I am so enamoured of this babi kecap, a classic Chinese Indonesian stew of pork braised in kecap manis (sweet soy sauce). I love the punch of belacan (shrimp paste) that fades into the background but gives it a heady, umami kick. Toasting the belacan wrapped in an aluminium packet and tossed into a frying pan is fast becoming a late night ritual. I act on other parts of the babi kecap recipe as I wait for the heat from the pan to help release the shrimp paste’s unique, intense ocean bouquet. It always reminds me of the time we spent an afternoon watching a family in Penang make blocks of belacan. The best belacan releases an appetising scent of fresh shrimp and sea salty air.
My version of this dish is only mildly spicy because that’s what my family prefers, but you can easily double the number of chillies. I really enjoy the vivacity of the freshly made rempah. And since it calls for ingredients that are common to most Southeast Asia homes, it isn’t too much of a stretch to make. Especially when we make the compromise of using a food processor rather than a traditional batu lesung (a granite mortar and pestle). A touch of calamansi juice gives it a deliciously elusive acidity. And a good kecap manis (I like Bango) holds it all together.
I specify Canadian pork collar or neck only because it’s the tastiest stewing pork I can find. Choose what’s best from the selection available to you. You just want a cut that benefits from braising. If the fat doesn’t put you off, I like pork belly in this too. I’ve also tried preparing it with chicken thighs. I recommend removing the cooked chicken once it is tender, and leaving the sauce to simmer and reduce for another 90 minutes before returning the chicken to it. This ensures that the chicken remains tender while giving the sauce time to develop flavour.
I’ve taken to squirreling packets of this bulk-braised stew in the freezer because I find it so comforting after a long day. It’s the perfect one bowl meal with just steamed rice and cucumber slices. But better yet, have it as we did to welcome dear friends home to Singapore–with sambal tomat, sambal telur, sayur lodeh and generous helpings of brown rice.
Babi kacap: Indonesian sweet soy pork stew
Serves 6 as part of a multi-course meal.
6 chillies, deseeded and sliced
16 shallots, peeled and minced
8 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
10cm ginger, peeled and minced
2 tsp belacan, wrapped in aluminium foil and toasted in a pan until aromatic
5 tbs vegetable oil
1kg Canadian pork, stewing cut or pork collar, in 5cm cubes, rubbed with kosher salt
6 tbs Bango kecap manis (sweet soy sauce)
2 tbs freshly squeezed calamansi juice
235 ml water (I’d like to try using coconut water in future)
Salt, preferably Red Boat salt, to taste
Blend the chillies, shallots, garlic, ginger and belacan in a food processor until smooth. Add about 1 tbs of the oil to keep the blades turning if necessary.
Heat the remaining oil in a heavy bottomed pan (I use a 29cm cast iron oval cocotte) on medium-low heat. It should coat the base of the pan evenly before you start cooking.
Add the chilli paste and fry over medium-low heat until the moisture has evaporated and the oil begins to separate from the paste.
Add the pork into the pan and brown the meat. This should take a few minutes, try to be patient.
Next, add the kecap manis, lime juice and enough water to just cover the pork (about 235ml or 1 cup). Bring to a boil, cover and simmer over low heat for 30min. Remove lid and continue to simmer until pork is tender and the sauce has thickened (90 minutes or more). The sauce starts out very liquid, with vibrant colours. By the time you’re done, it’ll be a little thicker and it’ll take on a darker hue.
Season to taste, ladle off as much of the oil on the surface of the babi kecap as you can, and serve hot with rice and vegetables.
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