Inexpensive, rustic-looking Chinese sand pots (also called clay pots), which are coated inside with a dark, shiny glaze, are great for slow-cooked dishes. They look as if they would break easily but they're actually quite sturdy, as long as you don't shock them with sudden and extreme temperature changes. Never heat an empty pot, start the cooking over a low flame, don't attempt to deep-fry in them and don't put hot pots on a cold surface.
Sand-pot vendors should have a bucket of water near their wares. Immerse your chosen pot in the water: if a steady stream of small bubbles rises from cracks and imperfections, reject it.
Bo jai fan with spare ribs and black beans (pictured)
At the first sign of cool weather, many restaurants, from inexpensive dai pai dongs to more upmarket places, start serving bo jai fan, with toppings ranging from Chinese air-dried meats such as laap cheung and yuen cheung (sausage and liver sausage) to minced pork with salted fish. Rice cooked this way is very flavourful because it's seasoned by the ingredients steaming on top, and because of the smokiness from the rice crust that forms at the bottom of the pot.
For this dish, it's important to pick a pot that's the correct size - if the pot is too large, the rice will be dry; if it's too small the rice will be soggy because the liquid won't evaporate. For this amount of ingredients (for two people) I use a pot that holds about 800ml of liquid.
The amounts can be adjusted for more people but use a proportionally larger pot.
200 grams long-grain rice
350 grams pork spare ribs, cut across the bone into 2cm pieces
1 heaped tsp fermented black beans
10ml soy sauce
5ml rice wine
A dash each of fine sea salt, white pepper and sugar
1 tsp cornstarch
1 small mild red chilli, cut on the diagonal into 5mm pieces
For the sauce:
45ml soy sauce mixed with about 1/2 tsp sugar, 45ml water and 1/2 tsp sesame oil
Wash the rice until the water runs clear then cover in water and soak for about an hour. Soak the black beans in warm water for about 30 minutes then drain. Combine the spare ribs with soy sauce, rice wine, salt, white pepper, sugar, cornstarch, black beans and chilli and marinate for about 20 minutes. Mix together the sauce ingredients until the sugar dissolves, then set aside.
After soaking the rice, drain off as much water as possible. Place the rice in the sand pot and add about 150ml of water.
Bring to the boil, then cover the pot with the lid, lower the heat and cook for about five minutes. Spread the spare ribs (but leave behind any excess marinade) evenly over the rice. Cover the pot with the lid and cook over a low heat for about 20 minutes, or until the rice is tender. If it smells like the rice is burning while cooking, drizzle in a small amount of boiling water.
When the rice is cooked, spoon some of the sauce over the ingredients and mix it in thoroughly, making sure to scrape up the crust from the bottom of the pot. Serve with steamed or stir-fried Chinese vegetables.
Chicken with chestnuts
Fresh chestnuts should be examined carefully for small holes, which indicate the presence of worms. In some markets, you can find chestnuts peeled of their hard outer shell, with only the thin husk (which also needs to be removed) attached. These are worth their slightly higher price. If only whole chestnuts are available, cut an 'x' in the shell and boil them for 15 minutes; shelled chestnuts should be boiled for 10 minutes. For both types, take only a few chestnuts at a time from the hot water because the shell and husk are easier to remove when hot.
1.8kg chicken wings, drumettes and middle joints only, separated
300 grams whole chestnuts or 200 grams shelled chestnuts
2 spring onions, cut into 5cm lengths
25mm thick ginger slices, peeled
About 50ml soy sauce, or to taste
About 30ml rice wine, or to taste
2 tsp cornstarch, plus extra if needed for thickening
1/2 tsp finely ground white pepper
15ml cooking oil, plus extra for frying
About 30 grams Chinese brown rock sugar
About 350ml unsalted chicken broth
Boil the chestnuts and remove the shell and husk. In a medium-sized sand pot, mix the chicken pieces with the soy sauce, rice wine, cornstarch, white pepper, the 15ml of cooking oil and the spring onion and ginger. Marinate at room temperature for about two hours.
Pour cooking oil into a wok to the depth of about 5cm. When the oil is very hot (190 degrees Celsius), remove the chicken from the sand pot, leaving behind the spring onion and ginger. Fry the chicken in batches (do not crowd the pan) for about 45 seconds, then drain on paper towels.
Pour the chicken broth into the sand pot and add the sugar, chicken and chestnuts. Heat over a low-medium flame and bring the liquid to a simmer. Cover the pot with the lid, lower the heat and simmer for about 45 minutes to one hour, stirring occasionally. The chestnuts should be soft, tender but not mushy and the sauce should lightly coat the chicken. Taste the sauce for seasoning and add more soy sauce, rice wine or sugar if needed. If the sauce is too thin, mix some cornstarch with a little water, stir it into the pot and simmer until thickened. Serves four to six as part of a Chinese meal.
styling Vivian Herijanto