I did not become a fan of laing until after college when I rented a room from a family who traced their roots to the Philippines’ Bicol region. My own family came from the province of Zambales in Central Luzon where the cuisine featured strong Ilocano (salty simple dishes), Tagalog and Spanish (meat dishes with thick tomato-based sauces) influences. So when I was served Bicolano dishes where chilli and coconut cream vied for the main role, I had a sort of epiphany. It had never occurred to me that such a combination could form the foundation of a whole regional cuisine.
Now, eating laing is one thing but cooking it was something else entirely. The main ingredient – taro leaves – had to be cleaned, chopped and dried. I have never cooked laing before; I have never had the need to. Our housemaid in the Philippines, Amy, was a wizard in the kitchen. She used to cook the loveliest laing. Of all the things I left behind in the Philippines, I miss having housemaids the most. But I digress. One day maybe two years after my family moved to Australia I had a sudden hankering for laing. I knew I just had to have it. I also knew that having no Amy to cook it for me, I would have to do it myself. But where in Australia’s vastness will I find that main ingredient – dried taro leaves?
Without taro leaves I had no choice but to put the laing project on hold. But it was never far from my mind. Then one day inspiration struck. I was doing the weekly shopping when I chanced on frozen spinach in the supermarket’s freezer section. There was my main ingredient. Spinach, the perfect replacement for taro leaves. I bought a kilogram right away – the checkout girl was probably thinking, “Who does this guy think he is, Popeye?” – and the rest, as they say, is history.
- 150 gm pork rashers, sliced into tidbits
- 4 tbsp water
- 1 tbsp sunflower or peanut oil
- 2 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped
- 1 pc medium onion, peeled, halved and sliced
- 6 pcs red finger chilli (siling haba), sliced and seeds set aside
- 1 pc bird’s eye chilli (siling labuyo), whole or sliced depending on how hot you want your laing
- 3 cm piece of ginger, peeled and sliced
- 2 tbsp dried shrimp (hibe)
- 2 to 3 tbsp fish sauce (patis), adjust to taste
- 1 kg frozen chopped spinach, thawed and drained
- 250 gm taro (gabi), peeled and cut into 1 cm cubes
- 600 ml coconut cream
- 1 tbsp vinegar
How To Cook Laing
In a deep covered pan or wok, boil the pork rashers in a little water over medium heat. Allow the water to evaporate completely then turn down the heat, add the oil and brown the pork on both sides. Set the pork aside. In the same pan, saute the garlic until almost golden. Return the pork to the pan then add the onions, finger chilli seeds only, bird’s eye chilli and ginger. Saute until the onions are soft then add the dried shrimps and 1 tbsp of fish sauce. Continue sauteing for about half a minute.
By this time the pong from the fish sauce should be spreading all over your kitchen. Add the spinach and the taro. Turn up the heat to medium and saute the spinach mixture for about 2 minutes. Cover the pan, bring the mixture to the boil then turn down the heat. Simmer covered until the taro turns soft.
Stir in the coconut cream and the vinegar then cover the pan and bring the mixture to a low simmer. (The vinegar prevents the coconut cream from curdling.) Add the remaining finger chilli and season with more fish sauce, to taste. Bring back to the boil and simmer covered for another 5 minutes. Serve with freshly steamed rice.