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I like small groups. A round table, a real connection. When I dine at friends’ houses, I enjoy experiencing flavour profiles that I rarely have in my daily life. So when I plan an evening at mine, I think about cooking dishes that will do the same for my guests.
This meal has a traditional Taiwanese construction — San Tsai Yi Tang — three dishes, one soup — which is what I consider to be a fulfilling home-cooked meal. It’s also quite grand in that you’ve got chicken, fish and pork. That’s an old-school way of showing love and care, to cook these big dishes at home.
The table setting is simple. Chopsticks, a small plate and bowl. With a meal like this, you would hold your bowl in one hand, and that’s where you’d eat everything from. The plate is used as a secondary area — for your chopsticks, for food that you don’t want to place on your plain rice just yet, for some fish bones you’re discarding.
When I host dinner parties at home with my husband Shing, I like people to trickle in during the late afternoon, when there is still a bit of light in the sky, and drink a cocktail while I finish cooking. I often ask friends to help with preparation but it’s important to me that the table is set in advance, because that sense of preparedness is another way of making people feel like they’re getting something special. I like a bit of ceremony, it’s a mark of respect.
I’d encourage you to take time with the presentation of the table and food. I crave a style of plating that you find in banquet-style dishes that are often served in hotel restaurants. Dishes that feel grand in the way they are arranged. There can be this element of surprise and beauty if you come to a home dinner but are presented with something unexpected.
The cucumbers need to be prepared at least three days in advance and the peanuts two days in advance. Everything else can be done on the day of the dinner.
Do on the day
Prepare the broth and braised pork ahead of time. The broth can be kept warm with a very gentle heat and the braised pork kept by the side of the stove so it’s still warm to the touch. For the sea bass, you can make the dressing and chop the vegetables a few hours in advance. I keep my spring onions in ice water to keep them crisp and green. If you have a rice cooker, use it. It cooks the rice and also keeps it warm until you need it. For the rest, I’d suggest the following order: while the fish is steaming, poach and plate your greens. Plate the fish with its garnishes, then fry the eggs. Finish the fish with the hot oil at the very end. You could do this all by yourself, but I’d suggest having someone to help out in the final stage.
Follow this order
For the rest, I’d suggest the following order. While the fish is steaming, poach and plate your greens. Plate the fish with its garnishes, then fry the eggs. Finish the fish with the hot oil at the very end. You could do this all by yourself, but I’d suggest having someone to help out in the final stage.
Soy-braised pork belly with fried eggs on rice
For the pork belly
For the rice
To cook the braised pork, bring a large saucepan of water to the boil. Add the pork cubes and blanch for two to three minutes to get rid of any impurities. Drain, then place into a flameproof clay pot or large saucepan.
Add the remaining ingredients to the pot or pan and pour over enough water to just cover everything. Bring to the boil, then reduce the heat to low and simmer gently for two hours with a lid on. Halfway through cooking, turn the pork cubes to ensure even cooking.
While the pork is cooking, wash the rice thoroughly three times. After the final rinse, tip the rice into a bowl, cover with cold water and leave to soak for 30 minutes or longer. About 40 minutes before the pork is ready, pour the filtered water into a saucepan and bring to the boil. Drain the soaked rice and add to the boiling water.
When the water is boiling again, put a lid on, reduce the heat to low and cook for 18 minutes. Open the lid to check that the rice is cooked. It should be slightly glistening but not wet. Put the lid back on, remove from the heat and let the rice stand, with the lid on, for 10 minutes before serving. This process allows the remaining steam to absorb back into the grains, resulting in fluffy and bouncy rice.
Transfer the pork to a plate and leave to cool. Strain the braising liquid through a sieve, then bring to the boil and cook until it is a light, sticky consistency, reducing it by about half. Put the pork cubes into the reduced sauce, give it a good stir, then remove from the heat.
In a bowl, crack six whole eggs and four egg yolks.
Heat up a large frying pan with three tablespoons of vegetable oil and fry the eggs all together in the pan.
To plate, transfer the cooked rice to a large-lipped serving plate. Flatten the rice gently to create a surface for the blanket of fried eggs to sit on. Slide the fried eggs on to the rice. To finish, pour the braised pork and its sauce over. You may not need all the sauce as you don’t want to overbear the rice.
Steamed sea bass
Combine the soy, sugar, rice wine and pepper in a small bowl, then set aside.
Prepare a steamer, large enough to fit the whole fish. It’s best to keep it whole, but if needs be you can curl the fish on the plate.
Prepare the ginger and spring onion. For cooking, slice half the ginger into thick discs. Take two spring onions and cut into smaller 5cm sticks. Scatter the ginger and spring onion on to a steamer plate before placing the fish on top. Steam the fish until cooked. For a large sea bass on a medium steam, this should be about nine minutes.
While the fish is steaming, prepare the rest of the garnish. Julienne the rest of the ginger and chop the spring onion into 1cm rings. Once the fish is ready, remove from the steamer carefully, making sure to reserve the juices. Transfer the fish on to a serving plate. In a small pan, heat the fish juices and pour in the soy mixture. Keep on high heat for two minutes. Pour the sauce over the fish.
To finish, heat up the vegetable oil to very hot. While it is heating, place the ginger and spring onion garnish over the fish, then pour the hot oil directly over the garnish.
Keep it simple
I like to set the table in bone-china crockery (this set is from David Mellor). The representation of Taiwanese food in the media is always of this ornate, patterned crockery. That’s very one-sided. If I go and eat in Hong Kong, or Shanghai, restaurants have a far cleaner aesthetic.
Don’t eat the chicken
Although the broth should be served with the whole chicken still in it, all of its essence will have gone into the broth so it won’t be that tasty. The legs can still be eaten as part of the meal as they retain their texture best, but I’d suggest using the rest of the chicken for leftovers in fried rice or a well-dressed salad.
Keep the cold dishes
At an old-school banquet restaurant, you’d have some cold dishes on the table while you wait for your food, and those dishes would stay once your mains arrive. I like soy-braised peanuts as they share the same flavour profile as the pork. You already have most of the ingredients needed for this recipe (see above) which helps streamline the prep. If the peanuts are too much effort, buy some candied nuts and put them in a bowl on the table.
Soy-pickled cucumber chicken broth
The soy-pickled cucumber will take at least three days to pickle. Put the cucumber sticks into a colander, sprinkle over the salt and leave to drain for an hour. In a small bowl, whisk together the sugar, vinegar and both soy sauces until the sugar has dissolved. Transfer the cucumber sticks to a 500ml sterilised jar, then pour over the pickling liquid, leaving a 1cm headspace, and seal. Leave to pickle in the refrigerator for at least three days before using, and up to a week for optimal flavour. The soy‑pickled cucumber can be stored in the refrigerator for up to a month.
For the chicken broth, first blanch the chicken and pork rib in boiling water to get rid of any impurities, then drain the water. Once drained, replenish the water until it just covers the chicken. Cut the ginger in half. Smash the ginger so it breaks. Place the ginger and bunch of spring onion into the stockpot and bring to boil. Once boiling, turn it down to a gentle simmer for two hours. Occasionally skim the top of the broth to remove any impurities. Reserve 200ml of liquid at this stage for poaching the greens in the recipe below.
Fifteen minutes before serving, pick out and discard the spring onion and ginger. Take half of the cucumber and place it into the broth. Pour about half of the soy pickling liquid into the broth and season to taste. Save the other half of the soy-pickled cucumber for another time. If you cook the broth in a clay pot, you can serve it as it is, if not, place the chicken in the centre of a very large soup bowl and pour the broth and cucumber over.
Greens poached in superior broth
Start by preparing the vegetables. Remove the outer layers of the baby pak choi, trim and turn the base (“shave” it) to retain a neat look. You will use only half of the pak choi — the inner most small leaves. Keep the removed layers for another meal.
Wash the pak choi and dou miao pea shoots and drain properly.
Add a pinch of salt to the chicken broth in a saucepan and poach the pak choi for about a minute. You can use the same broth prepared for the soy-pickled cucumber chicken broth. (See step two of the previous recipe.)
In a frying pan, heat up two tablespoons of vegetable oil on medium‑high heat, fry the garlic until fragrant, then add the dou miao and season with sea salt. When the vegetable is completely wilted and glistening, remove from the heat and discard the smashed garlic cloves.
Lay the baby pak choi neatly in a circle and pile the fried dou miao high in the middle of the plate.
In a small bowl, add a teaspoon of cornstarch and two teaspoons of water, and mix well. Heat up the poaching superior broth on a medium heat again and pour in the cornstarch water. Stir and cook until it thickens slightly.
Spoon the lightly thickened superior broth over the greens.
The cocktail I’m serving is something I’ve christened a baollini (recipe above). It’s refreshing, easy to drink and it feels celebratory. It’s served in a sake glass which I only take out for special occasions.
Bratton Seymour Cider has got a natural, light fizz, off-dry sweetness and delicate acidity, so when you’re eating this slightly greasy, rich food, it helps to cut through it and you can keep going. My go-to is the Orchard blend. I always get my cider from Gimlet Bar.
Try Oolong tea . . .
At the end of the meal, I serve oolong tea in a Taiwanese ceremony. You serve it in small ceramic cups.
. . . Paired with whiskey
I’d serve the tea with a single malt whiskey on the side. My favourite is the Taiwanese brand Kavalan. You have this hot sensation from the tea, and a burning sensation from the whiskey. It’s like a dance.
For the strawberry syrup:
To make the syrup: in a wide-based pot, add the sugar and a tablespoon of water. Caramelise the sugar until golden brown. Blitz the strawberries into a smooth purée, then carefully tip into the caramel, swirl and combine. Gently bring to the boil and reduce until the sauce coats the back of a spoon, then add the lime juice. Remove from heat, strain and chill.
In a jug, mix together all the ingredients, then chill in the fridge. When guests arrive, pour the baollini into small stem glasses to serve.
Freeze the peanuts overnight. This helps them to soften when cooking.
The day before the dinner party: in a pan, cover the peanuts with hot water, blanch for five minutes and drain.
In a frying pan, add the vegetable oil, plus the ginger and star anise. Fry until fragrant on a medium-high heat.
Add the soy sauce, oyster sauce and peanuts. Bring to the boil and add the sugar, white pepper and Sichuan pepper.
Pour the mixture into a slow cooker and cook until soft. This requires a whole day.
Chill in the fridge until it’s time to serve.
Fruit with plum salt
I like to keep dessert simple — something cold to contrast with the hot drinks at the end of the meal. Fruit served with plum salt (you can buy it online) is a very Taiwanese flavour combination. Make sure you only dab a little bit of powder on to the fruit. If you are serving fruit that requires peeling and cutting, I would do that in advance and store the fruit in the fridge because it shows you’ve gone the extra mile. Just make sure you cover the fruit properly, so it doesn’t take in smells from the fridge.
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