Home made char siu chez maman. Oh yes.

In Asia it is everywhere: red and charred, hanging from hooks by the roadside. Marinated in lemongrass, chopped up bones and all and deep fried to a crisp. Simmered gently in caramel sauce.

Pork.

In Singapore, my friends’ eyes always lit up when we ordered it. The three layered pork was especially popular: meat, fat and rind, a perfect trio of melting porky goodness. It always reminds me of the most heartbreaking passage in François Bizot’s Le Portail (The Gate in English), a must read for anyone interested in Cambodia. The author finds himself a prisoner in a Khmer Rouge camp, kept away from his Cambodian assistants. They are reunited briefly before he is forced to leave them to their fate, and they share one last meal together. It’s roast pork his assistants dream of; they describe the sweet smokey flesh, the crispy skin, the dripping fat.

Eech, that’s all rather bleak, sorry. My point is: roast pork would definitely be my last meal, and I miss the convenience of finding it at every street corner in South East Asia.

Thankfully my local supermarket stocks pre-scored pork belly, which roasted over water gives tender flesh and the crispiest crackling, perfect for adding to a fresh pomelo salad or a noodle soup. Or just stuffing down your gob straight from the chopping board while it’s still hot enough to burn your fingers.

Chinese roast pork, from a Rick Stein recipe

1 pork belly

1 tablespoon sichuan peppercorns

1 teaspoon black peppercorns (ideally from kampot)

2 tablespoons maldon sea salt flakes

2 teaspoons five spice powder

2 teaspoons sugar

Roast the peppercorns in a pan until they are fragrant and grind them. Or just use normal pepper, it will still be delicious.Mix with the sea salt, five spice powder and sugar.

Pour a kettle of hot water over the skin and let it drain, then dry thoroughly. Rub the meat side of the pork belly with the spice mixture. Leave it in the fridge 8 hours or overnight.

Preheat the oven to 200C. Put the pork skin side up on a roasting rack, on top of a tin full of water. Roast it for 15 minutes, then lower the temperature to 180C and cook for another 2 hours, topping up with water as needed.

Increase the temperature once more to 230C and roast for a final 15 minutes. Rest the meat a little before cutting it, if you can bear the wait.

 

Or Tina’s Tamarind jam, if only this stupid font would let me display special characters.

Tina is my friend.

It’s hard to understand the excellence of Tina unless you’ve actually met Tina. She is tiny. She cracks spines – expertly – for a living. She likes Taco Bell sauce. She’s studying Singlish as a foreign language. She’s allegedly a strong swimmer, but I have yet to see her dip a toe in the water. She says “yummy” a lot. She is made, I think, of puppies and rainbows and unicorns, covered in a thin layer of taco bell sauce, encased in a hard shell of Strong Independent Woman. No one, but no one, makes me giggle and snort like a lunatic like she does.

At Chinese New Year Tina, along with a group of our friends from Singapore, joined me for a long week end in Kep. You know, Kep, that idyllic quiet little coastal town in Cambodia that was just this week featured in the NY Times.

We did as one does in Kep: we ate our combined body weight in fresh crab straight from the ocean, purchased durian the size of a toddler, and squabbled over who would get the last of the tamarind jam for breakfast.

This stuff was amazing. Tart and sweet, with a hint of cinnamon, delicious on bread and butter. Tina interrogated the staff at Le Flamboyant, where we were staying, and found out that they made it fresh from the fruit of the tall beautiful tamarind tree in the resort’s garden.

“This jam is yummy”, she said.

MAKE ME TAMARIND JAM.

I agreed, because although Tina is tiny she is also a little scary; I wasn’t sure whether she would let me back into Singapore without paying a heavy tamarind jam tribute to the Ministry of Manpower first. My first attempt was a disaster. After hours of straining tamarind pulp through a broken sieve and scalding myself on the hot bastarding tamarind liquid, I produced a wonderful, thick looking, rich dark brown batch of tamarind jam… that tasted of grit and battery acid. It went straight in the bin.

Then Barbara, the lovely manager from Le Flamboyant, sent me their recipe. “This is the recipe for tamarind jam”, she wrote, “but I did not get any specific measurements because they do it by feeling so to say”.

3 kg of tamarind, put water and salt in a bowl, add the tamarind, keep them in the water for 24hours. Throw the water away, add new water and let sit for another 24 hours. Then the tamarind is soft so all the grains can be taken out. The remaining paste is being boiled in a pot, add sugar and cinammon, stir – for another 4 hours.

52 hours for a pot of jam? No wonder they only gave us a spoonful. “Oh, this jam? Have as much as you want, I’ll just run over to the salt mines and kick orphans and three legged puppies into whipping up another batch for you.” And there we were, scoffing it down like greedy First World pigs.

I followed the process loosely, this time with much better results.

TINA’S TAMARIND JAM
500g of sour tamarind.
300g white sugar
100g palm sugar
1 teaspoon of cinnamon
1 generous pinch of salt

Put the tamarind and salt in a large tupperware container, then add enough water to cover the pulp generously. Keep in the fridge for 24 hours. The next day, the pulp will have softened and rendered some of its acidity into the water. Get rid of most of the liquid, cover again with fresh water and return it to the fridge for another 24 hours.

If your tamarind still had seeds in it, remove them. Gently simmer the tamarind and water mixture until the pulp is very soft.

Before the liquid starts to reduce, strain the pulp through a sieve to remove the remaining fibres and seeds you may have missed. This is more difficult than it sounds. You may curse and swear at the person who made you make tamarind jam. It’s a good time to start boiling your clean jars and lids, possibly while muttering dark threats under your breath. After about 10 minutes, you can transfer the jars to an oven at 110 degrees Celsius until you’re ready to use them.

Return the remaining tamarind pulp to the heat, and add the sugar and cinnamon. Bring to a roiling boil, and let it reduce until the mixture is dark brown. Test a dollop of it on a cold plate: the jam shouldn’t be runny, and the surface should wrinkle slightly when pushed with a finger. Jar the jam while it’s still hot, then turn the jars upside down to create a vacuum and leave to cool down.

And the verdict?
Tina said it was yummy.

This is breakfast.

I don’t want to hear your cries of disgust or see your little noses wrinkle up disapprovingly. This is not just breakfast, but the breakfast of champions: chunks of dried fish fried with garlic and caramelised until crispy and golden, wonderfully sweet and intensely savoury, perfect with a side dish of rice porridge.

You’ll find the dried fish at most Cambodian markets. The fish is marinated in a flavoured brine before being left to dry out in the sun. Choose a stall where the owner takes care to bat the flies away; if you travel overland between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, you’ll find particularly tasty specimens at Kompong Thom market. The smaller variety is made from wild fish and more delicious than its fatter farmed cousin.

To prepare it, wash it thoroughly and chop into thumb sized pieces. Fry the fish in about one centimetre of oil until both sides are crispy and golden brown. Remove the excess oil, then add a lot of chopped garlic – about 6 or 8 cloves for a whole fish.

When the garlic starts to change colour, sprinkle a tablespoon of sugar and a tiny bit of water over the fish. Stir well until everything has caramelised around the fish chunks, then serve with some steaming hot borbor (rice porridge) and beet pickles.

My mother is characteristically confusing about this dish.

It’s hard to find crispy noodles at the market.

It’s more a thai dish, that’s why we call it mee siam.

People from Battambang eat it.

Can you bring back some saté powder next time you visit? It really needs saté powder.

Cambodians don’t use saté powder.

This is a typical Cambodian dish.

Let’s just ignore Maman, hmmm? This is one of my favourite things – hot fried crispy noodles in a spicy tangy sauce of pork and tofu. So moreish. It’s the garlic flowers that really make this, but if you can’t find them, spring onions or chinese leeks will do.

Cambodian crispy noodles

You’ll need:

400 g of lean pork, sliced very thinly into strips

100g of fried tofu, sliced thinly

6 cloves of garlic, minced

10 small shallots, sliced

200g of frying noodles

Deep frying oil

Seasonings

2 tablespoons of saté powder (not satay mix, but this stuff)

2 tablespoons of fish sauce

1 tablespoon of sugar

1.5 tablespoons of vinegar

Half a teaspoon of salt

Greenery:

A big bunch of coriander

Lots of bean sprouts and garlic flowers

Limes for garnish

 

Start by stir frying the garlic and shallots, then add the meat. Once it’s well cooked, add the tofu strips and seasonings. Lower the heat and cook for a further 7 minutes or so.

Now comes the fun part. Deep fry the noodles. They will puff and crisp up in a matter of seconds:

Mix everything together with the bean sprouts and garlic flowers, cover in chopped coriander, and add a squeeze of lime just before eating.