FOOD – Five fabulous spices

I’m back from Penang where I had a good time with my girlfriends even though we split up and did different things. The problem I now have is deciding what to post because Penang is so delightful for – R&R (one friend was permanently parked on a deckchair by the beach or pool); good food (be belly smart, dress in loose clothes); and friendly locals.

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To start, let’s look at something small – Chinese five-spice powder. The helpful proprietor of a restaurant we dined in recommended the Pok Oy Thong brand – the best in Penang and probably the region. We scoured the Pulau Tikus market and checked a grocer or two. One market stallholder advised us to go to the source – an old Chinese medical hall (Kedai Ubat Cina Pok Oy Thong, 365B Lebuh Chulia).

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Five-spice powder varies in ingredients, but most use more than five spices. The Pok Oy Thong version contains finely ground cinnamon, aniseed, star anise, lime peel, cloves, coriander seeds, nutmeg, rice and pepper. Apparently, the number five relates to the elements – earth, water, wood, metal and fire, indicating how spices are good for the constitution. And also to the five flavours – sour, bitter, sweet, pungent, and salty – that are present in any five-spice powder. Potent and appetizing, it’s an inexpensive way to enliven everything from roasts to stews.

The fragrance hit me from five shops away. Be led by your nose to the Pok Oy Thong shop and buy extra packs for friends (who will be very thankful). The price as at end October 2013 is RM4. This photo from http://greenheart-ch.blogspot.sg/2010/06/penang-pok-oy-thong-5-spice-powder.html is obviously older but the packaging has not changed. The manicured man at the shop gives it a six-month shelf life, but bottled and refrigerated, it will likely keep longer.

So, now you have your five-spice powder, try making one of Penang’s famous Nonya dishes – Loh Bak aka Ngoh Hiang in Singapore – meat rolls that are surefire winners as cocktail finger food or dinner side dish. Some years ago, my friend Marina’s good friend, Penangite Queenie Khoo, cooked a few dishes for us, including Loh Bak. The main difference between the Penang and Singapore five-spice meat roll is mince in the Singapore version and meat strips and egg in Penang Loh Bak. Here is Queenie’s recipe (photo by Bernard Koh).

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LOH BAK

1 kg meat (pork or chicken), cut into strips or shredded

10 water chestnuts, diced

6 garlic cloves, chopped

You’ll also need:

Light soya sauce, cornflour, salt, sugar, pepper, five-spice powder, coriander leaves, spring onion, egg, beancurd skin.

 

Optional extras:

Pickled radish, chilli sauce and sesame seeds

Method

  1. Marinate meat in 7 tablespoons cornflour, mixed with ½ cup water, 5 teaspoons light soya sauce, pinch of salt, sugar, pepper, five-spice powder and garlic.
  2. Cover in a bowl and refrigerate overnight.
  3. When ready to fry, add water chestnuts, chopped coriander leaves, spring onion and beaten egg.
  4. Roll up in beancurd skin. Seal with cornflour mixed with water.
  5. Deep-fry and serve immediately.
  6. Garnish with pickled radish and chilli sauce. Toast sesame seeds and sprinkle over Loh Bak and chilli sauce.
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