Have you ever discovered an amazing recipe a bit by accident? Say, found yourself with random ingredients to use up and located a recipe in one of your cookbooks that you wouldn't normally make but since you have all the ingredients you may as well? Or, at a loss for culinary inspiration, simply turned to a random page in said cookbook and picked something you wouldn't normally try, only to find it a wonderful addition to your repertoire? Or decided to give something a go because it sounded weird and used an odd combination of ingredients, and you were curious to know how it would taste?
This recipe came about a bit like that. One night, I was cooking amok (a Cambodian coconut-based fish curry steamed in banana leaves - it's insanely delicious) for a friend. Feeling guilty over a fresh pineapple languishing in the fridge and starting to turn a little brown in places, and sure that I could turn it into some kind of side dish to accompany the fish, I flicked through one of my Vietnamese recipe books, certain I had seen a recipe for a stir-fried pineapple dish.
Now, I love pretty much all fruit-in-savoury-dishes combinations, but I think pineapple has to be a particular favourite. In Vietnam, one of the absolute highlights of my travels was a dish of stir-fried seafood with onions, tomatoes and pineapple. It had a delicious sweet-sour flavour and the seafood was fresh, tender, sweet and succulent. Pineapple adds wonderful flavour to south-east Asian dishes, since they're often quite sour and spicy; the sweetness and caramel notes of fresh pineapple add a delicious dimension to the mix, particularly if there's coconut in the sauce - like a piña colada, only savoury and chewable.
This recipe is simple but so much more delicious and rewarding than you would expect for its simplicity. You stir-fry chopped ginger, garlic and chilli in a hot pan. This alone is going to make it good - nothing like that beautiful triumvirate of flavour to get a dish going. You then add fresh pineapple, keeping the heat high so it starts to caramelise on the outside. The colours are beautiful and golden, the fruit streaked with dark toffee colour, the fiery red of the chilli dotted throughout.
Then, the best bit. You pour on a dark and potent mixture of fish sauce, soy sauce, and dark brown sugar. This sizzles and bubbles in treacly waves, coating the pineapple and turning it a dark bronze, the smell of salt and toffee wafting up from the searing pan. As you continue to stir the sauce thickens and caramelises. You then add a squeeze of lime juice, to brighten everything up.
You can keep it simple and serve it just like this, as a side dish, sprinkled with toasted peanuts. The deep savoury flavour of the nuts contrasts beautifully with the sweet, sticky, slightly sour, salty pineapple. I like to stir in some spinach just as the sauce has thickened, where it wilts in the pan and is coated with the sauce. It adds fresh green colour, another texture, and also one more of your five a day - surely a plus.
Since I discovered this recipe a few weeks ago, I've made it at least ten times. This is a clear indication of its wonderfulness, because I rarely cook the same thing twice. But there's something about this dish I just can't get enough of. The flavours are incredible - the glaze on the outside of the pineapple is salty and slightly sour in your mouth, but when you bite into the pineapple it releases wonderfully sticky, toffee-scented juice. The peanuts are rich, toasty and nutty, providing crunch. There's heat from the chilli and ginger, just enough to make your lips tingle.
At the end, I like to scatter over some herbs. Mint and coriander work well, as does fresh basil, but my new love of late is sweet basil. I found this in an Asian grocer, and was not quite prepared for what would happen when I opened the packet and took a sniff.
I didn't think I'd tried sweet basil before. It turns out, I basically lived off the stuff when travelling around Vietnam. It's common when eating in a Vietnamese restaurant to be presented with a big plate of fresh herbs, water droplets clinging to the leaves, to add to your meal or just munch on as they are. Sweet basil leaves - darker green and more pointed than regular basil, with a purple tinge - were a staple. They have a very strong, assertive flavour, quite unlike Italian basil; it's hard to describe, but it's almost minty, somehow, with a hint of aniseed. One sniff of that bunch of leaves and I was back in Vietnam.
It's amazing how smell, more than any other sense, I think, has such a profound and involuntary effect on memory. There have been a few occasions in my life where I've been unexpectedly jolted back to a certain event or period of time, all through the sniff of a certain aroma. It sometimes leaves me reeling, particularly if the memory is an especially emotional one (and aren't they all, in a way?). This was no exception. I've been cooking with the sweet basil for days now, but the effect hasn't lessened in any way. Its scent is inextricably tied up with images, emotions, ideas from far away in my head. I actually went to the fridge and just stood there, inhaling the packet. A little weird, perhaps, but I am still pining for Vietnam and this is the closest I can get. A bunch of leaves. Strange how it's the small things.
But let's put aside the nostalgic meanderings of my mind. Sweet basil is also very good on this pineapple dish.
I would really urge you to try this soon. It's excellent as a side dish with various Asian recipes - it was amazing with the amok - but would be good with any kind of Asian-spiced fish dish, or with chicken or pork. Although it's quite assertive in its flavours, its sweetness provides a fresh, pleasant contrast to anything spicy, creamy or meaty. I also think it would be very good with cubed firm tofu, fried in a hot pan until golden and slightly crispy around the edges, and served over rice or noodles. Or with seared spicy lemongrass prawns.
One of my favourite ways to eat this, though, is simply poured into a big bowl of cooked rice noodles, where the juices coat the slippery strands, their comforting blandness a welcome foil to the hot, sweet, sour, sharp, salty flavours of the caramelised fruit and wilted spinach. I scatter over the toasted peanuts, squeeze over some lime, and pile shredded sweet basil over the top. I sit down with this big bowlful, some wooden chopsticks that I bought in Vietnam, and am a little bit in love.
Chilli and ginger stir-fried pineapple (serves 1 as a lunch with rice/noodles; 2 as a side dish):
- 1 clove garlic
- Half a red chilli (or more, depending how spicy you like your food)
- 20g fresh ginger
- 1 tbsp rapeseed or groundnut oil
- Half a medium pineapple
- 1 tbsp fish sauce
- 2 tbsp soy sauce
- 1 tbsp dark brown sugar or palm sugar
- A large handful spinach or baby spinach
- 2 tbsp peanuts, toasted in a dry pan and roughly chopped
- The juice of half a lime
- A few leaves of Thai/sweet basil (or normal basil if you can't find it), shredded, to serve
Finely chop the garlic, chilli and ginger. Remove the skin and woody core from the pineapple and chop into small chunks. Heat the oil in a non-stick frying pan or wok and fry the ginger, garlic and chilli over a medium-high heat until starting to colour. Add the pineapple and cook until starting to caramelise.
Mix the fish sauce, soy sauce and sugar in a small bowl or jug, then tip into the pan - it should sizzle and bubble. Stir to coat the pineapple in the mixture, then cook for a minute or so until everything has turned dark and sticky. Add the spinach and cook for a minute or so until wilted.
Squeeze over the lime juice and stir well, then serve garnished with the toasted peanuts and shredded basil.