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Ah Ma's Tau Eu Bak


It’s very unlikely that my mother ever had any trouble getting us to the table. But if she ever did, this was most probably one pièce de résistance that never failed to make us charge into the kitchen and sit our greedy selves down. She was "mama" to me, "Ah Ma" to my children. This is the dish that my children remember her most for. Which says a lot, because she was an extraordinary cook, and magic happened in her kitchen.

Its origins are disputed, and many may lay claims to it, but Tau Eu Bak is mainly attributed to the Chinese Hokkien and very much part of the Penang Nyonya’s culinary repertoire. In Hokkien it very simply means Pork in Soya Sauce.


There are many variations of this slow-braised dish, and you probably have come across the recipe many times. In some Asian restaurants in Paris, there is a version known as Porc au Caramel. In Malaysia, especially in the northern state of Penang, families have their own versions of the Tau Eu Bak. Playing the leading roles would be the pork, of course, along with the soya sauces, peppercorns, garlic, cinnamon sticks and star anise. Varying guest stars would be hard boiled eggs, dried beancurd, potatoes and less common, dried shiitake mushrooms.

Not all soya sauces are made equally. You may take some time to find your favourite. Taste them and find what suits your tastes best. Just like you have a favourite brand of mustard, you may also probably find your preferred soya sauce. Dark soya sauce is thick, rich black and sweet. It is unlike Japanese sweet soya sauce but closer to the Indonesian kicap manis, which can be found at Asian grocers and supermarkets in Paris. Light soya sauce on the other hand is salty, and is an essential condiment in Asian cooking but is also used like you would table salt.


It often surprises my French friends and guests that Asians never salt their cooking rice. Rather, we would salt it at the table with soya sauce. A testimony to their Asian roots, my children quite simply must drizzle soya sauce onto their rice.


I digress. Back to the Tau Eu Bak. Pork belly is usually used in this dish, but pork shoulder may be used. To ‘bulk’ up the dish, or to cut down on the meat, it’s common to add beancurd, hard-boiled eggs, or boiled potatoes to the dish. As a child, I didn’t enjoy pork belly so I really appreciated these additions. It goes somewhat against tradition but sometimes dried shiitake mushrooms are used, and this changes the taste of course. This version that I made today has mushrooms but you can omit them for the classic version. Feel free to substitute the eggs with potatoes or beancurd (tofu).

If you have a few extra few minutes, blanching the meat in a pot of boiling water will give you a ‘cleaner’ broth. It also makes it easier to slice the meat. Don’t cut them too small, as the meat will shrink after cooking. You may also adjust the soya sauces to suit your taste. You can also reduce the water in the recipe, giving you a drier and more caramelised version. But that broth is like a yummier version of soya sauce on rice, so why not?


This is one of those things that tastes better the next day. If serving immediately, I remove the layer of fat at the top with a spoon. If left in the fridge overnight, the coagulated fat becomes much easier to remove.


Ah Ma’s Tau Eu Bak will forever be the best. She had the talent and the technique, but most of all, she had a lot of heart. It was all about who she was cooking for. And so my children and I remember her Tau Eu Bak not only because it was truly delicious, but also because it was cooked with so much love. My version is not nearly as good. But it's made from the same place. I’m almost there.

Love in a pot. Effortlessly.


Remember to soak mushrooms in advance. Eggs can be substituted with potatoes or beancurd/tofu. Cooking time may differ, but do not overcook.


Ah Ma’s Tau Eu Bak


INGREDIENTS

Serves 6

Prep Time 10 mins/Cook Time 1h 20 mins/Total Time 1h 30 mins

  • 10 shitake mushrooms, soaked in warm water

  • 3 to 6 hard boiled eggs, peeled (can be substituted with parboiled potatoes or tofu)

  • 1 kg pork belly (or pork shoulder or mixed), cut in large pieces

  • 1 whole head garlic, unpeeled

  • 1 tsp white peppercorn, cracked

  • 1 cinnamon stick

  • 2 star anise

  • 2 tsp light soya sauce

  • 1 tbsp dark soya sauce

  • 1 tsp sugar

  • 2 to 3 cups (500 to 750 ml water)

  • Salt to taste


INSTRUCTIONS

  1. Soak dried mushrooms in warm water to reconsitute. Cut in half if large.

  2. Boil eggs (or potatoes), put aside.

  3. In a large pot, blanch pork in boiling water for a minute to remove impurities. Drain and rinse.

  4. Put meat and all other ingredients, except the eggs (and parboiled potatoes or tofu) in a large heavy bottomed pot, mix well. Bring to the boil. Remove layer of scum that forms on top.

  5. Reduce heat and allow meat to cook till tender. May take up to an hour and a half.

  6. Add the eggs (and parboiled potatoes or tofu) for the last 5 minutes of cooking.

  7. Remove layer of fat on top before serving.


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