A Cross-Cultural Affair


            I think marriages that span cultural boundaries have several issues that arise from following one’s own customs and traditions. For the “Hungry” hubby and I, this is not the case for we conveniently ignore them. For our part, the dilemma has more to do with the culture of food. The “Hungry” hubby forbids (okay, that is too strong a word, but it is dramatic, yes?) the cooking or even the presence of two things in the house. One is shrimp paste. The other is star anise. In the case of shrimp paste, he could not understand how I find something so “smelly”, so gloriously appetizing. As for star anise, there seems to be an aroma and flavor component to it that he detests with a passion.  He griped for days about the smell that permeated throughout the house when I braised some pork tongue that had it. Somehow I think his “perceived” nausea was more from the idea of the pork tongue rather than the star anise itself.

            I somewhat gave in on the shrimp paste prohibition. I do agree that the smell that pervades the kitchen when this seafood anchovy is a prime ingredient of a dish, could be seemingly repulsive to the un-acclimated nose or palate – what I couldn’t understand was the star anise.

I know that if you have not grown up eating a certain spice/ingredient it is most likely that you will not be predisposed to develop the amiable savory receptors for it or related flavors. As with the case when I had my former boss sample straight fish sauce (not the sweetened, watered down kind) he could have sworn me off the face of earth for offering him something that he called “the nastiest thing he had ever tasted” (sniff, sniff …I do love my fish sauce…I think it’s a miracle ingredient really).

            So I totally understand how HH, who grew up eating only his mother’s cooking, who grew up eating plain yoghurt and rice when he was in someone else’s house, who ate ice cream, chocolate and cereal when he WAS IN PARIS (okay, this was 21 years ago…but still …hello…Paris!…there is so much more to eat in Paris – especially if you stayed for 8 freaking months!), be easily converted to eating all the things I ate.

             But how could our marriage work if I was deprived of star anise? So, I decided to get sneaky … sneaky as you would in making a child eat his vegetables. Bwahahaha.

             I made duck confit using the recipe from The Balthazar Cookbook which uses star anise, cinnamon, clove and garlic and conveniently not informing HH what was in it.  Besides, all this abhorrence to star anise might be mental.

            And guess what? HH loved the duck confit! It was after that admission that I finally revealed to him that it contained his despised spice. He did not believe me. So I made it a second time and he still liked it. Good. That was one hurdle we had crossed.

            Could I take this development in our relationship further?  I found a perfect opportunity when I came across several pork belly recipes that utilized this star-shaped ingredient. I wanted to make the braised pork belly roll from The Cook’s book but I had another beautiful tome which until now has remained more as a coffee table volume with phenomenal food photography than a bona fide cookbook: Justin Quek’s Passion and Inspiration(besides this book had to cross oceans to get here so I better use it).

            The recipe required the pork belly be braised in star anise, cinnamon, five-spice and red wine. The sauce for it was a ruby port glaze. Sounds promising. I announced to HH that I was making this dish and he should keep an open-mind – after all he did like the duck confit. Besides, we now have a 900 cfm vent that could surely exhaust any undesirable odors that my cooking may produce.

Braised Pork Belly with Oriental Spices and Port Wine Sauce

From Justin Quek’s Passion and Inspiration

Serves 6

·         1.1 kg pork belly  (~ 2.5 lbs)

·         50 ml olive oil (~ 1/4 cup olive oil)

·         200 g mirepoix (~ 7 oz)

·         2 star anise

·         2 cinnamon quills ( I assume this means sticks)

·         10 g five-spice powder (~2 tsp)

·         1 bottle red wine (750 ml)

·         1.5 l veal jus  (~6 1/3 cups)

·         500 ml port wine (~2 cups)

·         40 g unsalted butter cube  (~1.4 oz)

Cut the pork belly into six pieces weighing approximately 180g each. Season them with some salt and pepper. Heat the olive oil in a heavy-bottomed pan and sear the pieces of pork over medium heat until they turn light brown. Add the mirepoix, star anise, cinnamon quills and five-spice powder. Continue to cook until the pork pieces are evenly coloured. Remove the pieces of pork.

Deglaze the pan with red wine and let it reduce by half before you add the veal jus and bring it to a boil. Remove any scum that rises to the surface before adding the pieces of pork. Cover with a lid and braise for 1 ½ hours or until the pork is tender. Let the meat cool in the braising liquid before you remove it. Strain the liquid and discard mirepoix.

In a saucepan, reduce the port wine down to a syrupy glaze. (It should lightly coat the back of a spoon). Add some of the reduced braising liquid to make a port wine sauce. Keep stirring it until it achieves a smooth consistency then whisk in the butter and sauce aside.

Cooking Notes:

            Most of Justin Quek’s recipes have a very short ingredient list. However, this is with the understanding that you had made some of the basic pantry items that he had listed in the beginning of the book. In the case of this recipe, it needed veal jus which is his version of veal stock. I did not have time to make this but I got some from Belmont Butchery who makes their own veal stock. I also skipped the potato puree because I wanted to have my pork belly with a scoop of aromatic steamed white rice.


            For mirepoix, I cubed equal amounts of carrots, celery and onions. It is important to factor in the amount of time required for reducing the red wine and the port wine so plan for a leisurely afternoon to make this. Even better, have a glass of wine as you go about its production.

            My sauce turned out runnier than I preferred. I think I got too ladle-happy in adding the braising liquid to the reduced port wine. Remember to use cold butter when making the sauce; you will achieve a better emulsion this way.

            The verdict :

            Chef Quek was right in pairing this with potato puree. Taste-wise,especially with the port wine sauce, the farinaceous tuber would have been a better choice. I am very pleased with the port glaze – it had a pleasing sweet and tart flavor that would make it a versatile sauce to be used for duck and foie gras.

            Best of all, HH did not even taste the star anise – or what he thought was the unpleasant “anisy” taste! This got me thinking. What does the duck confit and this pork belly braise have in common besides star anise? Cinnamon! Could it be that cinnamon cancels out the undesirable taste and smell receptors that HH had towards star anise? I did a google on star anise and cinnamon and they appear to be a very classic combination.

I am so excited with this theory. But before I rejoice, I must perform another test. The way I have cooked star anise before that initially spurred HH’s displeasure was with soy sauce. Could it be the combination of these two ingredients that produced the odor/taste contention in the first place?

           All I know now is that I can use my hidden stash of star anise again – with utmost prudence of course! Don’t want to rock the boat too much now, do I?

14 thoughts on “A Cross-Cultural Affair

  1. Veron, I'm laughing at the thought of all of the strange spices I've snuck into my cooking over the years…like shrimp paste…by not telling my family what was in the food I'd prepared! Star anise is an assertive spice, but one that is absolutely indispensable in the pantry!

  2. Sneaky! …and what makes you think your stash of star anise is hidden? Have you checked them lately?! You also forgot to mention that I made an honest attempt to eat shrimp paste with my food but couldn't! Like you said, it is what you grow up with that you feel comfortable with. Also I'm not a big fan of soy sauce since all I taste is salt.

  3. I love all the flavors coming out from this recipe, sounds wonderful. Old Chef has an aversion to cinnamon, except when I make him my Morrocan lamb and I really believe it is because of all the flavors combined in it.

  4. I can't imagine what I'd do if I couldn't use star anise. My bf hates, hates, hates raw tomatoes and cilantro though. 😦 Pork belly is probably my favorite cut of pork. I love the red braising it.

  5. I love shrimp paste! So does the hubby, but that is because we both grew up with it. I can imagine though how the smell can drive others to madness, especially when you are sauteing! Oh boy 🙂 As for star anise, I only started liking it late in life…because of all the Asian braised dishes (especially the pork ones) 😉 What I can't really take, as much as I try, is anise based spirits…

  6. Haha, after our conversation over at The Perfect Pantry about bagoong, I'm not surprised about the star anise being a "prohibited" ingredient in your kitchen. I love how sneaky you are! 🙂 And that duck, it sounds scrumptious!

  7. Hi Helen – glad you like it. I've never thought of using cinammon in savoury food until I encountered Persian cuisine.
    Hi Amy – don't you just hate it when there's something you'll have to think twice about preparing because someone hates it. Glad you like pork belly :).
    Hi Joey – you are lucky that both of you like shrimp paste. I've always liked the taste of anise although I did not always know that it was what it was.
    Kelly-Jane – Port wine is fast becoming my favorite to use for finishing sauces!
    Oh Jaden – you do not know what you are missing ;).
    Hi Christine – I should be featuring that duck on my blog soon.

  8. Lydia – I understand why we have to do it. A lot of this is mental. What they don't know won't hurt them.
    HH- I've moved my stash again. Leave it alone!
    T.W. – I've actually seen some desserts with star anise. Makes me really curious.
    Big Boy's oven – Oh I love deep fried pork belly. This is how I serve my pork belly confit: /2007/02/for_the_love_of.html

    Thanks Tanna – Pork belly is the best part of the pig, it has the most flavor. It is really best served like Big Boy said "crispifried".

  9. I’ve never worked with pork belly but I’ve heard so many good things about it. And clever you, sneaking in that dreaded spice! I’ve never experienced star anise either but I understand it’s used in some very interesting cooking. This recipe looks so enticing that I MUST try it, once the weather cools down for this sort of thing.

    Reminds me very strongly of my mother’s strict aversion to the Japanese pickles my dad and I have stocked in the fridge. I am appalled at how a pickled radish turns highlighter yellow (and cucumber a poisonous magenta, and eggplant a radioactive indigo. Don’t even get me started on the scallions) but I eat it anyway. Such is nostalgia, I guess.

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