Weekend Cooking: Kongbah bao and stirfried kangkong 

When I was growing up in Singapore, Sunday evenings meant heading over to my paternal grandparents (Gong gong and Mama) home in the Katong area, the east side of Singapore. Singapore, in case you didn’t know, is a tiny dot on the world map and getting from one end of the island to another takes no time at all. Well, unless you’re stuck in a traffic jam. And on a tiny island (277 sq miles) with some 5.5 million residents there’s bound to be traffic.

Sunday dinners were big affairs then, as my dad has four sisters and one brother, not to mention their spouses and children. We kids would eat first. My mum would scoop the rice from the rice cooker in the kitchen. Then we would bring the plates over to the big round dining table in the dining room, and get food from the dishes placed on the lazy Susan. We would head to the front porch and eat at the plastic table there, while the adults had dinner at the big table inside. There was always a vegetable dish, a meat dish, a fish dish and a soup. Cut fruits and Chinese tea would follow on the front porch afterwards. On a special day like a birthday there would be a dessert.

On our birthdays, we got to request for a favourite dish or two. I adored my grandmother’s fried prawns which had a flour batter. Crisp and light and easy to sneak from the kitchen when no one was looking! But I also pretty much always asked for her kongbahbao (also known as kongbak or 扣肉包). The tender juicy savoury pork belly wedged into soft steamed buns was our version of a burger. Sometimes it’s even better than a burger. Or if you don’t have buns to steam (I get them from the Asian supermarket here), the meat is fantastic served over rice with the gravy poured over.

The recipe is pretty simple and it can all be done in a crockpot for fuss-free cooking.

This was about 1 kg or 2.2 pounds of what the Chinese supermarket called ‘pork stew meat’ but pork belly is ideal. It should preferably have some fat on it, otherwise the meat will be dry.

Add to this 6 – 8 cloves of garlic (remove the skin and lightly smash with the side of your knife), 1 tsp five-spice powder, 2 tbsp dark soy sauce, 1 tbsp oyster sauce, 2 tbsp soy sauce, 1 tbsp sugar, dash of white pepper, one star anise. Some recipes include a few thick slices of ginger, others include a couple of tablespoons of Chinese cooking wine.

The crockpot was set on ‘low’ (but I think my crockpot’s temperature settings are actually quite high!) for three to four hours. Otherwise you can cook it on the stove, simmering it for about one to two hours until the meat breaks apart easily.

We served the kongbah with stirfried kangkong or water spinach (空心菜). It is named for its hollow stems. We picked these up at our local farmers market, which has a lot of stalls selling Asian vegetables. But they are also found at Asian supermarkets too. It’s apparently a close relative to the sweet potato, which is probably why sweet potato leaves (yes we like to stirfry those too!) look quite similar to water spinach leaves. Nutritious and cheap. And with their hollow stems they cook fast.

Kangkong has a very mild taste so in Singapore it is often cooked with spicy sambal belacan, like in this recipe here. But because the kids were going to eat this too, I stuck with just chopped garlic and shallot. It’s quite a bit of garlic I know but I think this vegetable needs it. I used about four cloves of garlic and one small shallot. Fry the shallot first then add the garlic. If the stems seem a bit woody chop the ends off, and fry the stems first. But this bunch had smallish stems and were cooked together. If you have chicken stock, toss some in with a few shakes of fish sauce and a good splash of soy sauce and a bit of white pepper. Otherwise, if you have oyster sauce, that works out great too.

If you want to make it spicy, finely chop some chilis and toss them in.

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Weekend Cooking at Beth Fish Reads is open to anyone who has any kind of food-related post to share: Book (novel, nonfiction) reviews, cookbook reviews, movie reviews, recipes, random thoughts, gadgets, quotations, beer, wine, photographs

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15 thoughts on “Weekend Cooking: Kongbah bao and stirfried kangkong 

  1. This looks absolutely delicious! I love the combination of garlic and shallots and that I can spice it up for me but keep it mild for the kids. Thanks for sharing and what lovely memories!

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  2. My main memory of Singapore is all the fantastic food we tried. And, here in Hawaii I have that water spinach, we call Oong Choi, growing in my pond. Also use it in stir fry, but will have to try your recipe, using it on its own.

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  3. Impressive Chinese characters (I still have no idea how people do them)… are those the characters for Sky Soul Vegetable? Am I dreaming? Anyway, once I had these bao in a fusion restaurant and I had never had them before and they blew me away. So pleased that I will be able to try making them for myself now 🙂

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    1. Well, you might have to add a chinese language or pinyin ‘keyboard’ to your computer input. If that helps in any way! On my macbook there is a symbol on the top right hand corner that allows me to switch keyboard inputs.

      So 空心菜 could possibly read as sky (天空) soul/heart (心) and yup it is vegetable or 菜. But I think in this case the 空 would be referring to the hollow or empty ‘heart’ of the vegetable. haha!

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  4. Whoa! These look so delicious. I saw that one of the meat vendors at the farmers market had pork belly — I may have to buy one.

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    1. That’s pretty awesome that your farmers market sells meat! The one we go to only does fruits and vegetables but it does have a seafood stall.

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  5. Your post reminds me of the wonderful Sunday dinners we had at my Italian-immigrant grandparents home – aunts, uncles, cousins, food, laughter… Thanks for reminding me!

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  6. I love hearing about your memories of family times. So sweet and it reminded me of holiday times with my father’s family. Lots of kids and then we went to the ‘kids’ table and the adults had their time at another table.

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