Sunday, 8 March 2015

'Agak Agak' Glass Noodle Salad with Roast Pork Belly


Sorry for the silence, the past month has been a mad non-stop string of projects and flights. I was in Singapore the past couple of weeks for Chinese New Year and a much-needed breather. As with all my visits home, I was treated like a little princess and fed like a rather large king. The attention from my parents have been almost embarrassing, but I can't deny I haven't enjoyed every moment of it. I wake up to the smell of mum frying vermicelli with garlic chives and last night's leftover braised pork, and go to sleep happy with slow-brewed tonic soup in my tummy.

In a bid to be less of a pig, I've been trying to learn more recipes from Mum, but eventually, I gave up trying to get cooking times and quantities from her. Instead I just watched. And smelt. And tasted.

At the heart of all Asian home-cooking, is a spirit of 'agak agak' (estimation). A recipe from my aunt might look something like this: Chicken – depends how much you want to eat; shallots– 10 to 20, depending how much chicken; chillies – to your tolerance level; sugar – if you like it sweet, add more.I used to fuss a lot about getting every part of a dish perfect, but now, I've found myself cooking more and more like the older women in my family– relying less and less on tablespoons and timers.

Cooking is a lot more fun and creative when you aren't restricted to a set ingredients list and method. Some of my best meals have been made from the sorry bits I discover in a late night fridge forage. A recent NY Times article on reducing food waste also made a pretty good point: A lot of kitchen waste comes from people blindly cooking from a recipe– so learning to cook intuitively also works out to be more sustainable and friendly on the pocket. As much as I love flicking through cookbooks and poring over recipes on the internet, I think every home cook should learn about techniques, flavours and ingredients, and aim to get to the point where they are comfortable enough to cook intuitively from what they have.

And with that said, here is an 'agak agak' recipe for a Thai-style glass noodle salad yum soon sen – this one, a glorious mess of leftover roast pork belly, shredded rainbow carrots, cucumbers, and fresh herbs. 

AGAK AGAK GLASS NOODLE SALAD

Ingredients
2 bundles of dried glass noodles 

large handful of crunchy vegetables
  rainbow carrots, julienned
  cucumber, julienned
small handful of fresh herbs
  Thai basil leaves 
  cilantro
  mint
crunchy stuff 
  roasted peanuts
  leftover crispy roast pork belly
  fried shallots

dressing
  1-2 tbsp fish sauce
  lime juice (about 2 limes)
  urefined palm or light brown sugar
  small handful dried shrimp
  thinly sliced shallots
  chopped bird's eye chillies, to tolerance level

Method
1. Pour boiling water over glass noodles, cover, and let soak till the noodles are pliable and turn translucent. You can pinch a bit off to test the texture- it should be soft but slightly chewy. Drain and refresh in cold water.
2. Stir together the fish sauce and lime juice. You might need more or less fish sauce depending on the brand and age of your bottle and how juicy your limes are. Taste, then add the sugar. It should lead with sour, followed by salty, and should not taste sweet at all; the sugar is only there to round out the flavours and take away some of the heat from the chillies. Add the dried shrimps and chillies, crushing them lightly with a pestle or something heavy. Taste and adjust again as the dried shrimp can be quite salty. Finally, add the shallots; the acidic dressing will take away some of the raw sharpness.
3. Combine the glass noodles, vegetables and herbs pour the dressing over. Toss well and let stand for at least 15 minutes for the noodles to absorb the flavours before serving. Mix in the crunchy stuff just before serving, so they stay crunchy. Crush/ sprinkle with extra peanuts and herbs. 



You can definitely play around with the ingredients – look into your pantry, fridge and/ or garden. What you're creating is your own perfect balance of flavours (sour and refreshing lime, salty pungent fish sauce, and just enough chilli heat to wake you up) and textures (slippery noodles, crisp vegetables and fragrant crunchy things). 

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On my trip back to Singapore, I also visited Super Farmers, an old friend Cynthea's urban farming and cooking startup. We made a very similar noodle salad, but played around with local greens, pickled some foraged sour fruit, and infused the sauce with crushed herbal flowers. She wrote a little blog post about that if you're curious.


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Related reads
Super Farmers Blog: Foraging with Shu
NY Times: Starve a Landfill (Efficiency in the kitchen to reduce food waste)

Other simple agak agak recipes
Wild Green Pancakes and Any Flower Syrup
Kohlrabi Som Tum
Bittergourd Fish Noodle Soup, and what I learnt about 'perfect' soups in Hanoi
Chinese steamed eggs