03. June 2010 · 1 comment · Categories: Recipes

I was interested in food and cooking from a very young age. I had one of the best teachers (my mother), and have been a disciple of the likes of Elizabeth David and Delia Smith. This has taught me a great deal, such as when you fry onions and garlic you should put the onions in first, and only when they have softened add the garlic. The garlic should never brown, since it will become bitter.

Learning about Thai food makes me question such dogma. Many dishes start with cooking the garlic in hot oil until it’s golden (see, for example, Het Phat Tao-huu – Stir-fried Mushrooms with Tofu). It doesn’t taste bitter, and similarly fried garlic is often used here as a garnish on all sorts of food.

Similarly, in the West we eschew raw onion – it’s a crude taste which makes one’s breath smell bad. (Only in America, land of the hamburger, is raw onion considered food for non-philistines. Thank you, Ray Kroc.) However, with Thai food onion is often added right at the end and is little more than warmed through. See for example Muu Phat Khing – Stir-fried Pork with Ginger
– where the onion is only cooked for a couple of minutes at most.

I just wonder how much of what we’re taught about food preparation is true, and how much is just articles of faith?


Apologies in advance to my Moslem and Jewish readers, but I have a weakness for belly pork. I love the succulent, fatty cuts. Admittedly, when I child I was rather off-put by noticing the nipple on a particular slice of pork belly, but (thankfully) I’ve grown out of that squeamishness.

One of my favourite dishes in one of my favourite London Chinese restaurants is slices of belly pork braised with slices of yam in a metal pot. The yam absorbs some of the porky fattiness, and the whole dish is suffused with a wonderful coriander taste.

The Chinese refer to belly pork as the “five layers of heaven”; the Thais, a little more prosaically, “three layer pork”, only counting the meat.

Anyway, I came across a recipe a few months ago for red cooked pork which I’ve been meaning to try. The technique for creating caramel is something I hadn’t come across before – rather than heating the sugar in a dry pan, or with a little water (which evaporates), the sugar is mixed with vegetable oil and then heated. This actually worked quite well – the sugar began to brown, then suddenly expanded massively in the oil (returning to white in the process) before (a few seconds later) turning to a toffee-ish caramel. However, without an hawk-like eye there’s a real danger of the caramel burning.

Here’s the recipe (slightly adapted) from http://www.redcook.net :

  • 700 g pork belly (I used slices, but a slab would work just as well)
  • 3 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 2 rounded tablespoons sugar
  • 3 cloves of garlic peeled (not crushed)
  • 2 spring onions cut into 4 cm long pieces
  • 3 whole star anise
  • 2 tablespoons dark soy sauce
  • 60 ml Shaoxing wine (I didn’t have Shaoxing wine, so substituted Mirin)
  • 300 ml of the water from parboiling the pork, strained
  • coriander leaf and spring onions, chopped, for garnish.

Put the pork belly in a saucepan and cover with water. Bring to the boil and then simmer gently for 20 minutes. Skim off any scum that forms on top of the water. Take the pork from the water and allow to cool. Then cut into nice cubes. (I removed the skin, but this is optional.)

Heat the sugar and vegetable oil in a pan over a medium heat until the sugar browns. Now add the pork belly and brown it for a few minutes in the oil/sugar mix.

Add the garlic, spring onion, star anise, dark soy, rice wine and 300 ml of the water from boiling the pork to the pot. Cover, and simmer over a low heat for 40 minutes, stirring regularly. Now uncover, increase the heat and boil for about 10 minutes to reduce the sauce to a nice, thick consistency.

The result is a beautiful mahogany colour – but where the redness comes from is a mystery to me.

Red cooked pork

(Sadly, I’m no food stylist.)

Serve with plain boiled rice, sprinkled with chopped coriander and spring onion.