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. πŸ˜€

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. πŸ˜‰

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! πŸ˜› ) 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! πŸ™‚ 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 kuali.com

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! πŸ™‚

(Not so) red velvet cupcakes

Cupcakes have taken the world by storm, and a flavour that’s right on top of that list is the red velvet cupcake. I remember seeing it on many American food blogs, and being very intrigued by the bright colour. Now, I’m normally not a fan of food colourings, but for some reason red velvet cupcakes are on my list of exceptions. πŸ˜›

I made these cupcakes because I had some leftover chocolate frosting from a birthday cake I baked. I won’t write an individual post about the cake as I have no good photos of it (as I only finished decorating it an hour or so before leaving for dinner, and it had to sit in the fridge to set, and then I had to get dressed…. you get the picture), but I must mention the recipe as it was simple yet very good. I used this yellow cake recipe from Smitten Kitchen, and really liked it. Do remember to use cake flour though, you can add corn flour to plain flour to achieve this.

A quick (and bad) photo of the cake, right before wrapping it up in the foil (which was how I transported it to the restaurant).

Red velvet cupcakes are normally paired with a cream cheese frosting, but I’ve always enjoyed experimenting with flavours…. so I decided to try this to use up the leftover frosting as I’ve never made red velvet cupcakes/cakes before. I have to admit that my red velvet cupcakes looked more like brown velvet cupcakes, as I didn’t use much red food colouring (and what I did use I suspect was expired…), but it still tasted divine though! Just a little less attractive to look at. Just a note – the Hummingbird Bakery Cookbook suggests using Dr Oetker’s “red” food colouring, and not “natural red” or “scarlett” as the latter two makes the cake come out brown.

Red velvet cupcakes
from the Hummingbird Bakery cookbook

(I know the recipe seems ridiculously complicated as there are so many steps, but it’s actually much simpler than it looks)

  • 60 g unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 150 g caster sugar
  • 1 egg
  • 10 g cocoa powder
  • 20 ml red food colouring (preferably Dr. Oetker Red Food Colouring)
  • 1⁄2 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 120 ml buttermilk
  • 150 g plain flour
  • 1⁄2 teaspoon salt
  • 1⁄2 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
  • 11⁄2 teaspoons white wine vinegar

1. Preheat the oven to 170Β°C.

2. Put the butter and the sugar in a stand mixer with a paddle attachment (or use a handheld electric whisk) and beat on medium speed until light and fluffy and well mixed.

3. Turn the mixer up to high speed, slowly add the egg and beat until everything is well incorporated.

4. In a separate bowl, mix together the cocoa powder, red food colouring and vanilla extract to make a thick, dark paste.

5. Add the food colouring mixture to the butter mixture and mix thoroughly until evenly combined and coloured (scrape any unmixed ingredients from the side of the bowl with a rubber spatula).

6. Turn the mixer down to slow speed and slowly pour in half the buttermilk. Beat until well mixed, then add half the flour, and beat until everything is well incorporated. Repeat this process until all the buttermilk and flour have been added.

7. Scrape down the side of the bowl again.

8. Turn the mixer up to high speed and beat until you have a smooth, even mixture.

9. Turn the mixer down to low speed and add the salt, bicarbonate of soda and vinegar. Beat until well mixed, then turn up the speed again and beat for a couple more minutes.

10. Spoon the mixture into the paper cases until two-thirds full and bake in the preheated oven for 20–25 minutes, or until the sponge bounces back when touched. A skewer inserted in the centre should come out clean.

11. Leave the cupcakes to cool slightly in the tray before turning out onto a wire cooling rack to cool completely.

12. When the cupcakes are cold, spoon or pipe the frosting onto the cupcakes. I topped the chocolate frosting with chocolate shavings (more leftovers from the cake), and the peanut butter ones with crushed amaretti biscuits (as I didn’t have any peanuts to hand).

 

Chocolate frosting
Adapted from Smitten Kitchen, who adapted it from The Dessert Bible
Makes 5 cups of frosting (to frost and fill a two layer 8-9 inch cake) – I think you’d probably need 1/3 of this amount for these cupcakes

  • 15 ounces semisweet or bittersweet chocolate, chopped (I use Green & Black’s)
  • 3-4 teaspoons mixed berry jam (I use Bonne Maman)
  • 2 1/4 cups sour cream, at room temperature
  • 1/4 cup icing sugar
  • 3/4 teaspoon vanilla extract

1. Put chocolate in a heatproof bowl over simmering water, and stir until chocolate is melted. Remove from the heat and let chocolate cool. (Alternatively, you can melt the chocolate in the microwave for 30 seconds, stirring well, and then heating in 15 second increments, stirring between each until the chocolate is melted.) – I prefer the double boiler method as I find it’s easier to accidentally burn your chocolate when using a microwave. Maybe it’s just me though.

2. Whisk the sour cream, icing sugar and vanilla extract until combined. (I used the paddle attachment on my stand mixer.)

3. Add the cooled chocolate slowly, and mix on medium speed (or with a spatula) until mixture is uniform.

4. Let the frosting cool in the refrigerator until it is of a spreadable consistency. This should not take more than 30 minutes. Should the frosting become too thick or stiff, just leave it out until it softens again.

 

Peanut butter frosting

  • 1 cup peanut butter (either crunchy or creamy, depending on what you prefer)
  • 1 cup light cream cheese
  • 1/4-1/2 cup icing sugar
  • 1 teaspoon lemon juice

1. Mix peanut butter and cream cheese in a stand mixer fitted with the balloon whisk, until well combined. Alternatively, mix with a hand held mixer.

2. Add icing sugar to the mixture, and mix. Feel free to add in more icing sugar if you prefer a sweeter frosting.

3. Lastly, add the lemon juice and whisk/mix the frosting for about 1 minute.

4. The frosting should then be ready to use, but if it does get too runny, place it in the fridge to let it thicken.

(Please note that you won’t be able to pipe the frosting if you use crunchy peanut butter due to the nut pieces which get stuck in the nozzle – which is what I learnt when I tried to pipe it!)

Cucur udang/Prawn fritters

Being Malaysian, I have an innate love for food. One of my Chemistry teachers from England once paid us Malaysian students a visit, and commented that the national hobby seemed to be eating. And I have to say there is some truth in that. πŸ˜›

Cucur udang (prawn fritters) is one of those snacks most Malaysians grow up on, and is one of my favourite foods. I still remember my Mum cooking these in the kitchen, with me hovering anxiously in the back, ‘stealing’ a fritter (or two) from the plate the moment they were taken out of the pan. Things haven’t changed, as I found myself sneaking a few of these in the process of cooking….

This is a simple and easy dish to whip up for a lazy weekend snack, as it only takes about 30-40 minutes to prepare and cook.

Cucur udang/Prawn fritters
Based on this recipe from Foodilicious

  • 250g self raising flour
  • 2-3 red chillis, seeded and thinly sliced
  • 3 spring onions, thinly sliced
  • 1 can corn niblets/kernels (I used a small can of Green Giant corn niblets, ~1 cup)
  • 200g fresh prawns, roughly diced
  • pinch salt
  • pinch white pepper
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 egg
  • (optional) pinch tumeric – for colour
  • chilli sauce, to serve

1. Mix flour, salt and pepper (and tumeric, if using). Add egg to flour mixture, followed by the water, and mix well.
2. Add spring onions, chilli, corn, and prawns to the mixture.
3. Heat about 1 cm of oil in a non-stick pan for shallow frying (a deep pan is preferable to prevent splatters). Alternatively, heat 2-3cm of oil in the pan if you prefer to deep fry the mixture. (Deep frying gives a crispier prawn fritter, of course).
4. Drop the cucur udang mixture into the oil, 1/4 cup at a time. I usually cook 3 at a time in my 28cm pan (crowding will result in mishapen and un-golden cucurs!)
5. Cook for approximately 2 minutes on each side, till golden brown. Remove with slotted spoon onto a kitchen towel/paper to soak up excess oil.
6. Serve with chilli sauce, and enjoy!