It’s often the simpler dishes you grow up with that have the tendency to make you feel nostalgic, don’t they? For me, one of those dishes is babi kecap: an Indonesian braised pork dish (babi meaning pork) that’s made with pork belly, sweet soy sauce (kecap manis, hence the ‘kecap’ in the dish’s name), ginger, onions or shallots, and usually some other flavouring ingredients such as chili and garlic. Perhaps that doesn’t sound so ‘simple’ at all and the flavors of the dish are indeed quite layered, complex and moreish, but in reality, it’s an easy to make one-pot dish that is basically fail-proof and always turns out delicious.
It is said that babi kecap is based on various Southern Chinese braised pork dishes, however, the use of the sweeter soy sauce kecap manis instead of salty soy sauce does give it more of an Indonesian twist. The dish is popular amongst Indonesians, Chinese Indonesian households, and, due to colonial ties with Indonesia, in The Netherlands as well (where it is phonetically written as babi ketjap). In the Netherlands, where I am from, ‘babi ketjap’ is often eaten as part of a larger rijsttafel (literally meaning ‘rice table’) banquet together with rice and other side dishes, or it’s simply eaten with some plain rice, or on a white bun with some pickled cucumber.
My Dutch-Indonesian oma used to make a huge pot of babi kecap for every important family get-together at her house such as her birthday, or Mothersday. Of course, she’d always make enough to feed a whole orphanage, so we’d be eating it for at least two or three days more (naturally, no one complained). While some other dishes of oma’s rijsttafel banquet were changed occasionally, depending on her mood, babi kecap was always there, especially because it was the only dish some of my pickier family members would eat (yeah, it’s that tasty). Even amongst the non-picky members of my family, babi kecap was definitely one of the more popular dishes, perhaps only equaled by her homemade sambal goreng kentang, a rice topping that can best be described as ‘fried potato sticks’ (my favorite has always been her chicken hearts, though these would not usually be present at huge family dinners).
The recipe below is somewhat of a family recipe, though I have made some adjustments of my own. The way my grandmother used to prepare babi kecap is that she would start by cutting up the pieces of pork belly quite small and crisp them up in the pan before discarding most of the fat before braising the meat in the onion, ginger and kecap sauce, resulting in a daintier-looking, leaner (sometimes dryer…) dish than mine here. Nowadays, my mother is in charge of the babi kecap, and she does not crisp up the pork belly and discard the fat, instead, she uses half pork belly and half boneless gammon steak/pork chops in order to make the dish less fattening.
For my version, I usually just stick to the fattier pork belly only, which I tend to leave relatively soft instead of crisped up, but at times I also replace half of the meat with leaner pork chops when I know I will be cooking for people that are not a fan of the soft, fatty pieces of meat. To add more flavour to the dish, apart from adding the needed kecap manis, ginger and onion, I like to add some garlic, some ground coriander seeds (ketumbar), galangal (laos), kaffir lime leaf (jeruk purut) and chili for some heat, but you can play around with the flavourings and aromatics as much as you like. In the end, the type of pork or aromatics doesn’t really matter and there is only one real secret to making a tasty babi kecap… braise the dish a day ahead of serving to let all the flavors combine well and to allow the meat to truly soften (and to give you some time on the day of serving to do other stuff).
Babi Kecap / Babi Ketjap (Indonesian Sweet Soy Braised Pork)
- 1kg pork belly, or replace half with some pork chops for a leaner dish
- 2 tablespoons sunflower oil
- 1 large yellow onion, or 3 – 4 shallots
- 5cm piece fresh ginger
- 4 garlic cloves
- ½ teaspoon ground coriander seeds
- ¼ teaspoon ground galangal
- ¼ teaspoon white pepper
- 1 – 2 dried kaffir lime leaf (optional)
- 1 red chili pepper (optional)
- 150ml ketjap manis / sweet soy sauce
- 500ml water
- Salt, to taste
- Prep: Cut the meat into cubes or ‘sticks’ of about 2 - 3cm. Very finely dice the large onion, or shallots and garlic cloves (or use a press for the cloves) and grate the fresh ginger.
- Fry aromatics: Heat sunflower oil in a Dutch oven, or large pot over medium-high heat. When the oil is hot, add the diced onion, grated fresh ginger, chopped (or crushed) garlic, ground coriander seeds, ground galangal, kaffir lime leaf, white pepper and chili pepper to the pan. Sauté until fragrant, for a few minutes.
- Brown meat: Add the cut pork belly to the pot with the onions and aromatics and sauté until the meat is browned on all sides.
- Pour in the water and sweet soy sauce and add a little salt (or add it at the end of cooking to be careful because the sweet soy sauce is already quite salty as well).
- Braise covered with a lid for 1.5 - 2 hours, stirring from time to time, until the meat has become tender.
- Allow sauce to thicken slightly: continue simmering for another 20 - 30 minutes, uncovered, stirring occasionally, until the sauce thickens slightly (or until your preferred consistency).