My family, like most I imagine, has two culinary moods—comfort food and surprise-us food.
Comfort food is easy enough. For me, it is fish curry and roast pork. For the wife, it is dal or sai bhaji (a Sindhi amalgam of seven vegetables) and white rice. For the child, it is beef stir-fry and curd rice.
This is easy enough. There is a template that we follow for each of these, with minor variations to keep it lively.
The problem arises when everyone has had enough of comfort food, which is often. Well, I wouldn’t really call it a problem, but it certainly forces you to seek inspiration because it is not easy to be inventive about lunch or dinner regularly.
I may find that inspiration from a random recipe I may chance upon in the newspapers (yes, I still read them, four on a weekday, six on the weekend) or a book. I have little patience to follow a recipe. I tend to absorb the idea and then do my own thing.
I also find inspiration from conversations with friends and relatives, food they may have eaten, places they may have been. That’s what I did last week. I was particularly stuck for inspiration, so I summoned our house guest. Karishma was back in our neck of the woods after spending the last few years in the US. Her passions are animals, people, exercise and food, not necessarily in that order.
“Come talk to me,” I told her. “Tell me what food excited you when you returned. ”It emerged she had a list of places I had never heard of despite living here longer than she had. Gradually, she confessed.
Curly Sue offered rosemary roasted pork rack and other wonders. Bungaraya Malaysian food dished out home-style laksa and shrimp with greens. Café Plume had the best croissants. Bakers Den occasionally made brain samosas.
I was instantly attracted to the pork options, especially since it was a Sunday, a fine day for a special meal. I didn’t really mean to order from any of these places. I was just hoping for some inspiration.
This is how my somewhat incoherent cooking process often unfolds, with strands of thoughts that eventually coalesce.
Pork? Yes, why not. Rosemary? Yes, we have it in the balcony. But, oh, look at that char sui pork, which I always love at Chinese restaurants. Should I make it at home? But isn’t it hard to make?
Turns out, it isn’t very hard. But there’s no pork in the fridge. Do I really want to ride out and get it when I could have a Sunday afternoon nap?
The freezer only has chicken. Oh, well.
An essential ingredient of char sui anything is Chinese five-spice powder, which I have, but I wasn’t prepared to use an old bottle of spice with the aromas sucked out. So, I made my own Chinese five-spice. It wasn’t difficult, as you can read below.
Making it fresh provided a good incentive to justify that afternoon nap. I made it, marinated the chicken and nodded off, dreaming—appropriately—of an entire pig roasted char sui style by the beach. When I woke up, there was no beach and no pig, just our ginger cat staring impatiently at me (he likes some evening action).
An essential ingredient of char sui is Chinese Shao Hsing (or Shaoxing) cooking wine, made with fermented rice. I was preparing to do without it, but I realised I did have its substitutes: mirin (a Japanese sweet cooking wine) or dry sherry. When I was talking about how perfect it would be to have Shao Hsing wine, the wife said, “Oh, we do.”
She’s still full of surprises.
I have no idea what possessed her to buy something so specific or unrelated to her vegetarian taste buds than Shao Hsing cooking wine. She bought it on Amazon when she was going through a Chinese-cooking phase. So, there it was.
She wasn’t around for dinner, but I am now so used to making a vegetarian option that I did anyway, cobbling together a Chinese-style stir-fry with white rice and a home-made sauce.
After making the cha sui chicken, it was apparent that apart from soy sauce, make sure you keep a bottle of Shao Hsing wine in your larder if you want to toss up reasonably authentic Chinese food. Or look for other inspiration.
CHAR SUI ROASTED CHICKEN
750g chicken, cut into pieces
For the marination
1 tsp sesame oil
1 small onion, finely chopped
7 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1 tbsp dark soy sauce
1 tbsp Shao hsing hua tua cooking wine/vinegar (if not available, use any Chinese cooking vinegar or wine)
Salt to taste
1 tsp Chinese five-spice powder
Home-made Chinese five-spice powder: 1 tsp fennel seeds, half star anise, 1 tsp white and black peppercorns, 1-inch piece cinnamon, 3 cloves. Grind in a dry grinder or pound to a powder using a mortar pestle.
Marinate the chicken with all the ingredients for at least an hour. Use salt sparingly since soy and the Shao Tsing vinegar are salty.
Preheat the oven to 190 degrees Celsius. Place the chicken in a greased oven-proof dish. Bake for 45 minutes, taking care to turn it over and baste it either with the liquid released and/or dribbles of sesame oil. When it browns, reduce the temperature to 150 degrees for another 10 minutes, in case you need it more tender.
Our Daily Bread is a column on easy, inventive cooking. Samar Halarnkar is the author of The Married Man’s Guide To Creative Cooking—And Other Dubious Adventures. @samar11 on Twitter.
Also read | Avoid the phone. Make the effort. Eat well