Lest you think that all I do is eat out (or eat tropical fruit), let me assure you that I’ve been doing a fair bit of cooking at home, too. I go to the market and find something I don’t recognize, and then try to figure out what I’m supposed to do with it, usually by consulting the excellent Rasa Malaysia food blog. (It’s a great resource for people who want to try to recreate some of the flavors of SE Asia; the writer is a Malaysian living in the US, so she includes information on how to find some of the more exotic ingredients.)
Here’s a dish I made with some nice pork belly from the wet market. (An interesting difference between purchasing meat in Malaysia versus the US: here, the fattier the meat, the more expensive. For example, chicken legs cost more than breast. Same with pork: the loin is the cheapest cut, though it’s still quite pricey. The cheapest protein by far is seafood: you can get a sackful of mackerel for about $3 USD.) I think pretty much every country in Asia has some variation of the soy-braised pork dish; this particular version comes from the Fujian/Hainan/Hokkien province, and has a characteristically dark, star-anise-rich broth. It doesn’t require any ingredients that you wouldn’t be able to find in a decent supermarket, doesn’t involve a lot of chilis, and is incredibly flexible; you could make it with any cut of pork (the fattier, the better-tasting), chicken legs, or even omit the meat to make it vegetarian. (Potatoes are also an acceptable addition, though I’ve never tried it myself.) Serve with steamed rice and a nice green vegetable, like spinach, bok choy, or Chinese broccoli.
Serves three to four people, depending on appetite.
1/2 lb pork belly, pork ribs, or pork shoulder, cut into 1 1/2-inch pieces (you can also substitute chicken legs)
1/2 block of firm tofu, cut into same size pieces as meat
3 – 5 hard-boiled eggs
3 – 5 dried shitake mushrooms, soaked overnight
4 – 6 cloves of garlic, peeled and lightly bruised with the flat of a knife
1 piece (star? floret?) of star anise [can be substituted with 1 teaspoon of five-spice powder)
1 stick of cinnamon
1 tablespoon of white peppercorns (crush half for the marinade)
2 - 3 tablespoons of sugar
4 tablespoons regular soy sauce
4 tablespoons dark soy sauce (probably the hardest thing to find, but worth it! It gives the sauce its distinct color and viscosity. Check your local Asian market if you can't find it in the regular supermarket.)
1. Combine pork, soy sauces, crushed white peppercorn, and sugar, and marinate overnight (or at least a few hours).
2. Place marinade with meat in a dutch oven or other heavy pot (use a clay pot if you’re being traditional), and add the garlic, star anise, cinnamon, and remaining peppercorn.
3. Add water — or a mixture of water and rice wine, which I would have used if alcohol weren’t so outrageously expensive in Malaysia — to just cover the meat. Bring to a boil, then turn down the heat and simmer for a couple of hours. (A crockpot would work beautifully; use the same heat setting and time as you would for any other braised dish, say 5 hours on medium.)
4. About 20 minutes before serving, add the tofu, eggs, and shitake mushrooms to the broth. If the broth seems too thick, dilute with reserved mushroom-soaking liquid, or save it for a rainy day (it’s handy when you need a bit of stock, and packed with umami).
5. Once the tofu, etc., have absorbed some broth, it’s ready to eat. Serve bubbling in the pot (with sambal on the side, if you’re Malaysian), and enjoy the communal dining. Even tastier the next day.