Spicy Mulled Grapes (CABAR #5)
CABAR is a series of dishes where I Cook with A Broken ARm, because, well, I broke my arm (from playing frisbee of all things). The word cabar also means ‘challenge’ in Malay, which is mighty apt, because it's been a challenge cooking with my temporary disability. By virtue of this, the recipes in this series are a lot simpler, and technically doable with just one arm. Fret not though, they all still have that kooky hint of Malaysian/Asian influence, which I know you've come to love on the blog!
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Let me get something straight, last I checked, spicy grapes are not a traditional Sichuanese dish. In fact, I don’t think spicy grapes are a tradition anywhere in the world really. This dish (if you can call it that) is just another one of those Frankensteinian combination of two completely separate food-things – Sichuan peppercorns and mulled wine – that I am particular fond of.
You’ve probably heard of mulled wine – a sweet, spiced wine that says Christmas like no other drink. Think flavours like cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, and orange zest all steeped into a steamy mug of wine. It’s all the rage in Christmas markets all over Europe, and warms you up like nothing else in the chilly winter night. But even if it isn't Christmas, mulling wine is a great way of transforming disappointingly bad, or even oxidised wine into something substantial.
But since I’m in Malaysia, where it’s perpetually summer, a traditional mulled wine wouldn't be quite weather-appropriate. So to Malaysian-ise it, I added some heat to the wine. And by heat I mean... chillies! (Somebody call the cultural appropriation police.)
To the Western world, eating really spicy food when it's sweltering outside might seem baffling. But according to my dad (and I suspect to many Malaysians), the apparent logic here is that with the spiciness, you’ll sweat profusely, which would cool your body temperature down. This makes sense as sweat does serve to regulate body temperature, but then the spicy food would leave your mouth, tongue, and digestive tract on fire, which makes this a questionable trade-off.
Before I scare you off though, let me say that I'm not a fan of intensely spicy food. So my idea of adding chillies to mulled wine is just to give it that background, throat-tickling hint of spiciness, as opposed to the full-on, tongue-lashing sort. So instead of adding bird’s eye chillies to the wine (which would be borderline insane), I added just a tiny amount of dried chillies, plus a good dose of my favourite spice – Sichuan peppercorns. It gives the wine a pleasant pepperiness, which if you ask me, might actually legitimately cool you down, just like how a minty lozenge would!
This spicy mulled wine is great and all, but the trouble with it is that it's a bit of a chore to drink. Since it's best had warm, you'd need to heat it up. But then you never want too much of it at one go as it is a bit strong, so you'd have to boil a small mug's worth each time. But then I figured - what if you could make a snack version of it..? Enter mulled grapes!
I first learnt this technique from Jon, a chef I worked with. When you steep grapes in the wine, they take on all the flavour of the mulled wine, and when dehydrated, intensifies in flavour and becomes almost raisin-like. But instead of the typical saccharine sweetness of raisins, these are deeply spiced (and spiked) with that spicy mulled wine. Unlike fully-dried raisins though, I prefer having these mulled grapes slightly plump. I did dehydrate them just a bit (around 2-3 hours) to fortify the mulled flavour within each grape. So while they might look wrinkled and raisin-like, they are still slightly juicy when you bite into them.
Technically, these exist in a limbo state as they're not quite dry enough to be raisins, and not quite plump enough to be considered true, fresh grapes. Either way though, these mulled grape-raisins make for an excellent snack throughout the day. And with that kick of heat and alcohol, they’re the perfect perk-me-up snack for those sleepy, dreary days at work, not to mention a great way to smuggle alcohol into the office...
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Spicy Sichuan Mulled Grapes
makes a good bunch of grapes (I know I'm terrible at units)
300g grapes, red or white, separated into bunches of 5-10 grapes per bunch
350ml wine, preferably cheap or slightly oxidised (use red wine for red grapes and white wine for white grapes)
50g brown sugar
2 dried chillies
1 tablespoon Sichuan peppercorns
1 cinnamon stick
- Place the wine, brown sugar, dried chillies, Sichuan peppercorns, cinnamon, and cloves in a pot or saucepan, and bring to a boil. Stir to make sure the sugar has dissolved.
- And the grapes to the mulled wine, and turn to heat down to a slow simmer. Let the grapes simmer in the wine for 10 minutes.
- Then, remove the grapes from the wine and place it on a wire rack with a tray underneath. (Pro-tip: Strain and save the leftover wine! You can drink it like you would mulled wine.) Dry the grapes in an oven set at 80°C for 2-3 hours. Alternatively, you could use a dehydrator. The longer you leave it, the drier the grapes will become. I’ve found that 2-3 hours works best, which results in a plump raisin texture. But if you prefer it full-raisin, you can dehydrate it for longer, for up to 12 hours.
- These mulled grapes are great as a snack, and keeps well in an airtight container for up to a week. Though if thoroughly dehydrate it, it’ll last for much longer, perhaps for up to a month or two.