Sunday, 8 January 2012

Lup Cheong & Clay Pot Rice – Two Perfect!

I remember a line from a song in Barbra Streisand’s movie Yentl, it went “The more I learned, the less I know”. That line reminds me how important it is to keep pursuing new knowledge, and to always maintain an open mind. It reminds me that sometimes even the most trivial things in life have something to teach---like preparing and eating preserved Chinese sausages, or ‘lap cheong’.

During the month-long run-up to the Lunar New Year, Singapore’s Chinatown would be transformed; its narrow streets and sidewalks lined with makeshift stalls selling all manner of festive goodies and decorations, and thronged with shoppers. What catches my eye would be the barrage of preserved food that suddenly appears like magic only at this time of year---dried sausages, waxed duck, dried fish, and even preserved animal innards imported from China or made locally.

I remember helping to make dried sausages when I was young. Meat from different parts of the pig would be carefully apportioned, minced and seasoned; the marinated meat then stuffed into pig intestines and dried in the shade for weeks. Later in life, I learned that the ideal climatic conditions for preparing such dried products in China presented themselves in the last quarter of every year. Dry desert winds from the north would hasten the drying process without scorching the meat---and thus their abundant availability at that time of year.

Needless to say, I love these sausages…especially the liver sausage, or ‘yuen cheong’. My friends and I sometimes call the especially superior versions of yuen cheong, the ‘Chinese foie gras’---with little exaggeration. The smooth richness of liver, coupled with the layered notes of the marinade---in particular of Chinese wine---is beyond description.

The dried Chinese sausage is remarkably self-sufficient, containing within its transparent sheath all of its flavor and essence; therefore, the best ways to release its culinary potential are often the most simple and basic. I like mine placed on top of rice as it cooks, so that the infused oil of the sausages flows into the rice, adding subtle flavor and a mouth-watering fragrance. Or it could be mixed with other marinated meats, in the case of clay pot rice; or made crisp and then fried with vegetables or meat.

I’ve always preferred the first option---steamed and eaten neat with oil-infused rice---thinking it was simple, straightforward and required no pre-preparation. How wrong I was! I found that out when I bought a cookbook by Gigi Ng from the famous restaurant, Ser Wang Fun, in Hong Kong last year. I knew Gigi from the years I lived in Hong Kong; I was already a die-hard fan of her restaurant’s food and its famous made-in-house dried sausages even before we met. I will write more about Ser Wang Fun’s food and review its cookbook later in this blog.

I’ve also picked up the finer points of cooking clay pot rice from a friend. This friend of mine, a famous pastry chef, has spent hours perfecting the technique he learned from master chefs during numerous trips to China.

Clay Pot Rice with Mixed Sausages.
(serves two)

Rice                 2 cups, washed and drained thoroughly
Water/stock    2 cups
Salt                  ½ tsp
Oil/lard            ½ tbsp.
Sausages         2, preferably liver and meat sausage each
Ginger             2 slices, julienned
Soy sauce       1½  tbsp


1.     Drain rice and let it rest for at least 30 minutes.
2.    Put rice in a claypot, pour boiling water, oil and salt, and let it boil vigorously for 4 minutes. Lower the heat to simmer and continue to cook for 15 minutes. Meanwhile, rotate the clay pot so that rice will be evenly cooked.
3.    Add sausages and continue to simmer for another 5 minutes.
4.    Increase the heat to the maximum for the final 5 minutes; remember to rotate the clay pot so that crust would be formed all round.
5.    Just before serving, pour soy sauce around the circumference of the lid, let the soy sauce slowly seep through the gap between the lid and the pot. The residual heat will increase the fragrance of the soy sauce before eating.
6.    Mix well before serving.

Preparation of the Sausages
1.    Boil water in a saucepan.
2.    Remove strings from the sausages and place it into the warm water.
3.    Simmer sausages for 10 minutes in the case of liver sausages or 14 minutes for meat sausages.
4.    Remove the sausages from the simmering water and let it dry in a cool corner for at least 3 hours. This step will make the skin of the sausages crisp when cooked.
5.    Pan fry sausages in a dry (without oil) pan or place it on top of the boiling rice.