SINGAPORE – When family members are impatient to tear into a dish, you know it has to be good.
As Ms Candice Ong, 48, is busy preparing to cook sio bak (roast pork belly), her enthusiastic husband Derek Tan, 58, and 25-year-old son Joshua, sing praises of her culinary repertoire.
When the meat is being carved for photo-taking for this interview, they cannot help but steal pieces of the juicy pork with perfectly crispy crackling.
Mr Tan, an engineer supervisor and self-proclaimed “taster” of his wife’s food, gives his verdict in mock seriousness: “The skin is crispy and the meat is not tough. Her standard has always been consistent.”
Ms Ong, who works in private banking, laughs and adds that her husband is a “tough critic” who does not usually give a rave review.
Her son is quick to lavish praise on her labour of love. “Whatever mum cooks, we love,” says the eldest of three siblings, who has two younger sisters aged 18 and 22.
It is a joy to see the family bonding and joking over their love of food. That is why Ms Ong ensures that a healthy home-cooked meal brings her loved ones together after a long day’s work.
Her sio bak is a crowd-pleaser among family and friends, and she has taken great effort to perfect it.
While the ingredients are simple, there are key steps to pay attention to.
For instance, having a tray of water at the base of the oven is important to maintain the meat’s moisture and collect excess oil that drips from the meat.
Adding a layer of salt and increasing the oven temperature gradually will dry out the skin to achieve the quintessential crispy pork crackling.
Ms Ong serves the succulent pork with her hand-pounded chilli sauce – a delicious combination of chillies, garlic, lime leaves and lime juice.
The same cut of pork belly can also be used to do kong bak bao (braised pork buns), another hit when she hosts family and friends.
For Chinese New Year, she makes dishes like pen cai, fish maw soup, and yusheng with her own dressing of sour plum sauce with lime juice, chilli sauce and hua diao jiu (Chinese rice wine) or brandy.
Ms Ong, the youngest of eight siblings, honed her skills from her family of good home cooks. Her mother’s speciality is braised duck, and Ms Ong grew up observing her cook while she helped with preparing ingredients and doing the dishes.
While baking is not her forte, she can also make muffins and cookies. When it comes to sweet treats, she prefers making konnyaku jelly, or those found at Chinese dessert shops such as mango sago and bai guo yi mi, which is made with barley, beancurd skin and gingko nuts.
With her pork belly done, Ms Ong sits back and watches with glee as everyone digs into her dish.
She says: “When I see my family and friends enjoy the food, I feel happy and satisfied.”
SIO BAK (ROAST PORK BELLY)
2 Tbs mixed herbs
1 Tbs pepper
1 tsp salt
1kg pork belly
5 garlic cloves
8 to 10 Tbs salt
1. In a bowl, stir the mixed herbs with pepper and salt.
2. Score the skin of the pork belly in a criss-cross direction and rub the herb blend all over at least three hours before cooking. If not, do the rub one hour before, then place the pork belly in the freezer.
3. With a small knife, make small insertions into the sides of the pork belly so that you can insert the garlic cloves inside.
4. When ready to cook, preheat the oven to 180 deg C. Ensure that you have a wire rack in the middle of the oven, and a tray at the base of the oven filled with water. This helps to maintain the meat’s juiciness and will also collect the excess oil from the meat.
5. Place the pork belly on a baking tray (skin side up) and pat the eight to 10 tablespoons of salt to form a layer on the skin. Bake in the oven for 30 minutes.
6. Take the pork belly out of the oven and carefully remove the layer of salt. Place the meat back into the oven – skin side down – directly on the oven’s wire rack to bake for another 40 minutes.
7. Next, turn the heat up to 220 deg C. Flip the meat – skin side up – to grill for another 30 minutes.
8. Turn the heat up again to 240 deg C for 10 to 15 minutes, until the skin is golden brown and crispy.
9. Remove from the oven and slice into 1-inch thick chunks. Serve immediately.
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