So I know I have been completely neglecting the blog for a good 2 weeks now. So much for my plan to catch up on my backlog and post lots of Chinese New Year related posts during my holiday back home in Penang. I’d honestly forgotten how busy it gets during Chinese New Year! It was a brilliant trip though, made even sweeter because I have not had the chance to celebrate Chinese New Year at home since I left 7 years ago. Seven! How time flies…
For us Chinese, family and food are the two most important things about this 15 day long celebration. In the days leading up to Chinese New Year, all families go on a huge cleaning spree. This is because we believe that by doing so, we sweep away the bad luck of the preceding year and prepare the home for a year of good luck and fortune. It’s also a custom to buy new clothes and to get a new haircut. I still remember how my grandma would always say that black was a major no no for the first day of Chinese New Year as it was “pantang” (bad luck). Which is why I wore something bright red.
On the eve of Chinese New Year, families usually get together and have a reunion dinner. This is usually a “steamboat”/”hotpot” dinner as pictured above. How this works is by cooking the raw ingredients in the hotpot (which is filled with pre-boiled chicken broth) as you go along. Some people even have 2 pots so they can have two types of soups – one is usually clear chicken soup, whilst the other is tomyum flavoured.
There is huge variation on what people put into their steamboat – we tend to use a variety of meatballs/fishballs, fresh seafood, vegetables, and noodles of some sort (as noodles signify longevity – we Chinese are highly superstitious) .
Clockwise, from top left: bee hoon (rice vermicelli), a variety of fried bean curd/tofu puffs (I have to admit that I have no idea what they’re called, I can tell you they were ultra yummy though!), straw mushrooms and little gem leaves.
Clockwise, from top left again: Chicken slices & fishballs, pomfret (possibly one of my favourite fishes ever, I hate that it’s so hard to find here in London), prawns & more fishballs, and soft shelled crab.
Basically, everyone gathers around the dining table and adds the ingredients into the steaming soup in rounds. What my family has always done is to cook the fishballs/fried items first as they help to sweeten the soup. Fish and prawns always go in a bit later as they cook very quickly and run the risk of becoming overcooked if you put them in right at the beginning. And the soup gets more yummy as the night goes on. If you are one of those people with bottomless appetites, you get to drink the sweet soup that remains at the end of the dinner. (This is usually me or my dad. Lol.)
And let’s not forget the ever important “yee sang” or “yu sheng”. This is basically a raw fish salad that is eaten throughout Chinese New Year, and signifies prosperity and good fortune. A wide variety of ingredients are used in this salad – the usual suspects are pickled leeks, daikon, carrots, red pickled ginger, deep fried crackers, pomelo pulp, peanuts, sesame seeds, five spice powder and plum sauce.
And then the time comes to “lou” or toss the salad. The fish and the sauce is added to the salad, and everyone then stands up with chopsticks in hand. We then proceed to toss the salad with the chopsticks – the higher you toss, the more luck you get. Having said that, I always toss with more caution if I’m in my own home as you don’t really want to cause too much of a mess (and believe me, you can cause a real mess!).
And just to prove what an important dish this is during Chinese New Year – they even served it on the plane! I was really surprised to see it on the menu, but I suspect that it’s something that is always served during this period (and I never knew as I haven’t flown around this time before this year). You have to love Singapore Airlines.
As I didn’t want to miss out on the fun, I also made my own version. I’ve been making it for the past few Chinese New Year’s, and didn’t want to miss a chance to do so this year. (And I will admit that I didn’t want to “lose” any luck because of that! ) I tweak it every year, and am sure I will continue to do so for a while. You can find the recipe for my version at the end of this post.
Stir fried choy sum with fatt choy. Fatt choy is the chinese name for the black moss used in this dish, and is popular during Chinese New Year as “fatt choy” translates into prosperity. It can sometimes look slightly disgusting as it resembles human hair, but it tastes much better than it looks.
Prosperity burger from McDonalds. Yes, McDonalds! I love this burger (which is only sold during the Chinese New Year period), and it is by far my favourite burger from McD’s. It’s a chicken or beef patty, slathered in a very spicy black pepper sauce, sandwiched between a long burger bun. I only wish they would sell it here in London!
And who could forget the Chinese New Year cookies? There is a huge variety available, most of which I happily munch on every year. My parents are lovely and have always sent me some, so I must admit I’ve not been hugely deprived in this department. And of course, when I do go home for Christmas, I lug containers of cookies all the way back to London. What can I say? Food is important.
Kuih kapit (love letters) – these babies are very fragile, and can easily be crushed into a thousand little pieces if you’re not careful. I’m happy to say I managed to transport a whole container of these all the way back to London in one piece. Of course, I should have known it was too good to be true – I managed to fling it (they’re really light) off the tabletop when trying to clear up. Thankfully, they didn’t break into too many pieces. Phew.
A lot of work goes into making kuih kapit, and it usually requires teamwork. The batter is then spooned into the kuih kapit moulds, and they are cooked on a charcoal fire grill. Once the kuih kapit is cooked, you remove it from the mould, and immediately fold it to form the fan shape you see in the photo. I remember making these when I was younger and having to accustom my fingers to the hot, freshly cooked kuih kapit! (The kids were always assigned the task of folding the kuih kapits, as we weren’t allowed to be too close to the grill). If you’re interested, this site shows photos of this process.
Kuih loyang/honeycomb kuih/kuih rose/beehive kuih. As you can see, there are many names for this treat, which is so pretty to look at. They aren’t easy to make though – once the batter is made, you dip the loyang mould into the batter, and then into hot oil where it is deep fried.
Kuih bangkit. These little delightful morsels are made from coconut milk, eggs and flour. They have a “powdery” taste, and are crunchy. I’m aware that I’m not describing these kuihs very well, but I never was one who was good with words. :S
Arrowroot chips. These taste better than Lay’s potato chips. Trust me.
Pineapple tarts. One of the must-have cookies during Chinese New Year. I suspect they may be so popular because pineapples are called “ong lai” in Hokkien (a Chinese dialect), which can also be translated as “prosperity come”. But for me, I eat it because they’re good. The buttery crumbly crust, coupled with the fresh pineapple jam is truly a match made in heaven.
Kuih bangkit. These are very similar to madeleines in both shape and taste.
Green pea crackers. This was the first time I’ve tried these, and I’m glad I did! They are seriously good, with a very distinct green pea taste. No idea how they’re made (they were sold by the lady selling curry mee at a nearby hawker centre).
Groundnut cookies, cashewnut cookies (the flower shaped ones) and almond cookies. The lighter coloured ones are almond cookies, the darker ones are groundnut. You can also tell the difference from its taste – groundnut cookies melt in your mouth, and no chewing is actually necessary to eat these; whereas almond cookies are more… sturdy? Hmmm. I’d welcome any ideas as to how to describe the difference between these two cookies.
Ribbon kuih. These are made from a pastry dough (which is similar to wonton skins), and then deep fried. I’ve just realised that I should have tried dipping them in chocolate, hmmm.
These are just some of the foods that are synonymous with Chinese New Year, and I can’t wait till next year when I get to do it all again!
Yee Sang/Yu Sheng (Chinese New Year raw fish salad)
For the salad:
- 2 carrots, julienned*
- half a daikon, julienned*
- 1 cucumber, julienned*
- one quarter of a pomelo
- 1 can pickled leeks, chopped
- 1 packet wonton skins, cut into 1cm strips
- 1 lime, quartered
- 2 tablespoons five spice powder
- 1 cup salted peanuts, finely chopped
- 200g smoked salmon
* I used my Japanese julienne peeler to do this – much easier than using a knife!
For the pickled cucumbers:
1. Add 3 tablespoons white wine vinegar and 1 tablespoon sugar to the julienned cucumbers. Leave for at least 30 minutes.
2. Strain as much liquid from the cucumbers as you can, and there you have it – pickled cucumbers!
For the crunchy crackers:
1. Heat 1cm oil in a pan. Add the wonton skin strips into the oil in small batches, and fry until golden brown.
2. Remove from heat into a bowl lined with kitchen paper.
3. Repeat the above with the remaining wonton skin strips. Please note that you will need to top up the oil every so often. (Alternatively you can deep fry the crackers, which will produce a crispier result. I don’t deep fry so I resort to this method.)
For the sauce:
1. Mix 4 parts plum sauce with 1 part hoisin sauce. You can also add a tablespoon of apricot jam to the sauce (optional).