A restaurant in Singapore in the bowels of the Paragon Shopping Centre, Orchard Road. High backed wooden chairs, lattice screens, large pottery vases. We have gone out to dinner with my husband’s uncle, an entirely charming and urbane Singapore professional. On the table before us is a Singapore classic: chicken rice. This is not the standard chicken rice that can be purchased almost anywhere in Singapore for a handful of dollars. This is something else altogether. The chicken is jelly-like in its silky smoothness and the way it slithers down the throat is more reminiscent of oysters than fowl. Served with soft cucumbers and a pungent sauce, it makes me ashamed of my own feeble attempts at this dish.
The entire experience is outrageously sensual, but not enough to distract from the palpable tension that starts emanating from my husband about two thirds of the way through the meal. His eyes are glancing around the restaurant, noting the position of the waiters and the location of the nearest exits. His hands twitch nervously to his jeans pocket and he is observing The Uncle’s every move. He is preparing for the argument that inevitably erupts when we eat with his Chinese relatives, in which wallets are drawn at 20 paces and the men compete for the right to pay the bill. There are evidently rules of engagement to this argument (these seem to relate to an individual’s generational position, family status etc) but my husband was not raised among his Chinese family and so we do not know them.
And so, lacking the appropriate cultural training, my husband prepares: positioning his wallet, plotting intercept paths and seeking tactical advantage. The Uncle is apparently oblivious. The meal draws to a close. Am I imagining it, or is sweat beading on my man’s brow? As we move nonchalantly towards the cashier, he has his wallet in his hand, fingers right on the credit card. Ridiculously, I feel both nervous and strangely excited. He makes it to the cashier first and leans forward. He can taste victory. Then, as if from nowhere, The Uncle extracts his wallet from his jacket breast pocket and removes his credit card in a single fluid motion. The transaction is made and the bill paid. Like a sword drawn silently from its sheath, the killing blow was made before we ever saw it coming. My husband, the swordsman, the martial artist, has suffered comprehensive defeat. While The Uncle undertakes the fiscal equivalent of chiburi, our Visa has not yet seen the light of day.
My family sits around the kitchen table. In front of us is a pork belly, a beautiful piece of organic local meat. It is undoubtedly the best pork belly I have ever served. Double cooked, completely perfect crackling, tender and moist meat, the fat rendered into a delicious gel. It awaits only the addition of the thick and delicious mandarin infused sauce. My son, whose favourite food is Chinese style pork in practically any form is in a state of rapture. My husband, usually highly generous with his children at mealtimes, is leaning possessively towards the plate. Each time someone makes a move for the pork I can see him calculating portion sizes and allocations around a complex algorithm of growing needs, appetite size and seniority.
The son has been gazing at the plate for some time and eventually makes his move. He asks if he can take an extra bit of crackling, just a little bit, because its so delicious. His father’s hand stops en route to his mouth and his dark eyes narrow. He looks at the boy, for whom he would do practically anything, and his resolves hardens as the algorithm plays out. The answer is no. Uncomplaining in defeat, the boy’s shoulders slump ever so slightly. One day his time will come.
Double-cooked pork belly with mandarin infused sauce
This is an extremely Chinese dish, so its best served with steamed rice and and stir fried greens. Please try to refrain from doing some weird fusion thing with it, it wouldn’t be right.
- 1 pork belly (approx 1kg)
- Vegetable oil
- 2 onions, sliced
- 8 whole star anise
- 2 cinnamon sticks
- 6 cloves
- 1/2 cup of brown sugar
- 1 cup of chicken stock
- 1/3 cup red wine vinegar
- 2 tbsp light soy sauce
- 1/2 teaspoon sesame oil
- 2 cloves minced garlic
- Peel of one mandarin
Heat the oven to 250C. Score the skin of the belly (you MUST have a sharp knife for this) and rub with the oil and salt. Place the sliced onions in a deep roasting dish with the cloves, 6 of the star anise and a cinnamon stick. The dish will need to be big enough that you can sit a rack over the onions. Place the belly skin side up on the rack and place in the dish. Gently pour in a couple of cups of water, being careful not to splash the skin of the pork.
Roast at 250 for half an hour before dropping the oven down to about 150C and cooking the pork for additional 2 hours. Top the pan up with more water if needed. Remove the pan from the oven and set the whole lot aside – do not cover until the meat has cooled. You can now leave the pork alone until an hour before dinner time, at which point return it to the oven and cook for another hour at 150C. Turn the oven up to 220C for the last 10 minutes to give the skin a final push towards crispy deliciousness. When its out of the oven, let it stand for 10 minutes before cutting into 1cm slices. Serve with the mandarin infused sauce, as follows:
To make the sauce, simply simmer the remaining spices, sugar, stock, vinegar, sugar, garlic, soy sauce, sesame oil and mandarin skin until it turns thick and syrupy. Before serving, stir some of the pan juices through the sauce and strain the whole lot.