Some cooks like to keep a sparse pantry with only the most basic ingredients. Others stock up on both basic and not-so-basic things. I’m one of the latter. For instance, I keep jars and jars of dried herbs and spices. There’s is always more than six different kinds of noodles (both Asian and pasta). When someone asks for vinegar, one has to be specific — plain, black (Chinese), balsamic, spiced or cider? Because baking is a regular affair, we always have both white and brown sugar (and powdered sugar). Salt is either rock salt, table salt or herbed salt. In the fridge, there is a shelf dedicated to cheeses.
If, like me, you spend more time cooking than organizing, you’ve probably refilled jars and containers without updating the labels. A jar that originally contained dried marjoram may have been used to store a partially consumed packet of five-spice powder, for example. I’d know what’s in it even if the label is wrong. But when Alex started taking up cooking seriously, she was aghast at how disorganized the pantry was. And she did in one day what I couldn’t be bothered to do in more than a year. She cleared the shelves, threw out what could no longer be used, soaked and washed empty jars, re-labeled everything… And then, she went shopping with her father for what we didn’t have.
Of course, not all cooks are like us. Some truly talented cooks can operate with a very sparse pantry and still create magic in the kitchen. If you’re the kind of cook who prefers using the least number of ingredients yet still come up with a dish that simply explodes with flavor, here’s something to excite your taste buds.
The seasonings are simple and basic — fish sauce, kalamansi juice and sugar. The spices are few — finger chilies, ginger, garlic and shallots — and packed with varying degrees of heat. Throw all that in a pan of browned pork belly cubes and you got a delicious dish that’s a perfect partner with steaming newly cooked rice.
The flavors are basic Vietnamese. In fact, the seasonings and most of the spices are what go into nuoc mam pha — that delightful sauce that you pour over beef and rice noodle salad (bun bo xao). In this dish, however, the seasonings and spices are added during cooking so that the pork cubes get all the chance they need to soak up all the wonderful flavors. The hour-long braising also gives the contrasting flavors time to blend and meld together.
Sweet and tangy pork with chilies
- 1 tablespoon cooking oil
- 500 to 600 grams pork belly cut into 1-1/2" cubes
- 4 to 5 finger chilies slices
- 4 to 5 slices ginger
- 4 to 5 cloves garlic peeled and pounded
- 2 shallots thinly sliced
- fish sauce to taste
- sugar to taste
- kalamansi (or lemon or lime) juice, to taste
- fresh mint and cilantro to garnish
- Heat a pan. Coat the bottom with the cooking oil. Arrange the pork belly cubes in a single layer. Cook over high heat until the underside is browned. Flip to brown the top side. Repeat to brown all sides.
- Add the chilies, ginger, garlic and shallots. Cook, tossing often, for about half a minute. Drizzle in some fish sauce and sugar. Cook for another minute.
- Pour in just enough water to barely cover the meat.
- Add kalamansi juice. Stir. Taste and add more fish sauce, sugar and kalamansi juice, as needed.
- Bring to the boil. Cover the pan, set the heat to low and let the meat braise for about an hour. Taste occasionally and adjust the seasonings, as needed. If the mixture appears too dry before the pork is done, add more water, no more than half a cup at a time.
- By the time the pork is done, the liquid should have reduced to a thick and sticky sauce. Do a final taste test and adjust the seasonings one last time, if it is necessary.
- Serve the pork with the sauce. Garnish with fresh mint and cilantro.