Saturday, 28 May 2011

Claypot Pig Liver Recaptured!

I literally grew up in the shadow of People’s Park Complex. It was a big shadow, because it was a mammoth of a building. You won’t miss it if you were in Singapore’s Chinatown.

In its heyday (the late 1960s) People’s Park Complex was a statement-making piece of architecture. Today it sticks out like a monolithic green-and-orange sore thumb at the foot of Pearl’s Hill.

Before People’s Park Complex was built, a market stood on this one-hectare plot of land. It was called People’s Market. I remember the maze of zinc-roofed hutches, which sold mostly textiles and household ware. There were also hawker stalls and open-air restaurants, all ringed by wire fencing with a couple of openings. It was filthy and smelly, but full of character and life.

I was six, and this place gave me with some of my earliest adventures in food. I remember a couple of stalls that were famous for things such as “Scissors Rice” (ie. a combination of pork chops, curry chicken and rice), Chinese desserts, and roast meats. There was a particular restaurant my family often brought me to. Its name slips my mind, but not its location next to a huge drain that ran between present-day Eu Tong Sen Street and New Bridge Road.

There were certain dishes that were de rigueur with each visit: Salt-baked Prawns (), Fried Spring Chicken (), Bitter Gourd with Pork Ribs (苦瓜焖排骨), Sweet Sour Pork Ribs (排骨王), and Claypot Pig Liver (砂煲猪润). Not only my family loved them; everybody did, because they were “in”. They were the Prawn Paste Chicken and Crab Noodle of their day! I came to learn that food, like clothes, could come and go.

Sadly, the market burnt down in 1966; and shortly after, People’s Park Complex rose on the same location. The shopping center quickly became very popular, and was a favorite gathering place for old folks living nearby because of its air-conditioned atrium. Even today, the sight of this building always brings a tide of memories.

I’ve loved pig liver since young, and ate it frequently in all its forms and cooking styles (of which I’ll share more in the future). My favorite style is Claypot Pig Liver. It was instant love when I first tasted this dish at the restaurant in People’s Market all those years ago, and I’ve measured all later encounters against this first meeting.

Claypot Pig Liver remained popular in Singapore until the late 1990s -- when people became conscious of calories and cholesterol. Though it still appears on restaurant menus, what’s served today seldom recaptures the former glory of this dish as I remember.

Claypot Pig Liver

Pig liver                                  200 g, sliced into 3-cm thick
Sesame oil                             ½ tbsp
Ginger                                    60 g, sliced into 1-mm thick, preferably “young” ginger (子姜)
Spring onion                        60 g, separate the white portion from the greens
Chinese wine (花雕酒)     1½  tbsp

Oil                                           1 tsp
Oyster sauce                       ½ tbsp
Soy sauce                             ½ tsp
Salt                                         ¼ tsp
Dark soy sauce                   ¼ tsp, optional
Chinese wine (花雕酒)    ½ tsp
White pepper                      a pinch
Caltrop starch (生粉)        1 tsp, mixed with ½ tbsp of water

1.     Place the pig liver flat on the cutting board. With the knife slanted at 60°, cut the pig liver into 3 mm-thick slices.
2.     Add oil to the pig liver and mix thoroughly. This step is important, as it prevents the pig liver from getting rough. Next, add oyster sauce, soy sauce, salt, Chinese wine, pepper, and mix well. Finally, add caltrop starch and marinate for 30 minutes.
3.     Heat claypot over high heat and add sesame oil. When the oil is heated to around 180°C, stir-fry ginger and spring onion (white part only) until both turn slightly golden brown.
4.     Add pig liver and quickly stir-fry for about 30 seconds; add the remaining spring onion. Trickle some Chinese wine onto the claypot rim. This ensures that the alcohol in the wine evaporates before reaching the liver, thus lessening the” bitterness” of the wine. Cover the pot with its lid and remove it from the flame.
5.     Pour 1 tbsp of Chinese wine around the circumference of the lid and let it brew for 3 minutes. The remaining heat from the claypot will continue to cook the liver.
6.     Remove the lid and quickly stir the food, and scoop it onto the serving plate.

Note:   Measure of success – the liver should be just cooked, and remain tender and succulent.
            Don’t over-marinate; the flavor of the liver should come through.
            The final drip of Chinese wine around the lid is to provide a “fragrance” when the lid is lifted.

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