I’ve always had the most horrible black thumb. Despite my best efforts and good intentions, this dismal horticultural cloud has followed me my whole life…and has stricken down any plant I saw fit to take into my home. I’ve followed all the rules to the letter, listening intently to every instruction my plant lady would give me, sadly to no avail. Plant after plant after plant drooped and dried up no matter what I did.
I remember taking back the third (or was it the fourth) thyme plant to my persevering plant lady, its lack of leaves and generally withered appearance declaring that there was no more hope. At this point, she just scratched her head and looked at me with helpless eyes. I had stumped her too. I did this to every bit of potted greenery that came my way. It was official, no one knew how or why but I was a scourge no plant could survive.
Then one day, early on in my marriage, walking peacefully around my neighborhood market, I spotted a small kaffir lime plant. It was just a cutting, one end stuck jauntily in the earth of its little pot, the other end branching to the side with a few leaves waving hopefully. Every voice in my head (and there are many!) told me to keep walking: I couldn’t keep the simplest of houseplants, how was I going to manage a tiny foreign cutting??
At this time, it must be said, I was having a love affair with Thai food. Not that I hadn’t had it before, or that I have fallen out of love with it since. I still very much love Thai food. But at that time, Thai dishes were having a heyday in my kitchen. During those days, with no delicate mouths to feed, more fiery Thai curries could be found bubbling on my stove than pots of adobo.
So, fingers crossed, naïve hope on full tilt, and against all good judgment, I bought that kaffir lime plant and brought it home.
And here we are, nine years, three pot transplants, and two apartment moves later. That plant did what no other plant was able to do before it: survive me. Although it has never given me a lime, it has shared lots and lots of leaves that have gone into a multitude of Thai curries.
The Little Kaffir Lime Plant That Could.
The Plant Who Lived.
This is dedicated to you.
- Canola oil
- 800 grams pork belly, cut into 1-2 inch chunks
- 3 small red onions (about 150 grams), cut into wedges
- 5 cloves garlic, peeled and sliced
- 30 grams ginger, peeled and sliced
- 2-3 pieces lemongrass (tanglad), white and light green parts only, cut on the diagonal
- 4 long green chilis (sili pangsigang), sliced on the diagonal (you can add more or less depending on your preferred level of heat)
- 4-5 tablespoons bagoong (depending on how salty your bagoong is…start with less and adjust later if needed)
- 1 400-ml can coconut cream, the empty can half-filled with water and washed out
- 1 teaspoon sugar
- 2 kaffir lime leaves, midrib removed but otherwise left whole
- 1 kaffir lime leaf, midrib removed and thinly sliced
- 5-6 green onions (dahon sibuyas), white and light green parts, sliced
- A handful of cilantro, leaves picked
– Heat an oven-proof pot over medium high heat. When the pan is hot, add the oil. When the oil is hot add the onions. Sauté, tossing around, until the onions start to soften. Then add the garlic, ginger, and lemongrass. Sauté until the aromatics start releasing their scents, a couple of minutes.
– Add the chilis and toss for 1-2 minutes, then add the bagoong. Sauté this, stirring, until all the flavors meld, about 2-3 minutes. Add the pork and sauté, stirring, until the pork is covered in the bagoong mixture and starts to color.
– Add the coconut cream, the water that you washed out the can with, sugar, and 2 whole kaffir lime leaves and stir until everything it evenly combined. Let it come to a simmer.
– Cover the pot and place it in a pre-heated 350F oven. Leave to braise for 1 hour. Remove from the oven, stir to make sure nothing it sticking, and then return to the oven, uncovered, to braise further until tender. This may take anywhere from 1 to 2 hours more depending on your pork and how big your chunks are. Check periodically to turn things around and make sure that nothing is scorching. When you check, taste for seasoning as well and add more bagoong if you think it needs it (I used about 4 1/2 tablespoons and didn’t have to add anymore).
– When the pork is done, remove it from the oven, add the sliced kaffir lime leaf, green onions, and cilantro, and toss gently. It’s ready to serve!
More amazing than my kaffir lime’s survival is its growth. I now have so much kaffir lime leaves that I need to think of new ways to use them and new dishes to use them in. This is one such dish. I’ve always thought that a lot of Filipino dishes would be well complemented by Asian herbs and this is a result of that. This was inspired by both binagoongan baboy sa gata and Bicol express, but really it is neither. What it is, is slowly braised pork belly in a mix of shrimp paste (bagoong), coconut cream, chili, and Asian aromatics. And I will happily leave it at that.
Although I start this on the stovetop, I like to do the bulk of the cooking in the oven. I am a huge fan of oven-cooking. It needs much less baby sitting, makes less of a mess, and uses a gentler heat which achieves a deep, rich, unctuous kind of braise I find superior to stovetop braising. I’ve cooked everything from adobo to binagoongan to boeuf bourguignon in the oven.
You can use fresh gata (coconut milk) here but when I use the canned variety I opt for the cream as it is thicker and richer…and that’s how I like it. The green onions and cilantro may seem like a garnish but believe me they are not – their zingy herbaceous-ness is an essential counterpoint to the richness of this dish so don’t scrimp. Heat level is up to you, add or subtract chilis to your heart’s content. And don’t forget to prepare an extra large ration of steaming white rice…you will need it!
I’ve had my kaffir lime plant even before I had my babies, so I suppose you can say that it was my very first baby. I had a small taste of motherhood back then, what it felt like to nurture, to worry, to hope. Although, caring for a plant is nowhere near the magnitude of caring for another human, one thing I realize is important for both…hope. In plants, in babies, in life, in each other…hope. It can do wonders.
p.s. I’m open to kaffir lime usage suggestions!