a deconstructed spicy salad: fish, lightly cooked greens, and fiery sambal to be mixed with rice as you eat. This approach made for an incredibly easy weeknight meal and also one that brings the richness of the fish and the deep umami pleasures of the sambal to the fore.
Smoked mackerel sambal
- 3 garlic cloves
- 8 shallots
- 3 stems of lemongrass
- 6 fresh medium red chilies
- 1 tsp shrimp paste
- 1 tbsp palm sugar
- 1 tbsp tamarind water
- 1 tbsp fish sauce
- 3 fillets of smoked mackerel
- small bunch of bok choy
- 1/2 a red pepper
Roughly chop the garlic, shallots, chilies and lemongrass (using only the soft inside layers) and mix in a mini prep to a paste. Place the shrimp paste in an envelope of tinfoil, squash to a flat disk, and grill on a hot skillet for a minute on each side. Now add to the paste and mix well.
Heat a generous glug of oil in a non-stick pan and add the paste. It should sizzle nicely. Cook and stir for five minutes. Add the tamarind to taste, palm sugar and fish sauce. Cook for another minute.
Cut the bok choy in halves lengthwise and blanch in boiling water for a minute. Slice the red pepper thinly. Now arrange the fish and vegetables on a plate and serve with plenty of sambal and rice.