The Mighty Spice Company

Update, 28 Oct 2008 – I’m very pleased to be able to tell you that Sainsbury’s has seen the light, and is now stocking Mighty Spice at selected butchers’ counters, so you’re not going to have to drive to London to buy your own tub any more.

A couple of weeks ago, the nice people at The Mighty Spice Company sent me three of their chilled spice mixes to sample. Exciting stuff, this; I’ve not found anything similar to these fresh blends on sale in the UK. The Mighty Spice Company’s offering is a really refreshing change from the oily, musty pastes and sauces you’ll find on offer in the supermarket which taste vaguely of foreign – instead, these blends are made from fresh ingredients without fillers and additives (so they need to be kept refrigerated), and are really well-judged, with clean and subtle balances of flavour. They’ve been in development for two years, and you can really taste the effort that’s gone into tweaking these mixtures to perfection.

Currently, the range includes a Szechwan mix, a Tandoori mix and a Thai Green mix. All three come with simple recipes on the side of the pack (recipes are also available on the Mighty Spice website), but the mixes are so flexible that you can (as, inevitably, I did – I’m very bad at following instructions) improvise around them very successfully. I was really chuffed to find that the mixes are comprehensive enough that I was able to make a positively fantastic stir-fry without having to add (and chop – hooray!) any ginger, garlic or other spices – and the balance of soy sauce and oyster sauce forming the background of the mix was spot on, so I didn’t have to add any wet ingredients either. I made a lamb curry with the tandoori mix, some crushed tomatoes and coconut – especially good the next day, after a night in the fridge to let the flavours mingle, and again, it needed absolutely no additions to the very well-blended spice mix. The Thai mix was a bit milder than I would usually have chosen, but tasted green and fresh.

My favourite? Probably the Szechwan spice mix, which was loaded with Szechwan peppercorns. It’s a good way into the spice for those of you who aren’t familiar with it and its curious tongue-numbing (but not painful) heat, a sensation a little like a cross between a mint leaf and a chilli. In taste it’s nothing like mint or chilli, but pleasantly citric. None of your syrupy, Chinese-sauce-inna-jar flavours here; this was a really bright, lively sauce that worked well with some chicken and sweet vegetables.

I’m sure it won’t be long before you’re able to find The Mighty Spice Company’s products on sale in a supermarket chiller cabinet near you, but for now they’re very new and are mostly available in London. You’ll find the spice mixes stocked at Wholefoods Market, Selfridges, Harvey Nichols and several organic grocers – a complete list of stockists is available here. I’d heartily recommend you spend the £3.99 on one of their mixes for a professional, easy and hopelessly tasty supper. Brilliant stuff – thanks, Mighty Spice guys!

Soy and anise braised pork

Soy and anise braised pork bellyI know a lot of you come here for the Chinese and Malaysian recipes, and it hit me last week that I’ve not produced anything new in that line for a couple of months. This soy and anise pork has been worth the wait, though – here, belly pork is braised in a deeply fragrant and savoury sauce until it’s so tender that it positively melts in the mouth.

Star anise is a beautiful, flower-shaped spice from a Chinese evergreen; it’s an entirely different species of plant from European anise, although it has a similar flavour. It’s one of the aromatics used in five-spice powder, and has a warm, intensely fragrant taste. There’s been something of a shortage of the spice in recent years because an acid found in star anise is used in making Tamiflu, the anti-influenza drug. Happily for the cooks among you (and those with flu), drugs companies have since started to synthesise shikimic acid, so star anise is back on the shelves again. The Chinese use it as an indigestion remedy – you can try it yourself by releasing a seed from the woody star and chewing it after a meal if you feel you’ve overindulged.

This recipe capitalises on the affinity star anise has for rich meats like pork. Belly pork is one of my favourite cuts of meat (you can find some more recipes for belly pork here) – it’s flavourful, has brilliant texture, and the fat gives it a wonderful unctuous quality as it bastes itself from within. To serve four with rice and a stir-fried vegetable, you’ll need:

1 kg pork belly
1 tablespoon honey
1 teaspoon five-spice powder
2 tablespoons lard or flavourless oil
5 cloves garlic
6 shallots
4 flowers of star anise
2 tablespoons soft brown sugar
4 tablespoons dark soy sauce
2 teaspoons salt
250 ml pork or chicken stock

Using a very sharp knife or a Chinese cleaver, chop the pork into strips about 1.5 cm thick. (Do not remove the skin, which will become deliciously melting when cooked.) Mix one tablespoon of the soy sauce with the honey and five-spice powder in a bowl, and marinade the sliced pork in the mixture for an hour.

Chop the garlic and shallots very finely. Heat the lard to a high temperature in a thick-bottomed pan with a close-fitting lid, and fry the garlic, shallots, star anise and brown sugar together until they begin to turn gold. Turn the heat down to medium, add the pork to the pan with its marinade, and fry until the meat is coloured on all sides.

Pour over the chicken stock, and add the salt and the rest of the soy sauce. Bring the mixture to the boil, reduce to a gentle simmer, cover and continue to simmer for two hours, turning the meat every now and then. If the sauce seems to be reducing and thickening, add a little water.

This is one of those recipes which is even better left to cool, refrigerated, and then reheated the next day.

Honey and sesame glazed chicken wings

Glazed chicken wingsContinuing this week’s things which taste as if they ought to cost a lot more than they did theme, here’s a recipe for chicken wings. They’re a much-overlooked bit of the bird, and this is a shame (or would be if it didn’t mean that they’re amazingly cheap), because they’re wonderfully tasty. Meat from near the bone of a chicken always tastes richer and sweeter. Grilled in a sweet sauce, the skin on the wings becomes crisp and delicious. And somehow, sticky things which demand to be eaten with the fingers are about three times tastier than the ones you can just manage with a knife and fork.

To serve four as a starter or two as a main course with rice, you’ll need:

16 chicken wings
2 tablespoons dark soya sauce
2 tablespoons runny honey
1 tablespoon sesame oil
1 tablespoon light soya sauce
1 tablespoon chilli sauce (choose something sweet here – I used Kampong Koh chilli and garlic sauce, which is made in my grandparents’ town in Malaysia)
3 cloves of garlic, crushed or grated with a Microplane grater
Juice of half a lemon

Remove the pointy end-joint from each wing with a sharp knife. Mix all the other ingredients in a large bowl and marinade the chicken pieces for a few hours or (preferably) overnight.

Place the chicken wings on a rack over some tin foil in a grill pan and grill close to the heat source under a medium flame for about six minutes on each side (or use a barbecue). Baste the chicken with the marinade from the bowl regularly as it cooks. The sauce will caramelise and the skin will bubble. If you want a sauce, put any extra marinade in a small pan and boil vigorously for a couple of minutes, then pour over the wings. Serve with a bowl on the table for the bones and plenty of paper napkins – you’re going to get very sticky fingers!

Crispy Chinese roast pork

I am pathetically proud of having successfully cooked a strip of Chinese roast belly pork (siew yoke or siew yuk, depending on how you transliterate it) at home. This pork, with its bubbly, crisp skin and moist flesh is a speciality of many Cantonese restaurants. An even, glassy crispness is hard to achieve if you’re making it at home, but I think I’ve cracked it; with this method, you should be able to prepare it at home too.

You’ll need a strip of belly pork weighing about two pounds. Here in the UK you may have trouble finding a belly in one piece (for some reason, belly pork is often sold in thick but narrow straps of meat); look for a rolled belly which you can unroll and lay flat, make friends with a pliant butcher or shop at a Chinese butcher (you’ll find one in most Chinatowns). Look for a piece of meat with a good layer of fat immediately beneath the skin. The belly will have alternating layers of meat and fat. Try to find one with as many alternating strips as possible.

To serve three or four (depending on greed) with rice, you’ll need:

2lb piece fat belly pork
1 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon five-spice powder
½ teaspoon cinnamon
1 tablespoon Mei Gui Lu jiu (a rose-scented Chinese liqueur – it’s readily available at Chinese grocers, but if you can’t find any, just leave it out)
3 cloves garlic, crushed
2oo ml water
2 tablespoons Chinese white vinegar

Bring the water and vinegar to the boil in a wok, and holding the meat side of your pork with your fingers, dip the rind in the boiling mixture carefully so it blanches. Remove the meat to a shallow tray and dry it well. Rub the sugar, salt, five-spice powder, cinnamon, Mei Gui Lu jiu and garlic well into the bottom and sides of the meat, leaving the rind completely dry. Place the joint rind side up in your dish.

Belly porkUse a very sharp craft knife to score the surface of the rind. If your rind came pre-scored, you still need to work on it a bit – for an ideal crackling, you should be scoring lines about half a centimetre apart as in this photo, then scoring another set of lines at ninety degrees to the original ones, creating tiny diamonds in the rind. Rub a teaspoon of salt into the rind. Place the dish of pork, uncovered (this is extremely important – leaving the meat uncovered will help the rind dry out even further while the flavours penetrate the meat) for 24 hours in the fridge.

Heat the oven to 200° C (450° F). Rub the pork rind with about half a teaspoon of oil and place the joint on a rack over some tin foil. Roast for twenty minutes. Turn the grill section of your oven on high and put the pork about 20cm below the element. Grill the meat with the door cracked open for twenty minutes, checking frequently to make sure that the skin doesn’t burn (once the crackling has gone bubbly you need to watch very closely for burning). The whole skin should rise and brown to a crisp. This can take up to half an hour, so don’t worry if the whole thing hasn’t crackled after twenty minutes – just leave it under the grill and keep an eye on it.

Remove the meat from the heat and leave it on its rack to rest for fifteen minutes. Cut the pork into pieces as in the picture at the top of the page. Serve with steamed rice, with some soya sauce and chillies for dipping. A small bowl of caster sugar is also traditional, and these salty, crisp pork morsels are curiously delicious when dipped gingerly into it.

Fragrant garlic-grilled pork medallions

This is a great dish for those trying to avoid too much fat in their diet. Pork fillet is a very lean (and pleasingly inexpensive) cut of meat, but marinated and grilled like this it stays moist. It’s delicious, especially if you allow the edges to caramelise under the hot grill, and is a brilliant dish for garlic lovers.

One fillet will serve two people. For every fillet you cook, you’ll need:

1 pork fillet
4 tablespoons light soya sauce
2 tablespoons dark soya sauce
4 tablespoons oyster sauce
2 tablespoons hoi sin sauce
2 tablespoons soft brown sugar
1 red chilli
1 head garlic
Coriander or spring onion to garnish

Slice the long fillet into discs about a centimetre thick. Place in a bowl with the sauces, honey, sliced chilli and finely chopped garlic, stir well to coat and leave in the fridge overnight.

Place the medallions of pork under a hot grill or on a barbecue, and cook for four minutes per side, basting with the marinade. Bring any remaining marinade to the boil in a small pan, and use as a thick sauce. Serve over rice, with some crisp steamed vegetables.

Spiced Chinese pork casserole

Chinese pork casseroleYou’ll need a slow cooker (sometimes called a crock pot) for this one. If you live in a university town, keep an eye on Facebook and Craigslist at the end of term; here in Cambridge, a lot of slow cookers, rice cookers and other equipment advertisements pop up at decent prices when overseas students return home. Mine came from a Singaporean student, and hadn’t even been used – the safety stickers were still glued to the bowl. Not bad for £10.

Slow cooking’s unbelievably easy – you just toss the ingredients in, turn the machine on and leave it for six to eight hours (an opportunity which I took to go shopping). The machine keeps the temperature low, at between 80° C and 90° C, and the food cooks for a correspondingly long time. You’ll find that meats cooked like this absorb a phenomenal amount of flavour from the ingredients they are cooked with, and these Chinese seasonings are excellent here, infusing the pork pieces with a dark, spiced softness.

To serve three to four people, you’ll need:

500g diced pork leg
2 star anise flowers
3 cloves
1 cinnamon stick
4 spring onions, tied in a knot
1 red chilli
4 cloves of garlic, sliced
1 piece of ginger the size of your thumb, sliced
50 ml Chinese rice wine
50 ml light soya sauce
50 ml teriyaki sauce
1 heaped tablespoon brown sugar
3 teaspoons sesame oil

This is hopelessly easy – just mix all the ingredients except the water well and place in the bowl of the slow cooker. Try to find relatively fatty pork – this will give the meat a moister finish. Add water to cover the meat, put on the lid and cook for one hour on high, then five hours on low. (Don’t allow the dish to cook for more than eight hours, at which point the meat will start to lose flavour.)

When you are ready to serve, remove the spring onions from the sauce (they will be unattractive and slimy, but they will have given up all their flavour to the rest of the dish) and dish up the casserole over rice. Garnish with fresh, diced spring onion and pour a teaspoon of sesame oil over each portion.

Salt and pepper prawns

Salt and pepper prawns
Salt and pepper prawns

This Chinese appetiser is one of my favourites, and it’s surprisingly easy to make at home. Szechuan peppercorns are toasted in a dry pan until they release their amazing fragrance, then combined with flours and some other seasonings to make a feathery crisp and light coating for the prawns. Garlic and aromatic spring onions (scallions for American readers) are dusted in the flour coating and fried, making a crisp and delicious garnish for the prawns.

Those American readers are probably also wondering what these prawn things I’m on about are. Sometimes these linguistic differences become downright annoying. The United Nations (not somewhere I usually visit for culinary advice, but surprisingly helpful in this instance) informs me that:

…in Great Britain the term “shrimp” is the more general of the two, and is the only term used for Crangonidae and most smaller species. “Prawn” is the more special of the two names, being used solely for Palaemondiae and larger forms, never for the very small ones.

In North America the name “prawn” is practically obsolete and is almost entirely replaced by the word “shrimp” (used for even the largest species, which may be called “jumbo shrimp”). If the word “prawn” is used at all in America it is attached to small species.

So there you have it. Every time I say ‘prawn’, please substitute ‘large shrimp about the size of your thumb, once the head has been removed’, and get frying. For salt and pepper shrimp for two, you’ll need:

500g raw, shelled prawns
2 tablespoons Szechuan peppercorns
1 tablespoon freshly ground black pepper
3 tablespoons rice flour (rice flour will give your coating an amazing crispness)
3 tablespoons cornflour
2 tablespoons fleur de sel, Maldon salt or any salt with a flaky, crystalline form
4 spring onions (scallions)
6 cloves garlic
Flavourless oil to shallow fry

Begin by toasting the Szechuan peppercorns over a medium flame in a dry frying pan until they start to release their fragrance (about 4 minutes). Combine the toasted whole peppercorns in a large bowl with the black pepper, rice flour, cornflour and salt. This sounds like a great deal of salt, but this dish requires a lot, and you may actually find that you want to sprinkle a little more over at the end, so be generous.

Chop the garlic very roughly, and slice the spring onions into little discs.

De-vein (actually de-intestine) the prawns if you want – if I am confident with the source of my shellfish, I don’t usually bother. Dredge them in the seasoned flour. Heat up a 2cm depth of oil in a thick-bottomed pan, and fry the prawns in small batches when the heat is searingly hot, turning until the coating is golden and crisp. Transfer to a kitchen paper-covered plate in a warm oven to drain and keep warm as the other prawns are cooking.

When all the prawns are ready, dredge the garlic and spring onions in the seasoned flour, using a slotted spoon to remove them from the flour bowl. Saute them in the oil you cooked the prawns in until their coating is also turning golden. Remove from the oil with the rinsed and dried slotted spoon and place on kitchen paper to remove any excess oil.

Arrange the prawns on plates, sprinkle over the onion and garlic mixture, and serve immediately.

Chicken and sweetcorn soup

This Chinese soup is a real favourite with children, and it’s pleasingly economical to make. You’ll only need two chicken leg joints (the joint with the thigh and drumstick attached) to serve four people.

You might have eaten this in Chinese restaurants. This is an egg-drop soup: this means it’s thickened by whisking a thin stream of beaten egg into the bubbling stock immediately before serving, leaving you with delicious strands of seasoned egg mingling with the chicken pieces and the sweetcorn. If you want to make extra to freeze, skip the egg stage, adding it to the defrosted soup immediately before you serve.

To serve four, you’ll need:

2 chicken leg joints
1 litre water
1 chicken stock cube
1 piece of ginger, about the size of your thumb, cut into coins
2 spring onions (plus extra to garnish)
3 cloves garlic
1 can creamed corn
2 tablespoons soya sauce
1 teaspoon cornflour
1 teaspoon sesame oil
2 eggs
Salt and pepper

Brown the outside of the chicken pieces in a large, heavy saucepan with the garlic, spring onions and ginger for five minutes. Pour over the water and a tablespoon of soya sauce, and crumble the stock cube into the pan. Bring up to a gentle simmer and keep over a medium heat for half an hour, skimming any froth off the top of the stock as you go.

Remove the chicken from the pan, and use a knife and fork to remove all the meat from the bones, chopping it into small pieces. Set the meat aside and return the bones and skin to the stock, and simmer for another half hour.

Strain the stock through a sieve to remove the bones, ginger, garlic and spring onions. Return the clear liquid to the pan and add the meat you took off the bones earlier and the can of creamed corn to the stock. Add a splash of cold water to the cornflour in a mug, mix well and stir into the stock. Bring back to a simmer. In a large jug, whisk the sesame oil, a tablespoon of soya sauce and the eggs together. Remove the soup from the heat and stir it hard, drizzling the egg mixture in a stream into the rotating liquid. Taste to check the seasoning, adding salt and pepper if necessary. Serve immediately, dressed with some chopped spring onion.

Sticky chicken pieces in coke

One of the recipes on this blog that gets more hits than almost all the others is the ham in Coca Cola recipe I posted a couple of years ago. (Do try it if you haven’t yet – it really is good.) This means that my ears pricked right up last week when talking to a couple of Chinese friends, who were discussing a Chinese student recipe involving chicken wings, a wok and some coke; a delicious but extremely easy recipe, apparently impossible to mess up through student drunkenness.

I had a play with some bits of chicken (thighs rather than wings here, because that was what was in the fridge), soya sauce, ginger, garlic and coke when I got home, and I’m really pleased with the results. If you enjoy Malaysian cooking, with its propensity for sweetness in savoury dishes, you’ll love this; the sweetness is balanced by the dark spices from the coke, the zing of the chilli and some lovely aromatic ginger.

Make sure you buy full-fat coke, not the diet stuff. Diet cola will not work here – the sauce won’t thicken as it caramelises, and you won’t achieve any sweetness from it because the aspartame will degrade and taste revolting.

To serve two, you’ll need:

4 chicken thighs (or other chicken joints with the bone in and the skin still attached)
Coca Cola to cover
4 cloves garlic
1 piece of ginger, the size of your thumb
1 red chilli
4 tablespoons light soya sauce
2 tablespoons cider vinegar
Salt and pepper
Vegetable oil

Pat the chicken dry with kitchen paper and sprinkle with a little salt and pepper. Leave to one side while you slice the garlic finely and cut the peeled ginger and the chilli into matchsticks.

Heat a little vegetable oil in a wok or a large pan over a high flame, and fry the chicken pieces until the skin is beginning to brown. Add the ginger, chilli and garlic, then stir fry for a minute. Pour over the cola so the chicken is covered, and add the soya sauce and the vinegar.

Put a lid partially over your wok or pan, making sure that you leave a gap at one side for plenty of steam to escape. Turn the heat down to a medium setting when the cola begins to simmer, and leave, turning the chicken occasionally, for about half an hour (depending on your pan), until the coke has reduced by more than two thirds and the liquid in the pan is syrupy. Serve immediately with rice, a little chilli sauce and a sharply dressed salad.

Minted chicken stir-fry

Summer’s here, and my herb garden’s doing really well. When we moved here a couple of years ago, we found an abandoned butler sink in the garden. While they look lovely in the kitchen, I wouldn’t want one in the house; they’re much less practical than a double sink with a waste disposal unit, and it’s surprisingly easy to drop and break crockery in an something as deep as a butler sink. We used it as a herb trough instead – it’s just the right size, comes with instant drainage (the plug hole), fits nicely into the space by the back door, and you can get a good depth of compost in there.

Mint (back left in the photo) is a herb that I only ever plant in containers, because if it gets going in the garden it spreads and spreads and spreads until you’ve not got a garden any more, just a minty carpet. This recipe uses the fresh leaves in an unusual non-lamb application – it’s fresh, clean-tasting and an excellent hayfever season dish – the curry clears your nose out and the mint gives you something to smell. To serve four, you’ll need:

450g (1 lb) chicken breasts, cut into cubes
1 egg white
1 tablespoon cornflour
2 red peppers, cut into large dice
1 handful mange tout peas
4 cloves crushed garlic
150 ml chicken stock (a stock cube is fine here)
1 tablespoon curry paste
2 teaspoons Chinese black bean sauce
2 teaspoons soft brown sugar
1 glass Chinese rice wine
2 tablespoons light soya sauce
1 small handful fresh mint leaves
Flavourless oil for stir-frying

Put the chicken pieces in a bowl with the egg white and cornflour, and leave aside for half an hour. Stir-frying chicken marinaded in this way is called velveting, and makes the meat very succulent, but if you’re in a dreadful hurry or simply out of eggs, you can leave this stage out.

Stir-fry the chicken in a very hot wok until it’s turned white and has cooked through. Remove the chicken to a plate, put some new oil in the wok and heat it up again. Stir-fry the peppers, peas and garlic for two minutes, then add all the other ingredients except the chicken and mint. Cook for another two minutes, then throw in the chicken, coating it with the sauce. Remove from the heat, add the mint, stir thoroughly to mix and serve immediately with rice.