Steven Saunders on His Time in Spain and His Recipe for Crispy Pork Belly in Vietnamese Sauce

Every fortnight, a celebrity chef Steven Saunders, from The Willow Tree to Bourn, shares her stories and a special recipe. This week he’s creating tapas ideas that are out of this world.

Steven Saunders at the Willow Tree, Bourn. Photo: Keith Hepell

The word tapas derives from the Spanish word tapas “to cover”.

There are many stories of how they were created, but the most believable is that the King of Spain in the 13th century ordered wine and then was often rushed to a meeting.

The bartender covered the glass of wine with a slice of Iberian ham to protect it from flies. When the king returned, he ate the ham and drank the wine. From that day on, any small amount of food covering a glass of wine became a tapas!

Today, tapas are one of the most popular food choices. It offers variety, sharing, multiple flavors and it’s a fantastic way to enjoy a convivial meal. I lived in Spain for seven years and owned and ran The Little Geranium in La Cala de Mijas/Marbella.

The restaurant has enjoyed international success, winning numerous awards including Best Tapas in Andalucia and Best International Restaurant in all of Spain.

I remember celebrating the awards with my team in early March 2020, then two weeks later I was forced to close due to Covid. We never recovered and although I reopened at the end of 2020 there was still no business in Spain so I returned to the UK.

I had a new project in the UK to focus on but someone scrapped it. That’s a story for another day! I came home to my dad in Suffolk as a little boy lost in utter disbelief and confusion.

“Get a hold of yourself man,” said dad (he’s never very friendly). “There is something and someone better for you out there – you should be excited about the change.”

He was right, of course, and that’s when I became associated with The Willow Tree with Shaina (who I’d known for many years) and met my lovely girlfriend.

My return to Cambridgeshire had an immediate effect. Great to see clients I had known from The Little Geranium in Spain and my previous Pink Geranium in Melbourne. Together, as a team, we make The Willow Tree something very special. I truly feel like I was welcomed home with open arms and my food was embraced and celebrated. I feel emotionally grateful.

Steven Saunders at the Willow Tree, Bourn.  Photo: Keith Hepell
Steven Saunders at the Willow Tree, Bourn. Photo: Keith Hepell

Tapas was one of the first things I wanted to do. We now offer a full tapas menu all day on Wednesdays and Thursdays and Friday lunchtimes. Friends and customers flock to have dishes like my lime and chili crispy calamari, chorizo ​​with olives and honey, chipotle and tomato shrimp pil pil, beef tataki with sesame ponzu, scallop ceviche with truffles, skewers of Katsu panko chicken and my famous crispy duck served in tacos with Asian coleslaw.

These are tough times economically so prices range from around £8 per dish to around £12 which is fine for most. We also have a fantastic Tapas Tasting Menu, offering 10 dishes to share for £35pp.

Looking back, I had a Spanish girlfriend who introduced me to tapas, and we ate them regularly in Fuengirola and Marbella. It inspired me and I used that inspiration at the Geranium. It gave structure to my menu, then I added a twist.

Having spent time working in Asia, I often lean that way for the twist, introducing flavors like satay, katsu, yuzu, mirin, wasabi, and dashi.

I learned Spanish quite quickly and often, when pushed into the kitchen, I shout phrases like “vamos todos, rapido por favor” – which means “Come on everybody, please quick!” Or I call orders in Spanish. The chiefs look at me as if I came from Pluto. Many people believe that I am from Pluto because of my wacky ideas and my eccentricity!

This week I have created a special dish for you which is pork belly simmered with a fantastic Vietnamese sauce, served with noodles.

It’s not a typical tapa but it could be at Pluto. Either way, it’s out of this world. You can eat it as a small tapa but also as a main course.

You will never be able to buy anything as brilliant as this dish, so give it a try.

In my previous article, I encouraged comments. I received many e-mails and answered them personally. I would love to know how you came to this recipe and what you think of the amazing flavors of my Vietnamese sauce. My email address is below.

My next article will be about summer barbecue, marinades, new ideas and techniques – don’t miss it!

Your boss, Steven

Crispy pork belly, Vietnamese sauce (for 4 people)

Crispy Pork Belly with Vietnamese <a class=Sauce – A Steven Saunders Dish (56361846)” data-root=”/_media/img/” data-path=”8GN7UENDZ5HOJNHW14A5.jpg” data-ar=”0.75″/>
Crispy Pork Belly with Vietnamese Sauce – A Steven Saunders Dish (56361846)

Make the marinade/cooking liquor

  • 1. 200ml hoisin sauce
  • 2. 50ml oyster sauce
  • 3. 50ml light soy sauce
  • 4. 1 tbsp maldon salt
  • 5. 40g brown sugar
  • 6. 500g pork belly in 1 piece
  • 7. Chicken broth, enough to cover

To cook the pork, preheat an oven to 160°C/thermostat 3.

Slash the pork fat with a sharp knife

Combine the hoisin sauce, oyster sauce, light soy and sugar, then rub all over the pork belly. Place the pork in a deep dish, then pour in enough water or chicken broth to submerge the meat. Sprinkle with salt. Close the dish tightly with foil, then bake for 2.5 hours.

When it’s soft and chewy, you can squeeze out all the big chunks of belly fat. Then press it between two baking sheets with weights (I use a crate of coconut milk!).

Ideally this should be done the day before you need the pork. Then you can cut out neat rectangles the next day (as shown in the picture). Reserve cooking liquid and refrigerate.

To make the waffle sauce

Reserved cooking liquor (when cold, you can easily remove the fat)

  • 100ml light soy sauce
  • 1 tablespoon (tbsp) rice wine vinegar (or white wine)
  • 2 teaspoons sesame oil
  • 1 tablespoon brown sugar
  • 1 crushed garlic clove
  • 1 teaspoon grated fresh ginger
  • 1 teaspoon siracha sauce (spicy)
  • Juice of ½ lemon
  • 1 heaped tablespoon chopped spring onions
  • 1 teaspoon dried chili flakes
  • 2 teaspoons of cornstarch mixed with a little cold water

Put all the ingredients for the sauce (except the cornstarch) in a saucepan and bring to a boil. Simmer the sauce for about 10 minutes, then add the cornflour/water mixture and whisk. Cook for another 10 minutes, then strain the sauce through a fine sieve into a clean container.

Blanch a few plain egg noodles and cool in cold water, then drain and set aside.

To finish

Heat your oven to the highest setting and put the pork tenderloins in the oven to crisp the skin. It will take about 10-15 minutes.

Meanwhile, wok fry the noodles in a little sticky sauce and serve a small amount on each plate.

Serve a piece of crispy pork belly on each pile of noodles and drizzle with potsticker sauce (see photo).

Find out more about Steven – and don’t miss his fortnightly column in the Cambridge Independent

Celebrity Chef Steven Saunders’ new feature: Dining for Ukraine – and my Recipe for Chicken Kyiv


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