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Spice bags

by Food Urchin
Spice bags

Spice bags

PT2H30M

PT1H

Why not try?

Having held many a party and a shindig at my house before, there is always a double edged sword to proceedings. You want to relax and enjoy yourself, but you have to play the host. You want to make sure that people are well fed and watered, but you don’t want to be stuck in the kitchen all day. You’d love to throw and smash china plates on the floor to save on the washing up, like that rowdy bunch in the corner. But plates are expensive. And besides, who invited that lot? I mean seriously, who are they?

Yes, it’s a tricky business, entertaining family and friends, especially when you have a nan who loves to delve into her ‘Greek’ heritage after one too many sherries. However, I think I have found a way to solve some of these foibles at social gatherings, and that is to hand out spice bags.

‘What are ‘spice bags’?’ I hear you ask. Well, to be honest, until recently I hadn’t heard of them either, but after trawling on Instagram (I can spend hours on there) they pinged into view and after some more research, the concept was instantly appealing. Originating in Ireland, or Dublin to be more specific, spice bags are fast becoming the go-to take away special, to provide some much needed sustenance after a night on the craic. And I am sure that we are all familiar with those sort of hunger pangs.

Typically offered by Chinese takeaways dotted around the city, a spice bag usually consists of chips, chilli peppers and an offering of the tidbits you’d normally find in the hors d’oeuvres section of the menu. Chicken balls, prawn toast, spare ribs, that sort of thing. Basically, everything is mixed together and coated with a liberal, spicy seasoning and thrown into a box or paper bag. Which all sounds like an unrefined, uncouth and unscrupulous way to get rid of food wastage at the end of the night, I know. But, by all account, some takeaways in Dublin are making quite a name for themselves with their spice bags. With much pride at stake when it comes to talking about and hiding the ‘secret’ ingredients that go into their mix. Personally, after discovering the notion of spice bags, my thoughts immediately took to how well they would go down at a get together, like for watching the football, especially for the Republic of Ireland’s games during Euro 2016. Come the halftime whistle, what could be better than a bag of sliced, crisp potatoes and Asian-style meat, charged with salt and chilli and washed down with an ice cold, flavoursome brew?

I say this respectfully when I say that Ireland has spent a long time in the wilderness when it comes to beer. A wander into many of its pubs ten years ago would have meant Guinness, Guinness, Guinness and Harp and whilst there is nothing wrong with the black stuff, it does leave you, well, pretty damn stuffed. But the beer scene over there has changed massively in recent times, with micro breweries popping up all over the Emerald Isle, refining and changing perceptions not only about stout but porters and IPAs too. Commendable mentions go to Galway Bay Brewery for their heady stout (imbued in whisky barrels) and also the range of beers that Eight Degrees are developing. Aficionados are going slightly nuts for their Big River, an IPA made with Australian hops (strewth, the distance!). For my money, though, O’Haras is good introduction to the new wave of brewing from across the Irish Sea and their easy drinking Irish Red makes for a decent pairing with a spice bag. Malty and slightly sweet, with a refreshing, dry bitterness at the back of the tongue, the flavours work more in contrast, to help cut through the rustling, the ‘O’ shaped mouthfuls and subsequent greasy fingertips.

Which brings me back to why spice bags are so good to dole out at football parties. No cutlery is required. Or crockery. In fact, hardly any washing up needs tackling at all. You just need to wander around with a black bag for people to throw their bags in afterwards.

I’d get my Nan to do that though. For repayment on plates she has splintered in the past.

Now, you may have gathered that there is certain degree of flexibility as to what goes into a spice bag. In this recipe, I have opted for braised pork belly, salt and pepper chicken wings and the very necessary chips but you could opt for your own specific combination. The spice bag world is your oyster, so to speak. You will also note that mostly, all the cooking done in the oven, as most people don’t have access to industrial deep fat fryers and as a result, this is a healthier approach! You do need to deep fry the chicken wings though. There is no escaping that. As for sourcing brown paper bags, which may need to be doubled up, visit your local greengrocer (if you have one). Mine was happy to throw a bundle my way. For one English pound.

1
Start off by making your braised pork belly. Placing the belly pieces in a large pot and cover with the dark soy, honey and rice wine vinegar. Leave to marinade for an hour or so
2
Cover the marinated meat with water and place on the hob over a high heat and bring to boil. Reduce to simmer, then add the ginger, garlic, star anise and cinnamon. Continue to gently simmer for around 1 and half to 2 hours, until the pork is soft and tender
3
Remove the pork, placing into a dish or tray, and strain the liquor into a clean pan. Reduce over a high heat, until it becomes thick and syrupy. Drizzle the reduction over the meat and place to one side
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4
Preheat the oven to 200°C/gas mark 6
5
Place the sliced potatoes into a large pot and cover with water, adding a touch of salt. Bring to the boil on the hob, then reduce to a simmer and cook for 8-10 minutes, until the potatoes begin to soften. Drain in colander and leave to steam for 10 minutes
6
Tumble the chips into a large roasting tin, making sure that they are not too crowded (you may need to use two). Cover generously with the rapeseed oil and mix through with your hands. Place into the oven to roast for an hour, checking every twenty minutes or so and turning the chips over so that they cook evenly. In the last twenty minutes of cooking, add the sliced pepper
7
While the chips are cooking, prepare the chicken by bringing yet another large pot of water to the boil (this is mass catering here). Peel and juice the lemon and add it to the water, along with the star anise and some more salt
8
Get a rolling boil going for about 5 minutes, then add the chicken wings. A lot of fat will come to the surface, so skim that off as best you can and simmer for just more five minutes
9
Remove the chicken wings and leave to drain on some kitchen towel, cooling for 20 minutes.
10
Fill a wok, saucepan or deep-fryer with the sunflower oil and heat to 180°C (use a thermometer to check if using a pan)
11
Place the flour in a bowl with a healthy amount of salt and pepper and throw the wings in for a thorough dusting. Deep fry the wings in batches for 5 minutes at a time, then drain on kitchen towel and keep warm
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12
To make the five spice salt, place the white peppercorns and salt into a pan and dry fry, until they start to release their aromatics and the salt begins to brown. Crush the mixture with a mortar and pestle and add the five spice and dried chilli and mix through
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13
As everything starts coming together, remove the chips and peppers from the oven and add the chicken to the roasting tray. Mix thoroughly to evenly distribute the chicken, then cover with foil and keep warm
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14
Turn on the grill to its highest setting and allow to heat up. Lay the pork slices under the grill for a quick blast, turning as they begin to char, then remove and slice into mouth-sized pieces
15
Add the pork to the roasting tray along with the special seasoning. Mix thoroughly, then spoon everything into paper bags
16
Add some slices of red chilli to each bag and serve with bottles of chilled Irish Red
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