Thursday, February 17, 2011

Chinese New Year Cheer

I've been on a slight hiatus from blogging, partly due to life and partly due to some slight burn-out from work-related writing. That doesn't mean I haven't actually been taking photos - in fact now I just have to find time to blog about all of the stuff I've photographed!

In view of the fact that Chinese New Year has just come and gone though, I post this in celebration of a wonderful week-long break that was very much necessary - and also in tribute to my father.

My father deserves to be mentioned far more in this blog, because he is an amazing cook who doesn't bat an eye at turning out food for dozens and dozens of people. He's told me before that his university life included a stint at a conference centre where he'd prepare food for a couple hundred people. As a result of this, he's unfazed by the thought of cookery, be it barbeque for 30 people (my 16th birthday) or a hungry bottomless pit (my brother). He also loves to cook, which works out well since my mother's not as fond of the culinary arts even though she's an amazing cook herself.

This New Year, my father and I divided the cookery so I got to feed both my parents, and my father got to putter about in the kitchen like he loves. I tried a load of recipes - Gluten-Free Girl's cream puffs (AMAZING), pao de queijo (heavenly), gluten-free French bread (beautiful texture but taste needs tweaking), and the infamous 36-hour chocolate chip cookies to name a few. We had a restaurant on our hands for a week, pretty much!

I also made one of my father's signature dishes - one I've dubbed the Lai Clan Clean Plate Braised Pork, as there's usually none left by the time guests get up from the table. He first taught this to me when I was in university, and it got rave reviews from any potlucks I happened to make it for.

The cooking instructions may look formidable, but I promise you, after everything's soaked and set aside, it comes together easy as sneezing. It is a magnificent dish, well worthy of Chinese New Year - in fact I made it for my birthday dinner with four other friends, and they loved it too!

Lai Clan Clean Plate Braised Pork

0.5-1kg pork fillet or loin
Handful dried oysters
Handful dried scallops
1 star anise
10-12 dried good, thick-fleshed shitake mushrooms
As many cloves of garlic as you want (I usually go for about 6-8 nice big cloves)
Approximately a tablespoon of gluten-free dark soya sauce
½ a tsp salt
A splash of Shaoxing wine / Chinese rice wine / any white wine (optional)
Oyster sauce, approximately 3-4 shakes from the bottle

Pork Preparation (About 1 hour or preferably several more before actual cooking):
Smash the garlic cloves with the flat side of a cleaver or nice big knife and peel them.

Rinse and pat dry the pork. Rub a clove or two of garlic over the meat thoroughly. Put all the garlic, the star anise, and the pork into a large bowl, add the dark soya sauce and the salt. Using your hands, rub the dark soya sauce and salt all over the meat – if you’re a garlic fanatic like me, you can rub the garlic over the pork again while you’re rubbing in the marinade. Put in the fridge and leave it alone for at least an hour. Me, I like to let it sit for a couple of hours (no need overnight, that’d be overkill), so I prepare it in the morning and keep it in the fridge till late afternoon when I cook it.

Dried Stuff Preparation (About 1 hour or so before actual cooking):
Soak the oysters in a bowl with about 1 cup water. Set aside for 1 hour or until no longer rock hard, and fairly pliable. If the water isn’t gritty, save the soaking liquid. If the water is gritty, pour it off and soak the oysters again in another cup of clean water until you’re ready to use them in the dish.

Soak the scallops in another bowl with about 1 cup of water. Set aside, until ready to use them in the dish. Important note: DO NOT DRAIN! Save the soaking liquid as it’s wonderfully flavourful and will be added to the cooking later.

Soak the mushrooms in a large bowl with plenty of hot water. Set aside, until ready to use. Drain the mushrooms - if the soaking water is gritty, discard. If not, keep and use for cooking later. Slice the mushrooms nice and thickly.

Cooking the Dish:
Take the pork out of the fridge and fish out the garlic cloves from the marinade.

Turn the fire up to medium high. In a heavy-bottomed pot large enough to hold your meat comfortably, add a drizzle of vegetable oil (enough to coat the bottom of the pan) and heat till the oil is smoking slightly. Add the garlic cloves from the meat and stir round; make sure it doesn’t scorch. Carefully lift the pork from the marinade and add to the pot. Sear the meat on all sides, making sure there are some nice browned bits all over the surfaces. Add in the drained, sliced mushrooms and stir-fry for about 30 seconds to a minute.

Add in the soaking water from the scallops, the oysters, and the mushrooms, if you’ve reserved that.

Add about a bowlful more water, up to about half the sides of the meat or a bit less if you want a thicker gravy. Be warned that it will evaporate so don’t put too little in. Bring to boil, then turn down to a simmer.

Cover the pot, wrap a twisted-up damp rag or dishcloth around the rim of the pot cover (you may need two dishcloths to do this, depending on the size of your pot). This is to keep the liquid from evaporating too quickly, basically creating a sort of rudimentary seal – at least, that’s what I was told when I was younger and I’m sticking to it.

Simmer for about 45 minutes to an hour. You want the pork to be tender, almost falling to pieces when you poke at it later. Check on it occasionally to make sure that the water hasn’t all evaporated.

At the end of simmering time, dissolve half to one teaspoon of cornflour in a little of the hot gravy and stir into the pot – make sure you keep stirring so it won’t turn lumpy. Once the gravy thickens, turn off the fire, let rest for about 15 minutes, then season to taste.

Serve with hot rice.

Note: This can be used for traditional Chinese New Year dinner too, if you add black moss! You won’t need to thicken the gravy if you do. Make sure to soak the black moss for about 5-10 minutes (it swells very fast), drain it well, and then add only at the last minute as that stuff soaks up gravy like –whoa-.


  1. I love the name of this dish - very self-explantory and promising! ;)

  2. Kenny! Yes, from the way y'all were polishing it up that day, I think the name is very promising too. :)