The Jade Emperor Smiled
After a steady diet of holiday food we were both craving something sprightly, taste-awakening, rejuvenating. As I listlessly glanced over my cookbooks my eye fell on a tiny tome that I hadn’t thought about in years: Dining With Headhunters, by Richard Sterling. A pang of guilt and sorrow struck me. How had I managed to forget all about a book that I’d once loved so well?
My copy is signed by Sterling himself, who wrote: “Dear Abra, May the Jade Emperor always smile on your kitchen,” referring to a Vietnamese story in which the kitchen deities make an annual report to the Jade Emperor about whether a kitchen is a place of love or strife. And indeed, my various kitchens around the world in the time since I first discovered this quirky and delightful book have been singularly blessed.
Dining With Headhunters is full of stories of Sterling’s time in Vietnam, Cambodia, Burma, and the Philippines. The best part is that the excellent stories are punctuated with recipes that are easy and accessible. Although they seemed almost hopelessly exotic to me the first time I tried them, back in 1996, I realize now that the list of Asian ingredients available to most of us has increased exponentially since then, and there’s been a proliferation of authentic Asian cookbooks. However, the beauty of this little book is in the context; the recipes sprang from far-away times and places, and each is embedded in a story of Sterling’s adventures.
So I was very curious to discover whether, with an additional 15 years of serious, and for a while even professional, cooking under my belt (not to mention around my hips) the recipes would have stood the test of time. I chose an old favorite, Burmese Red-Gold Pork, as well as a Burmese green bean salad, and a Cambodian country-style smoky eggplant. A couple of hours in the kitchen and the results were as you see them above. A lively green bean salad with sauteed shallots, chiles and sesame, a hauntingly delicious eggplant with fried pork, shrimp, and Thai basil, and the ever-entrancing Red-Gold pork, spicy-warm, beautifully burnished and fragrant with sesame oil.
Unlike much Asian food, this stuff is rich, soothing comfort food. If you’re looking for light and clean, look elsewhere. But if what you want is a bit of soul-warming exoticism on a winter’s night, you could scarcely do better than this.
Burmese Red-Gold Pork
adapted from Dining with Headhunters by Richard Sterling
2 lbs pork shoulder, cut into 1 1/2″ cubes
1 1/2 T dark soy sauce
1 tsp black pepper, coarsely ground
1/2 cup toasted light sesame oil, or use dark sesame oil with half Chinese peanut oil
1 1/2 T minced fresh ginger
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 cup water, divided use
1 1/2 T regular soy sauce
1 tsp cayenne pepper
1 large onion, sliced
salt to taste
Rub the pork with the dark soy sauce and pepper and let marinate for 30 minutes.
Heat the oil in a heavy skillet with a tight-fitting lid (I like the Le Creuset for this) and stir in the ginger until fragrant. Add the pork and stir-fry for 5 minutes. Add the garlic and 1/2 cup water, stir, and cover. Simmer until the water has evaporated, about 30-40 minutes. Add the soy sauce, cayenne, and remaining 1/2 cup water, stir, cover, and simmer again until the water evaporates, another 30 minutes or so. Add the onions, cover again, and continue to simmer until the pork is richly browned and the onions are almost reduced to a sauce. Plan about 2 hours start to finish for this dish, but most of it is unattended and you’ll be able to prepare other dishes while the pork is simmering away, making your kitchen smell unbearably delicious, and no doubt making the Jade Emperor smile widely and delightedly.