Chinese New Year ‘cakes’

I’ve gone Chinese New Year mad on the blog recently – and just to stick to the trend, here’s one last Chinese New Year post for good measure. What can I say? It is a 15 day celebration after all, and there are just so many types of food to cover. So I thought I’d round up my Chinese New Year-ism with a post on ‘cakes’ – one sweet, and one savoury.

Nian gao (also known as “thi kuih” in Hokkien, or Chinese New Year cake) is one of the must have foods of Chinese New Year. The main reason why it is so popular during this period is because “nian gao” is a homonym for “higher year”. As Wikipedia says:

The Chinese word 粘 (nián), meaning “sticky”, is identical in sound to 年, meaning “year”, and the word 糕 (gāo), meaning “cake” is identical in sound to 高, meaning “high”. As such, eating nian gao has the symbolism of raising oneself higher in each coming year.

We Chinese are VERY superstitious you see.

Anyway, back to the nian gao. It is made from a surprisingly small list of ingredients – glutinous rice flour, sugar, water and/or coconut milk. These ingredients are then steamed until they solidify to form your “cake”. The traditional method of making these is a rather long process, and as I do not have the patience to steam something for hours on end, I use a simpler method and only steam my nian gao for about an hour. And you know what, it still tastes pretty damn similar to the more traditionally made ones.

It can be eaten as it is (in all its sticky glory goodness), or be pan fried in an egg batter. We always pan fry it with yam or sweet potato slices at home, but I usually just eat it as it is here in London. Again, this is a testament to my laziness. Do note that it becomes more solid the longer you keep them (and they keep for a good 2 weeks in the fridge), but pan-frying or heating it in the microwave (1 minute on High) restores it to its original deliciousness.

The other “cake” of Chinese New Year is the turnip cake (“luo bo gao” in Mandarin, or “loh pak gou” in Cantonese). Whilst this is primarily a dim sum dish, it is very commonly eaten during Chinese New Year as we believe it symbolizes prosperity and rising fortunes. Told you we are superstitious. 😉

I’d never actually made this before (as opposed to nian gao which I’ve made every year since I discovered how to make it in my 2nd year of med school), but I tried Charmaine’s home made version during our Chinese New Year potluck, and I tell you – I was hooked. Obsessed. Simply because it tasted much better than the ones you get in restaurants. So I made some, and it was absolutely delicious. It’s fairly similar to yam cake, and wasn’t actually too hard to make at all!

Turnip cakes are usually sliced into squares/rectangles, and pan fried prior to serving. The pan frying allows you to achieve a crunchy exterior and a soft gooey interior, which as we all know is a brilliant combination of textures. It can also be eaten as it is, ideally warm.

So yes. Nian gao. Luo bo gao. Angku kuih. Peanut cookies. Pineapple tarts. Tang yuan. Yu sheng. Mandarin oranges. So much food, so little time. But no matter, because you can rest assured I’ll be back next year with MORE on the food of Chinese New Year. Be warned. 😉

Happy Chap Goh Meh (15th day of Chinese New Year), everyone! And to those who will be taking part in the festivities of throwing Mandarin oranges into the sea – have fun! 🙂

Nian gao (Chinese New Year cake)

  • 200ml water
  • 200g Chinese brown sugar (I use Pearl River) – alternatively you can use palm sugar
  • 200ml coconut milk
  • 250g glutinous rice flour

1. Heat water and Chinese brown sugar in a pot over medium heat, until all the sugar has melted.

2. Add the coconut milk, and stir until the mixture is well combined.

3. Take the pan off the heat, and leave the mixture to cool.

4. Once the mixture has cooled, slowly add the glutinous rice flour to the mixture (I do it in four additions), stirring well between each addition. You should end up with a mixture that has a consistency that is slightly thicker than double cream. If your mixture is too thick, add a little more water to it. If it is too runny, add a little glutinous rice flour.

5. Sieve the mixture – this helps to avoid any lumps that may have formed. Believe me when I say you don’t want to have a lumpy nian gao!

6. Pour the mixture into a container of your choice (either a heatproof bowl or takeaway aluminium containers – I used ramekins lined with banana leaves). Don’t forget to oil your containers well if you intend to serve them without the containers.

7. Steam over high heat for 35-45 minutes, or until the surface of the nian gao is fairly firm to touch. If in doubt, I recommend steaming it for longer (10 minutes each time) rather than risk ending up with a liquid/uncooked mixture.*

* To ensure a smooth surface, you can cover your containers with a teacloth during the steaming process. I did not do this, which is why it’s not as smooth as I would like it to be. Alternatively, you can turn the nian gao out from the container and serve it bottom up, which again will give you a smooth surface.

Radish cake (luo bo gau / loh pak gou)

Despite what its name suggests, radish cakes are made from Chinese white turnips, and not radishes.

  • 1kg Chinese white turnips/mooli/daikon (this is approximate, you can use more or less as you wish. I recommend a radish: flour ratio of at least 4:1)
  • 2 Chinese sausages (lap cheong)
  • 6 Chinese mushrooms
  • 2 dried scallops
  • 20g dried shrimps (heh bee)
  • 3 shallots
  • 150g rice flour
  • 25g wheat starch
  • 2 ½ cups water (including drained turnip water & soaking liquid for Chinese mushrooms and scallops)
  • 2 teaspoons sugar
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon white pepper
  • ½ teaspoon five spice powder

Prepping the ingredients:

1. Grate/shred the Chinese white turnips, either using a box grater or the shredder attachment on your food processor. Leave the turnips in a sieve to drain as much water as possible out of it. Reserve the drained liquid.

2. Soak your Chinese mushrooms and dried scallops in some water. Once they soften (this usually takes at least half an hour), cut them into 1cm pieces. Reserve the soaking liquid.

3. Soak the dried shrimps in some water for approximately 10 minutes. Discard the soaking water.

4. Dice your Chinese sausages into 1cm pieces.

5. Finely dice your shallots.

Making the cake:

6. Measure out 2 ½ cups of water. Start off with the water from the grated turnips, as well as the mushroom/scallop soaking liquid, then add water until you have the whole amount.

7. Mix the water, rice flour and wheat starch together. Stir until there are no lumps in the mixture. I suggest straining it to double check. Set aside.

8. Heat 2 tablespoons of oil in a pan (over medium high heat), and fry the shallots until they turn fragrant. This usually takes 3-5 minutes.

9. Add the dried shrimps, Chinese sausage and dried shallots to the pan, and fry for a further 2-3 minutes.

10. Add the grated turnips to the pan, and fry for 5 minutes, or until they start to soften slightly.

11. Season with the sugar, salt, pepper and five spice powder, and mix well. You may need to adjust the quantities according to personal taste.

12. Turn the heat to low, and slowly add the water/flour mixture to the pan, stirring consistently. Take care to ensure the flour doesn’t sink to the bottom of the pan and form a ‘crust’ there. Cook the mixture over the low heat for 5-10 minutes, or until it becomes a thick paste.

13. Pour the mixture into a greased bowl/container (I used a 20cm diameter Pyrex bowl, but have also used loaf tins!), and steam over high heat for 45 minutes, or until it is cooked. Its surface should be fairly firm to touch. (Sometimes the surface can be a little gooey from the steam even after steaming for 45 minutes, leading you to think it is uncooked. If this is the case, test by inserting a toothpick (or even chopstick) into the center of the cake. It should come up fairly clean, and you should feel resistance when inserting the toothpick.)

14. Slice the turnip cake into 2cm slices. (This will be easier once it has cooled slightly, as it firms up. I actually like putting in the fridge to cool, as the flavour also develops a little more.) You can choose to eat it as it is, or pan fry it in a lightly oiled pan over medium high heat. I highly recommend serving it with some chilli sauce on the side!


More Chinese New Year cookies: Pineapple “nastar” tarts

I’ve always had a thing for pineapple tarts. After my beloved peanut cookies, pineapple tarts are next on my “must overindulge in” list during Chinese New Year. My favourite pineapple tarts to date are the ones my mum buys from a Malay lady – melt in the mouth yet crumbly pastry encasing a lovely round of pineapple jam = perfection.

I must say one thing though – pineapple tarts are MUCH more time consuming compared to peanut cookies. I mean, in comparison those peanut cookies were an absolute doddle. Thankfully Catty dropped by to help me make these, and you know what – I could not have done it without her help! She initially thought that she would be “providing the chatter” and “taste testing”… little did she know how much work she would have to do… 😉

There are a few reasons why these are time consuming. 1) The pastry dough has to be “piped” out using a special mould – this is not dissimilar to cookie presses, and gives you the typical scalloped lines you see on the face of the pineapple tarts. The piping process was the hardest part of all. In the end, we decided that the best way to approach it was to have the mould filled with pastry dough at all times – and even then, it was very unpredictable. Push/pipe too slowly and you get breaks in the dough, which essentially means it then cannot be used.

2) The cookie dough is VERY fragile. Very. Even when you get a perfect strip of piped dough – you then are faced with the challenge of not destroying it. We found that the easiest way was for Catty to pipe the strip of dough directly onto my palm. I then placed a ball of pineapple jam ball on it and wrapped it up. Piping the dough onto a baking tray is also an option… but believe me when I say it is very hard to lift it off the tray without destroying it somewhat. So yes, much easier if one person does the piping, and someone else wraps. Trust me on this one.

Because I made too little pineapple jam (I saved half a pineapple to err.. eat with rojak sauce), we had some leftover pastry dough. So we made some matcha tartelettes (from some leftover white chocolate & matcha ganache that I had from baking the day before) and some mini blueberry pies. And you know what, those matcha tartelettes were amazing. If you eat them when they are warm, the filling oozes out whilst the delicate pastry melts in your mouth. Definitely a keeper.

But back to the pineapple tarts. These actually turned out pretty well. The pastry was light yet crumbly, and had that essential “melt in the mouth” texture. I did feel that the pastry lacked “fat”, and this is probably because I used a mixture of butter and oil in the recipe. I also thought the pastry could do with being slightly sweeter. The jam was also delicious – you can adjust the sugar content according to your personal tastes, and to the sweetness/tartness of your pineapples. I thought the jam was too sweet, R thought it wasn’t sweet enough, and Catty thought it was fine.

And before I get to the recipe, just a note to say that I had to add an extra 40-50ml of corn oil to the dough as it was originally too crumbly, and wasn’t forming a cohesive dough. I have incorporated this into the recipe below by increasing the amount of butter used.

Chinese New Year pineapple “nastar” tarts (Tat nenas)
For the jam:

  • 2 pineapples (my pineapples weighed approximately 600g each)
  • 1/2 cup sugar (you may need more or less depending on personal taste, and the sweetness of your pineapples)
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • 4 cloves
  • 3 tbsp liquid glucose
  • 2 tbsp wheat starch (alternatively, use plain flour)

1. Grate the pineapples, and drain off any excess pineapple juice.
2. Place the grated pineapples, sugar, cinnamon stick and cloves in a pot, and cook over medium high heat. Stir the jam mixture every few minutes to ensure it does not burn.
3. When the mixture starts to dry out (this can take up to 1 hour), add the liquid glucose and wheat starch. This helps to make the jam more cohesive and therefore easier to roll into balls. Cook for a further 5-10 minutes until the jam is dry and sticky enough to be rolled into balls.
5. Cool the pineapple jam, then roll into 2cm diameter balls. You may prefer to do this the day before you make the actual tarts.

For the pastry:

  • 2 1/2 cups flour
  • 3 tbsp cornflour
  • 3 tbsp custard powder
  • 2 tbsp milk powder
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • pinch salt
  • 280g butter, softened
  • 1/3 cup icing sugar
  • 2 tbsp vanilla extract
  • 1 egg yolk

For the glaze:

  • 1 egg yolk
  • 1 tbsp water

1. Sieve the flour, cornflour, custard powder, milk powder, baking powder and salt. Set aside.
2. Cream the butter and icing sugar in a bowl of a stand mixer, until it turns pale and fluffy.
3. Add the vanilla extract and egg yolk, and mix until just combined.
4. Add the sieved flour mixture into the butter/sugar/egg mixture, and mix until it forms a cohesive dough. If it is too crumbly, add some corn oil to the mixture (slowly) until it forms a nice ball of pastry dough.
5. Pipe out a 3 inch strip of pastry using the nastar mould.
6. Place a ball of pineapple jam onto the pastry strip, and roll it up. Repeat with the remaining pastry and jam.
7. Mix the egg yolk and water together, and use this to lightly glaze the tarts.
8. Bake in a 170’C oven for 15-20 minutes, or until golden brown.

Here’s wishing everyone a very happy and prosperous year of the Rabbit. Gong Xi Fa Cai!

Chinese New Year peanut cookies

One of the bad things about being away from home is missing out on Chinese New Year festivities. Sure, I can deck my place out in decorations, but it’s just not the same. My family isn’t here, you don’t have cheesy Chinese New Year songs playing everywhere you go, and you don’t have all the food and goodies that come along with it. Plus, it’s hard to have much of a festive spirit when you have to go to work…

I was lucky enough to go home for Chinese New Year last year (after not celebrating it at home for a whole 7 years), and it was GOOD. Unfortunately I do not have such good fortune this year, and will in fact be working everyday for a 12 day stretch at the time.

Having said that, there is no way I am going to miss out on the food of Chinese New Year… so I made some peanut cookies last week. These (along with pineapple tarts and arrowroot chips) are my favourite Chinese New Year treats, and I was actually worried that the peanut cookies I made would not live up to my high expectations. I’m very picky with my peanut cookies you see.

I hate recipes that are too finicky, so loved how my grandma’s yam cake recipe used a simple “cup ratio”. So when I chanced upon Quinn’s post on peanut cookies, where she used a similar “cup ratio” recipe, I knew I had to try it out. You can use ANY cup you wish – in fact, I used a chinese rice bowl. Just be sure to use the same cup throughout, and stick to the 2:2:1:1 ratio.

These cookies turned out beautifully, and had the “melt in your mouth” quality that is essential for peanut cookies. I used corn oil for the “fat” component of the cookies as it was all I had to hand. I would have preferred to use lard (I know it’s unhealthy but it’s the secret to the best “melt in your mouth” cookies), but it was cold and wet outside and I was too lazy to go out and buy some. But no matter, as they were still yum. 🙂

Chinese New Year peanut cookies
Based on Quinn’s recipe

  • 2 cups peanuts
  • 2 cups plain flour
  • 1 cup icing sugar (alternatively, use castor sugar)
  • 1 cup corn oil (alternatively, use lard or butter)
  • pinch of salt
  • 1 egg, beaten

1. Dry fry the peanuts in a wide non-stick pan (over medium heat), until they start to become fragrant and lightly browned. Take care to make sure you do not burn the peanuts.
2. Pulse the peanuts in a food processor, until it becomes a fine powder.
3. Heat the oven to 180’C.
4. Place the ground peanuts, flour, sugar and salt in a bowl of a stand mixer*, and mix until well combined.
5. With the stand mixer on (medium speed), slowly trickle the corn oil into the bowl containing the peanut/flour/sugar mixture. Mix until it forms a cohesive dough. You may need more or less oil depending on the weather/humidity. A good guide is to try forming a ball from the dough – it should not crumble.
6. Form the dough into 2cm balls, and place on a baking tray lined with parchment paper. Press down lightly with a chopstick (alternatively, use a straw or a clean pen cover), this forms the typical indentation you see in the cookie.
7. Glaze lightly with the beaten egg.
8. Bake for 15-20 minutes, until they turn a lovely shade of golden brown.

* if you have a food processor, you can use it to mix the cookie dough as it will lead to less washing up! Alternatively, you can use a wooden spoon/your hands to mix the dough together.

Tang yuan (glutinous rice balls)

Tang yuan is a traditional Chinese dessert which is well loved by all generations. They’re basically glutinous rice balls (either filled or unfilled) that are served in a sweet broth. They’re most popular during the winter solstice (Dongzhi festival) – usually celebrated in December (it was on the 22nd last year), and symbolizes the day in the year where the day is the shortest. After this celebration, the Chinese believe that the days will be filled with more hours of sunlight, and therefore and increase in the amount of positive energy. In addition, eating these during the winter solstice also symbolizes becoming a year older. (I choose to ignore this last fact, because if I truly age a year everytime I eat tang yuan, I would cringe to think how old I am now…)

Besides eating these during the winter solstice, tang yuan are also made on special celebrations (such as Chinese New Year) and used as an offering to the gods. They are also served during weddings, where I was told (a long time ago by one of my aunts) that it is considered good luck for the bride and groom to not chew on the tang yuan when eating them – i.e. it is better if you swallow them whole. Now, this is easier said than done as these little babies are seriously sticky!

There are many variants of tang yuan, and as I mentioned earlier they can be either filled or unfilled. The unfilled tang yuans tend to be smaller in size (I’m not sure why), and also tend to be more colourful. The fillings for tang yuan vary – popular fillings are black sesame paste, peanut paste and red bean paste.  The tang yuan are then cooked in a pot of boiling water, and served with a sweet broth. Again, there are many types of sweet broth – my favourite is a sweet broth made with ginger and rock sugar. (Other variants: red bean soup, a combination of fermented glutinous rice/sweet osmanthus/rock sugar)

Now, I’d never made these before last year as I always thought they were really hard to make. And I was wrong. VERY wrong. These little babies are one of the easiest Chinese foods to make, and I’m not kidding. All you need are 3 ingredients – how much better could it get? 😉 And of course, since I discovered how un-difficult these are to whip up, I have been making them on a semi-regular basis. These photos have rather embarassingly been sitting in my pile of archives since last year, and I’m glad that I’m finally getting round to blogging about them. 🙂

Tang yuan (unfilled)
From this recipe on Nyonya Food

  • 2 cups glutinous rice flour
  • 1 tbsp caster sugar
  • 200ml water
  • food coloring (optional)

1. Mix glutinous rice flour with sugar in a large bowl.
2. Add the water, and slowly knead until it forms a soft paste that does not stick to your hands. (The mixture is very gloopy and sticky at first, but the more you knead it, the less sticky it gets)
3. If you wish to have colourful tang yuans, divide the dough into portions, and add a few drops of food colouring to each portion. Knead the dough until the food colouring is evenly distributed throughout the dough.
4. Shape the dough into 1-2cm balls.
5. Drop the balls into a pot of boiling water. The tang yuan will float to the surface of the water once they are cooked. Once this happens, transfer the tang yuan to the sugar broth. (The reason for boiling the tang yuan in a separate pot is so that they won’t “cloud” up your sweet broth. It’s not a compulsory step though, and on my lazy days I do just cook the tang yuan in the sweet broth to make washing up easier.)

Tang yuan with black sesame paste filling
Adapted slightly from this recipe on Rasa Malaysia

  • 230g (just under 1 cup) glutinous rice flour
  • 3/4 cup water
  • 1/4 cup black sesame seeds, toasted
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 1/2 cup butter, softened

1. Grind the black sesame seeds until they form a fine powder (I used my mini food processor).
2. Heat a small pan over medium high heat, and transfer the ground sesame seeds into this pan. Add the softened butter and sugar to the mixture and stir until it forms a smooth paste.
3. Set aside to cool in the fridge.
4. Whilst the black sesame filling is cooling in the fridge, prepare the glutinous rice balls. The method for this are similar to that described above.
5. Divide the tang yuan dough into 20 balls.
6. Flatten each ball in your palm, and place a pinch of black sesame paste in the middle of each flattened disc. Fold up the edges (towards the centre of the disc), and press to seal. Once you have done this, lightly roll it into a ball. Take care to not get too excited with the rolling, or you may end up with a burst tang yuan and lots of sesame paste in your hands!
7. Cook the tang yuan as above, in the boiling hot water.

For the sweet broth:

  • 4-5 cups water (how much water you use depends on how much broth you want)
  • 2 pandan (screwpine) leaves, knotted
  • 1/2 cup rock sugar/brown sugar/caster sugar
  • 2 inches of ginger

1. Boil the water in a pot until it starts to bubble.
2. Add the pandan leaves and ginger, and boil for 5 minutes. Add the sugar, turn the heat down, and simmer for 15-20minutes.

Hokkien New Year

There is a saying that states you have not truly experienced Chinese New Year until you have celebrated it in Penang. The reason behind this is because Penangites celebrate Hokkien New Year in addition to Chinese New Year. You must be thinking – whatt? Hokkien New Year? How is this different from Chinese New Year?

Basically, Hokkien New Year is celebrated on the 9th day of Chinese New Year. (If you remember, I previously mentioned that Chinese New Year is a fifteen day celebration). For us Hokkiens, it is celebrated with more grandeur compared to the 1st day. According to mum, this is because the Hokkiens were in hiding for the first eight days of Chinese New Year, and only had the chance to celebrate the New Year on the 9th day. The belief is that the Jade Emperor (Thee kong – translated as “king of the heavens”) protected our Hokkien ancestors from being caught, which is why we offer thanksgiving prayers to him.

Although these prayers are traditionally only performed by Hokkiens, more and more non-Hokkien people have started to join in to pray for a good year ahead.

The prayers start at 11pm on the 8th day of Chinese New Year (in the Lunar calendar, the day starts at 11pm instead of at midnight), but preparations start well in advance. I went round with my mum to buy the fruits and flowers earlier in the day, and brought my camera along in the hope of capturing the festive air of it all. I must say I got quite a few strange glances from people, they must have thought I was completely crazy. Oh well.

Sugarcanes are an integral part of the thanksgiving prayers. This is because the Hokkiens hid out in sugarcane plantations, which managed to prevent them from harm. This is the only time of year when you will see this sugarcanes being sold all over town, and as you can imagine, it takes a bit of maneuvering to get the long stems into your car!

“Gold” paper (kim chua) is hung from the sugarcanes (as in the photo above), and this is later burnt as a thanksgiving offering to the Jade Emperor. A pair of sugarcanes are usually used, and traditionally these are tied to the sides of the altar. However, as we do not have a proper table, we lean the sugarcanes against the walls instead.

Fruit stalls do a roaring business during this period, as fruits are used as offerings during the prayers. You have the option of either praying with vegetarian offerings (which is what my family do), or of praying with a whole shebang of offerings which usually include a whole roast pig. To find out more about the non-vegetarian offerings, do read this brilliant write up by Quinn who is another Hokkien food blogger.

Certain festive fruit also make an appearance, and are aptly decorated with red and gold. I would love to tell you what these fruit are, but I honestly do not know what they’re called. I tried asking the fruit stall owner what these were called, but they told me what it was in Chinese… and unfortunately my understanding of Chinese/Hokkien is not great so I did not have a clue what they were talking about. I love how pretty they look though! 🙂

Pineapple “flowers” are also a popular offering, and again is not something you see much of at other times of the year.

And just take a look at the ridiculous number (and size) of watermelons being sold!

The altar for prayers is set up in front of the house, an hour or so before the prayers are to begin. This is usually a table that is reserved specially for prayers (i.e. not a table that is used on a daily basis, or for any other purpose). The table is then draped in a red tablecloth, and the offerings are then placed on the altar. The size and height of tables vary greatly – for instance, we use a average height table, but my aunties use an amazingly high table which simply defies gravity (to me anyway).

All the offerings are decorated with red/gold paper with Chinese words on them. As you can see, I’m being very vague here as I have no idea what these Chinese words actually are. (Once again this is a testament of my poor grasp of the language).

“Nian gao” in Mandarin / “Thee kuih” in Hokkien – this is a sticky brown cake made from glutinous rice flour, palm sugar, and sometimes coconut milk. It’s delicious eaten on it’s own (once it’s re-steamed), or fried with yam slices. This is very popular during the New Year, and I only found out why after a spot of googling. According to Wikipedia, it is considered good luck to eat nian gao during Chinese New year, because “nian gao” is a homonym for “higher year.” The Chinese word 粘 (nián), meaning “sticky”, is identical in sound to 年, meaning “year”, and the word 糕 (gāo), meaning “cake” is identical in sound to 高, meaning “high”. As such, eating nian gao has the symbolism of raising oneself higher in each coming year (年年高升 niánnián gāoshēng). Thank you Wiki, I love you.

“Angku kuih” – literally translated as “Red tortoise cake” which I have previously blogged about. I must say though, these angkus were so delicious – much, much better than my attempt at it. I guess it’s just motivation to improve! 😛 I can’t very well be hopping on a plane back home each time I crave for them now can I?

Huat kuih in Hokkien /Fatt koh in Cantonese – “Huat” or “Fatt” means prosperity, which is why these are such a favourite during Chinese New Year. They’re light, fluffy cupcakes made from fermented rice flour and are truly little morsels of deliciousness (plus they’re steamed so you can argue that they’re a healthy snack!) An important feature of huat kuih is the “bloom” or “cracking” of the cakes – the more it “blooms”, the more “huat” or prosperous it is.

The aforementioned sugarcane – this time cut into bite sized pieces. My grandma loves chewing on these as they are really juicy (and she manages this with her dentures, rather amazingly!).

Burning the paper offerings (“Thee kong kim”) – “heaven’s gold”. This is supposed to be the currency of the heavens, and various versions of these paper offerings are burnt throughout the year during various important dates. Now I know this tradition is completely not in line with trying to reduce environmental pollution, but some traditions just can’t be unfollowed, so to speak. (Which is why we usually only do it during Chinese New Year.) This “gold” is offered as thanksgiving for the success and good fortune of the previous year, as well as hoping for a similarly good year ahead. As you can see, the sugarcane leaves are burnt alongside the “gold”.

Now, Malaysia *technically* has a ban on fireworks and firecrackers. I say technically because in reality, people seem to find a way to get their hands on them. The above photo was taken from the front of my house, where my neighbours were having what seemed like an impromptu fireworks competition. I kid you not. The fireworks and firecrackers went on for a good 2 hours – for so long that me (the firework photographing dummy) had actually figured out what camera settings to use by the end of the first hour. Having said that, all the light and loud “bangs” honestly do add to the festivity of this day. These fireworks only come out in all their glory on this day (instead of the 1st day of Chinese New Year as one may have thought), once again a testament to the importance of this day to the Hokkien people in Penang.

Long post, but I hope I’ve shed some light on the festivities of Hokkien New Year. I shall end this post with an image that for me, depicts one of the most memorable things about Chinese New Year – playing mahjong with family and friends. 🙂

The food of Chinese New Year

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).

Counting down to the year of the tiger!

First of all, I need to apologise for not blogging for such a long time – I think it’s been 2 weeks now, yikes! Posted the previous post the day I started my week of night calls, and then it was a mad flurry of shopping for gifts to bring home to Malaysia, then the ‘post coming home’ period of pure sloth… But yes. I have neglected my blog for a while, but I will be good over the next few weeks and bring you some hopefully interesting (and festive) posts about Chinese New Year! 🙂 Am very excited about this year as I haven’t celebrated Chinese New Year at home since I first left for UK 7 years ago.

As most of you probably already know, Chinese New Year is centered around two things – family/friends and food. And when I say food, I truly mean food. You may have already come across the various types of cookies found during this season in the blogosphere (e.g. the ever favourite pineapple tarts, groundnut cookies, kuih bangkit). And believe me when I say that this barely scratches the surface of the variety of cookies you can find during Chinese New Year (a future post).

I decided to make these angku kuih when I was still in London as I had a major craving for them. Angku kuih is a traditional Chinese pastry that has always held a special place in my heart. It has a sticky outer skin, which gives way to a yummy green bean or peanut filling when bitten into. The name “angku kuih” translates into “red tortoise cakes” – traditionally, these kuih are made with a special mold, which gives them a beautiful “tortoise shell” pattern and shape (see here for photos of what this looks like). I didn’t have a mold to hand, which is why my angku kuihs are less pretty to look at!

But as I was saying, this pastry is shaped like the shell of a tortoise as the Chinese believed that eating a pastry in the shape of these creatures with such long lives would subsequently lead to longevity. These kuih (pastries) usually make an appearance during special occasions such as religious events (where they are used as an offering to the various gods), birthdays and first month anniversaries of births of babies. You can get them all year round though, as they are a popular snack. And just to mention something rather interesting – for first month anniversaries, angku kuihs for 1 month old boys are oval in shape, whereas the ones for the girls are round. (Having said that, I have friends who said they didn’t know about this, perhaps it’s a Hokkien thing?)

Angku kuih
Tweaked from this recipe on My Kitchen, who adapted it from

For the skin:

  • 250 grams glutinous rice flour (this is easily available in the London Chinatown)
  • 120 mls hot water
  • 1 tbsp sugar
  • 130 grams of sweet potatoes – steamed and mashed (I used 2 medium sized sweet potatoes)
  • few drops of food colouring (optional) – red and orange are the traditional colours, but feel free to use green or even purple

For the filling:

  • 200 grams green mung beans*
  • 2 tbsp of oil (I used canola oil)
  • 150 grams sugar (I used caster sugar)

You will also need:

  • Banana leaves (cut into rounds/squares to fit each kuih, and lightly greased with oil)

1. Prepare the filling first. Place the mung beans, sugar and oil into a blender and whizz it into a fine paste. Leave to cool, then divide into small round balls (~2cm in diameter).
2. Next, mix all the ingredients for the skin in a large bowl until it forms a soft dough. You don’t need a mixer for this, using your hands works best. If you find that the dough is too dry and it crumbles, add more water (a little at a time) until it no longer crumbles.
3. Divide the skin dough into little rounds of ~3cm in diameter. (I played it by ear when it came to this, so please forgive the rather vague instructions here).
4. Flatten a ball of dough, place the ball of filling in it, and wrap it up (it should form a ball). Place this onto a greased banana leaf. Repeat until all the filling and dough balls are used up.
5. Steam the kuih for 8 minutes. I used a bamboo steamer to do this.
6. Remove the kuih from the steamer, and brush with some oil immediately. This helps to prevent the kuih from sticking to one another (and trust me, it is VERY sticky!). Of course, you do run the risk of getting overexcited brushing too much oil onto the kuihs (as I did) – so remember to be less heavy handed than me when doing this…

*Soak the beans overnight, then steam and mash them. It’s best to get skinned mung beans as it gives you a nicer pale yellow coloured filling. I used mung beans with skins still on, which gave me a “dirtier” looking filling – it doesn’t change the taste in any way though!

Here’s wishing you all Gong Xi Fa Cai – may the year of the tiger bring happiness, health and good food to us all! 🙂