Indonesian pork & greens

spices for braised nyonya pork

I do lots of the cooking in our house, and I like it that way, but still – I love it when J cooks. Not only does it mean I can sit around with a drink and watch someone else work – always enjoyable – but he often tackles recipes that are a lot more complex than I usually feel like dealing with. He loves measuring spices for Indian curries, is a great baker, and doesn’t mind following long detailed directions. I tend to look at this sort of recipe, think “what’s all this nitpicking detail for?” and ignore half of it. He doesn’t, with the obvious result that a lot of his cooking tastes more complex and authentic than mine. Not that he complains much about my cooking 🙂

So on Sunday when I was at work, he undertook to make a couple recipes out of James Oseland’s Cradle of Flavor. I loved this book when I bought it so much that I actually sat on the couch and read it cover to cover, it was so evocative of the sights, smells and tastes of Indonesia. We made a special trip to Uwajimaya (a 100-mile round trip) to stock up on every single weird-sounding ingredient: pandan leaf, sweet soybean paste, fermented shrimp paste, galangal, water spinach, fresh turmeric, et al. It was great. But lately we haven’t been cooking out of it, and when we were in Uwajimaya again on Saturday the water spinach looked good, so …

Stir-Fried Nyonya-style Water Spinach

from Cradle of Flavor by James Oseland

water spinach stems

We made this recipe immediately after our first shopping trip – water spinach, also called ong choy, apparently doesn’t keep well at all. The leaves are soft and a touch bitter, rather like regular spinach, but the stems are hollow and crunchy. We made this recipe once with regular spinach and it worked fine, but use water spinach if you can find it. The sauce is a wonderful blend of fishy, salty, sweet and tart!

Also: don’t make this if you particularly don’t want your house to smell of shrimp paste for the next day or two.

  • 1 tsp tamarind pulp and 3 Tbsp warm water
  • 1 bunch water spinach
  • 1/2 tsp dried shrimp paste
  • 2 1/2 oz chopped shallot
  • 1 clove garlic, chopped
  • 1-3 fresh red chiles, chopped
  • 1 Tbsp sweet soybean paste
  • 2 Tbsp oil
  • 2 tsp soy sauce
  • Kosher salt

Mix the tamarind pulp with the warm water and let it rest until softened; massage the pulp and remove the solid bits, leaving tamarind extract. Set aside.

Wash the greens, chop and dry them with a salad spinner. Set aside.

Prepare the shrimp paste for toasting:

Taking a chip off the old block of shrimp paste

Carefully unwrap your shrimp paste (we keep ours in several layers of plastic wrap and ziploc bags – it started smelling just a couple layers in) and break off a small piece. Place it in the middle of a 5 inch square of foil, fold the foil up into a small packet and flatten it with the palm of your hand.

toasting shrimp paste

Using tongs, hold the packet over a burner until it smokes and smells like burning shrimp. Let it cool slightly, then unwrap it and make the sauce:

Sauce for nyonya-style water spinach

Combine the shallot, the toasted shrimp paste, peppers, garlic and soybean paste in a food processor and process until smooth. Add water if necessary. I don’t know how we got along before we got this little Cuisinart – it’s the best thing in the world for making spice pastes and curry sauces.

frying sauce for water spinach

Heat the oil in a wok or large skillet. Add the sauce and fry it gently. The soybean paste burns easily, so watch the heat level – it’s supposed to simmer, not boil.

stirfrying water spinach

Add the greens along with the tamarind extract and soy sauce. Stir to coat the spinach with the sauce, turn up the heat and stirfry til done. That’s it!

 Spiced Braised Nyonya Pork (Seh Bak)

from Cradle of Flavor by James Oseland

This was a new recipe for us. It smelled fantastic while it was cooking, with strong cinnamon and star anise notes. The final product was tender and actually very delicately flavored, like other Indonesian braised dishes we’ve made – more fragrant than actually spicy, with no single flavor predominating.

  • 10 oz chopped shallots
  • 2 Tbsp peanut oil
  • 3 inches fresh or frozen galangal, cut into matchsticks
  • 2 sticks cinnamon
  • 4 whole cloves
  • 2 whole star anise
  • 2 lbs boneless pork, preferably with plenty of fat in it
  • 1 cup water
  • 3 Tbsp cider or rice vinegar
  • 2 Tbsp soy sauce
  • 2 Tbsp sugar
  • 2 fresh red chiles (we used Fresno)

Nyonya braised pork

 Puree the shallots into a smooth paste. Set aside.

Heat the oil in a large Dutch oven, add the galangal and cook a couple of minutes, until fragrant. Add the shallot paste and sauté a few minutes, until slightly golden. Add the cinnamon, cloves, and star anise and sauté until you can smell them.

Add the pork and cook until browned a bit, then add the water, vinegar, soy sauce and sugar and stir well. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat to low and partially cover the pan. Let it simmer about two hours, occasionally giving it a stir. You want the meat to be very tender, but not falling apart.

Remove the lid, raise the heat and boil the liquid off (this will take a little while). You should end up with a thick sauce clinging to the meat. Mix in a little fresh chopped red pepper. At this point the recipe wants you to let the meat rest for half an hour, but I prefer eating it hot.

We served the pork and greens in a bowl with rather wet white basmati rice (why does my rice always come out wet? It’s a great mystery). I hadn’t been sure what wine to choose, so I consulted our current pairing bible under “Indonesian food.” It suggested lager, riesling or shiraz, so I pulled out an Indaba Shiraz from South Africa – it worked really well, being peppery enough to support the spicy food but not too forward.

nyonya braised pork and water spinach


4 thoughts on “Indonesian pork & greens

  1. I think I’m going to need to make the braised pork once chile peppers are back in season in our area. The pictures are nice if only because my copy of the book only has text (somehow our library was selling an advance copy for $1.00).

  2. Hi Matt,

    It’s too bad you don’t have the pictures – there are some great pages to help identify the various ingredients. But can’t beat the price of the book!

    You might like the pork, especially if you like star anise – it smells so good while it braises. I’ll be sure to try some other recipes from the book so you can see the pictures 🙂

  3. Would the recipe work at all without the shallot? It sounds divine; I can just about smell it just through your description, but, as you may recall, I have some unusual food allergies and wouldn’t be able to follow the recipe as is.

  4. Hiya, Brett!

    Yeah, you probably wouldn’t want to eat all that shallot, would you?

    You could leave out all the alliums, and I’m sure it would still taste good – just very different. Shallot and garlic are pretty integral to Southeast Asian cooking in general. But we often leave the onion or shallot out of things and get good results – just let the spices provide the flavor.

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