Cook the Books - Supernormal

. June 30, 2016
Photography by David Parker.
Cook the Books - Supernormal

While living in China for five years, chef Andrew McConnell cooked European food at during work hours but was eating Chinese food all the time, in restaurants and from street vendors, as well as at home and during staff meals. So it made sense that when creating the menu for his Melbourne restaurant Supernormal, he'd want to include the food that he'd fallen in love with. Andrew has been conscious to avoid the common "fusion" tropes, avoiding simply putting brash spins on classic dishes. Instead Supernormal and its resulting cookbook take the flavours and elements of Chinese, Japanese and Korean cuisine into dishes that don't really seem to be from one specific place but still make sense. In other dishes there are obvious inspiration from classics but they all have subtle tweaks. His main philosophy seems to be using the best local ingredients but also to tweak the dishes to be lighter and fresher while still delicious. 

This is by no means a simple cookbook although some of the dishes were maybe a little simple for a Cook the Books review and I was not feeling adventurous enough for some of the more complicated ones – I wanted a relaxing afternoon of cooking. What could be more relaxing than slow-cooking a pork shoulder and making steamed buns?

First I needed to put together the pickled cabbage from the "essentials" section at the back of the book. Apparently it should be left for a week before eating to allow it to fully pickle. Of course I foolishly didn't read ahead in the recipe until two days before I intended to cook the pork and after a little swearing I set about pickling some cabbage late at night. I cut the cabbage into large chunks, rinsed and sprinkled with salt and left it to sit for a couple of hours. 

Then I drained it well before adding ground dried chillies and black pepper along with hot vinegar in which I had dissolved sugar. I didn't really have enough time to let it cool fully to room temperature but I chucked the warm jars of pickled cabbage into the fridge fairly confident they'd be ok.

A couple of days later I started making the recipe in reverse by preparing the pork first instead of the other elements of the dish, as it had to steam for four hours. I was a little lost as to how I was going to fit a four-kilogram pork shoulder into a steamer – I erred on the side of caution and bought a 3.5kg shoulder, which still wouldn't fit into any steamer we had at home. I jury rigged a steamer out of the largest pan we had, a cake tin with a removable bottom (to lift the shoulder from the water below) and a little perforated tray from the pressure cooker. Not the ideal solution but it worked. Before steaming I used a craft knife to score the skin. So simple. I stuck the pork in the steamer and got on with the other accompaniments. 

Ssamjang is a Korean sauce and to make it I mixed together Korean red chilli paste, miso paste, rice wine vinegar, honey, diced red onion, finely grated garlic and ginger, chopped spring onions and sliced red chillies. Easy! You could actually buy it ready made, but I'm sure it's better fresh.

I stared long and hard at the various steamed bun mixes and flours on the shelves at the Asian supermarket. None of them were the “Rooster brand steamed bread mix” suggested by the book, apparently it's an Australian brand. I got what I thought would be the equivalent but not being able to read the ingredients list didn't help. As it turned our, whatever is in rooster brand, wasn't what I bought. I tried to steam a couple to make sure they were going to work out, but they turned out yellow, flat, chewy and overly sweet. 

I just had time to scratch my head when it was time to pull the shoulder out of the steamer. I hadn't thought this through. I didn't have any way of reaching in to pull it out, it was far too hot to use my hands. I tried to use a towel but much to my dismay it pulled off some of the precious precious soft pork skin that would soon turn to crackling. After a little swearing and sweating I managed to use two large knives to lift it out, but it was already so soft having been cooking for four hours that it almost fell apart. I almost managed to get it on to a baking tray in one piece. I rubbed the skin with oil, sprinkled with salt and placed in an oven to roast for 45 minutes. 

Back to the buns. I realised that I had bought just a steamed bun flour, not a mix of ingredients. Thanks to the wonders of Google I quickly found a steamed bun recipe and used the rest of the flour I'd bought to put them together. The advantage of using the special steamed bun flour is that it should stay super white, like a steamed bun should be. I read somewhere that you should put a little splash of vinegar into the water you steam them with so they stay white. I've read elsewhere that this is nonsense but my second batch (which I used the vinegar for) were much whiter than the first so I don't know who to believe anymore. Either way the recipe in Supernormal was useless unless you can get the Rooster brand mix. 

The pork was perfectly cooked! Pull-apart tender, but not falling apart. Juicy and salty and porky. Delicious! The crackling was perfect too, crisp and light and salty. I wasn't sure about steaming the pork shoulder with no flavourings and then just finishing it off with a little salt while roasting but it didn't need anything else.

The ssamjang was sweet and sour, spicy and fruity with a yeasty fermented undertone of the miso. It worked well with the pork, I actually liked how the pork didn't really have any other flavouring so every mouthful was slightly different and there were distinct elements together. The pickled cabbage was a big hit, slightly crisp, sour and spicy. I was eating it on its own.

Fortunately, Google came to the rescue and the steamed buns were perfect; spongy and soft and so white! I wanted to take them to my friend James's birthday potluck dinner which was themed finger food (genius theme) and had to fight off a couple of vultures who were happily digging into the pork, dipping it into the Ssamjang and straight into their mouths... My mouth is watering just thinking of it.

 

The Book Cooked
Level of expertise required: While this recipe wasn't the hardest most of the book is restaurant style cooking at a fairly high level and might be a little intimidating (but not impossible) for most home cooks. 
How many trips to the supermarket required? Well apart from a little effort on my behalf looking for the Rooster steamed bun mix (which I just couldn't get) it wasn't hard to find the ingredients, you'll definitely have to visit an Asian supermarket or two for some of them. I also bought my pork shoulder from a good butchers.
How closely did dishes resemble those in the book? I thought mine was very close, there are other dishes that have a little more chef-y plating and styling, but nothing too complex.
Ease of reading: I thought some of the instructions could be a little more detailed, I guess it assumes you have a fairly grounded knowledge in cooking, it certainly isn't aimed at a beginner. 
Pretty on the coffee table or designed to be battered through overuse? I think it could be either, there is more to the book than just recipes, lots of photos of the restaurant and scenes from China and Japan. But I think the more experimental will want to delve into the recipes. I think I'm mostly interested in trying to recreate 'authentic' asian cuisine as close as I can, but there is a certain chef-y allure to the food from supernormal, not in a way that makes it 'better' than the sum of it's influences, but interesting nonetheless.