Hunger Management

Turn up the heat with spicy miso pork

Red miso makes pork ragu come alive, while chilli oil adds heat to the dish.
Red miso makes pork ragu come alive, while chilli oil adds heat to the dish.ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

A former chilli coward begins embracing heat, starting with copious amounts of chilli oil

What I want to know is this: what on earth is happening to me?

My friends, family and those who read my columns know I'm a chilli coward. Spices I can handle, chilli I cannot. I find eating food hot with chillies uncomfortable. Beads of sweat collect on my brow. My stomach churns after the meal.

So why have I been craving chilli and heat in the last few weeks?

It started when I went to the Meatsmith pop-up in Cocotte restaurant. The American smokehouse has taken over the restaurant and is offering dishes that reflect Cocotte's location in Little India. However, not only were the spices in some dishes rather muted, but I was also missing the heat.

More recently, while tucking into Oxtail Rendang Pappardelle, part of the new pasta menu at modernSingapore restaurant Wild Rocket, I loved the rempah, or spice paste, that went into the dish, but again was missing the heat. Where was the bite of beef rendang, which usually gets me hot and bothered?

Two pasta dishes later, I relished every hot forkful of Thai Red Curry Duck Confit Fettucine. Finally, lots of chilli.

  • Spicy Miso Pork


    10 dried shiitake mushrooms
    1 large onion, 250g to 300g
    4 to 5 cloves garlic
    100g aka (red) miso (above)
    2 Tbs sake
    2 Tbs mirin
    200ml hot water
    1 Tbs cooking oil
    500g minced pork
    Chilli oil (below) to taste
    1 Tbs sesame oil (optional)
    Noodles or rice for serving
    Sliced chillies, sliced scallions and fresh coriander leaves for garnish

    1. The night before cooking, rinse the mushrooms under running water, then soak in room-temperature water in a covered container overnight in the refrigerator.

    2. Remove the mushrooms from the refrigerator, squeeze out the water from them. Slice off the stems and use to make vegetable stock or discard. Dice the mushrooms into 1cm to 1.5cm cubes.

    3. Peel and finely chop the onion and garlic.

    4. Place the miso, sake and mirin in a heat-proof pouring jug. Add hot water and whisk to combine.

    5. Pour the cooking oil into a large frying pan set over medium-high heat. Add the onion and stir-fry for 2 minutes, or until translucent. Add the mushrooms and stir-fry for another 2 to 3 minutes. Lower the heat to medium and add the garlic, stir-fry for 1 minute.

    6. Add the pork to the pan and break it up. Stir-fry until there is no trace of pink in the pork. Add the miso mixture and stir to mix it well into the pork. When it comes to a boil, turn the heat down to medium-low. Add chilli oil to taste. Let the pork simmer for 3 to 4 minutes. Add sesame oil, stir it into the dish and turn off the heat.

    7. Serve over rice or noodles, garnished with sliced chilli, scallions and coriander leaves.

    Serves four to six

Some of my friends are dedicated chilli heads who love nothing more than eating sauce made with Carolina Reaper chillies, the hottest in the world. One friend bites into Bhut Jolokias, super hot chillies from India, like they are potato chips.

Others push themselves, adding so much heat to their food that they sweat and cry as they eat. One of them even makes his own hot sauce, one so potent it has to be dispensed carefully, with an eye dropper.

None of these has ever appealed to me, so why now?

It might be the weather (we have been having rainy afternoons and cold nights recently), or, a more likely reason, my tastebuds and palate are changing.

This happens and I take it in my stride. After all, I used to despise coriander leaves as a kid and now I cannot get enough of their fresh, perky flavour. It is the same thing with pineapple and bittergourd, both of which I now love.

So if the universe wants me to have more chilli, well, I will go with the flow.

The recipe this week comes from wanting to add more chilli to my life.

I had been toying with the idea of making a miso ragu. Versions I have come up with - using shiro, or white miso; and awase, or mixed miso, a combination of white and red fermented soya bean paste - have been rather pallid. When I switched entirely to aka, or red miso, the dish started coming alive.

There is no need for salt in this dish because the saltiness in the miso takes care of that. If you do not drink alcohol, leave out the mirin and sake and use beef or ground chicken, instead of pork.

While my miso pork ragu was taking shape, I wondered how I could boost the heat in it. Chilli padi, easily available, is a good option. I decided on chilli oil, thinking it might be hotter.

I started with half a teaspoon and ended up pouring in the entire bottle, opening another one and pouring all of that into the ragu too. Insert Edvard Munch's The Scream emoji here.

Then I cursed myself for not getting chilli padi for the garnish and, instead, using large red chillies, which everyone knows are not hot at all.

I am not saying I am ready for Carolina Reapers, but I might not shun super hot stews and dishes my friends whip up for house parties.

Baby steps.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on March 12, 2017, with the headline 'Turn up the heat'. Print Edition | Subscribe