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In with the old
RED packets; fire crackers and their din; kumquats and their ripeness - what is Chinese New Year without its many symbols? Talismans aside, it is the festive food that resonates the most with Chinese Singaporeans. Locked within them are intimations of luck, prosperity, longevity, and fertility - meanings unchanged over millennia and still as potent and necessary today. But even the food of the gods is not immune to the changes that modern society brings. If you think pencai is the be-all and end-all of auspicious feasting, you've seen nothing yet. Widen your repertoire of symbolic feasting with the following dishes and ingredients that are all the more special for their rarity, quality, craftsmanship and creativity.
DA DI HUI CHUN
Chinese New Year heralds the arrival of spring - the season of new beginnings. The Chinese mark this symbolism by spring-cleaning their homes and donning new clothes, and with auspicious greetings to everyone. When relatives and friends visit, it is good form to serve them a thirst-quenching beverage, along with other festive snacks and foods. Carrie Chen, a Chinese tea aficionado and owner of Tea Bone Zen Mind, would serve her Spring Lychee Oolong blend as a fine contemporary choice for the occasion. The tea is grown in cool conditions 900m above sea level in Tai Chung, Taiwan, and the tea leaves are harvested at the beginning of spring.
Ms Chen says the tea also makes superb chicken soup; its slightly earthy yet fruity oolong flavours subtly enhancing the broth. It makes an elegant start to the reunion meal.
Lychee Oolong Chicken Broth
- Free-range chicken 1, cut into 8 parts
- Water 8 cups
- Salt to taste
- Hua Tiao wine 1 tbsp
- Lychee meatballs
- Minced pork 150 g
- Oyster sauce ½ tsp
- Light soy sauce 1 tsp
- White pepper a dash
- Minced lychee meat 50 g
- Lychees 10, whole
- Lychee meatball: marinate all ingredients, except whole lychee, and mix well. Preferably chill in fridge overnight. Stuff meat into lychee before cooking.
- Simmer chicken with water at around 93°C for 20 minutes.
- Remove chicken.
- Add 8 teabags into chicken stock and simmer for another 15 minutes.
- Remove teabags.
- Add chicken and meatballs and simmer for 5 minutes.
- Pour hua tiao wine and serve soup with superior light soy sauce and wasabi.
BAO LUO WAN XIANG
A must-have at the reunion dinner table, the abalone's 'prestige' and its embodiment of the sentiment "All Good Things Inclusive", give it almost mythical status. The abalone most typically served is direct from the can - something connoisseurs feel detracts from the eating experience. They maintain that the 'candied core' of the abalone - its soft central portion - is most highly prized and only found in premium, dried abalone, mostly of Japanese origin.
Recent advances in food science and processing technologies have circumvented the issue, and ready-made abalone now possess quality equal to that of a high-end Chinese restaurant's. On the market today is a straight-from-the-packet-to-the-dinner-table abalone. The shellfish grows on the volcanic seabed off New Zealand, feeding on marine minerals and the abundant seaweed. Under the strict regulation of local fishing authorities, this wild abalone is hand-harvested by divers.
Leading local Teochew restaurant Huat Kee has jointly developed this new premium delicacy with a New Zealand producer. Huat Kee's abalone features a special recipe that enhances the natural flavour of the shellfish, giving it a touch of Asia; and is available in three sizes starting at around 180g, priced at 40 to 60 cents per gram.
HAO SHI CHNG SHUANG
When it comes to auspicious puns, Cantonese leads the other Chinese dialects. "Oyster" sounds like the word "great", making it naturally another must-have on the celebratory table. The dish most associated with this would be Braised Mushroom with Dried Oyster.
In Hong Kong, another version is preferred. Jin hao or golden oyster is made from big, fresh oysters sun-dried under the dry, cool autumn/winter wind from the north. It takes half a day or two to produce an oyster that is tanned, with a light golden hue, and flesh that is still succulent with intense flavour. It is a seasonal delicacy and because it does not keep well even in a chiller, and is only available for a short period in spring.
Fortunately these oysters have made their way to Singapore in limited numbers. Selected dried good stores like Tan Sum Joo Provision Shop stock them. They are so easy to cook and to serve as an appetizer or prelude to dinner.
Seared Golden Oyster
- Semi-dried oysters 12
- Peanut oil 2 tbsp
- Balsamic vinegar 1 tbsp
- Sugar ½ tsp
- Chinese yellow wine 2 tbsp
- Ginger juice 1 tbsp
- Premium soy sauce 1 tbsp
- Sugar 1 tsp
- Salt ¼ tsp
- White pepper ¼ tsp
- Remove oyster from the bamboo stick carefully.
- Clean the sides of the oyster with a brush under running water.
- Marinate oyster for 10 minutes.
- Steam oyster for 20 minutes.
- Remove oyster and drain thoroughly. Keep the juices aside.
- Slightly brown oyster with peanut oil on both sides. Remove and set aside.
- Using the same pan, reduce oyster juice, balsamic vinegar, and sugar until they thicken. Adjust taste accordingly.
- Toss oyster in the reduction until well mixed.
- Serve immediately.
NIAN NIAN YOU YU
"Abundance with Good Luck" - that is what fish represents in Chinese culture. Singaporean diners celebrate by tossing yusheng, while the Teochew would pay a fortune to eat pei tor or rabbit fish, which is heavy with roe only once a year at Chinese New Year.
In Yangzhou, China, shad is the much-preferred fish and in Jiangsu cuisine, saury, puffer fish, and shad epitomize premium seafood. However, shad has become elusive and expensive due to over harvesting. Like salmon, shad is anadromous. They are born in the fresh water river, migrate to the ocean, then return to spawn. Although shad is notorious for its bones, the meat is robust and sweet. It is usually steamed with the scales on in order to retain the oil.
According to Li Jing, general manager of Supreme Tastes Jiang Nan Cuisine, shad is best savoured at the beginning of spring when its usually prickly bones turn soft, and the fish has fattened itself up before heading back to spawn. Only available through advance reservation, Supreme Tastes Jiang Nan Cuisine serves limited servings of this highly sought after fish in Singapore.
A familiar snack served mostly at weddings and the birth of a child, this fried rice puff stands for fertility among the Teochew. When it comes to Chinese New Year, not only is this snack served to visiting relatives and friends, it is also used as offerings to the heavenly deities in the hope of being blessed with more grandchildren.
Koh Sun Liang is one of the last Teochew traditional pastry makers in Singapore. He begins at six every morning preparing dough and sweet fillings at Sze Thye Cake Shop. By 8am, the 70-year-old master is ready for his first customer.
In the months leading to the lunar new year, life becomes even more hectic for him as he struggles to meet the ever-increasing demand for traditional snacks, both for human consumption and for religious offering.
Starting at 12 years of age, Mr Koh learned his craft of making traditional Teochew pastries and snacks from scratch. Many of the pastries in his shop are handmade; moulds are used for some cakes while others are simply shaped with the fingers. One of the must-haves during Chinese New Year is mi fan.
JIN YU MAN TANG
In the past, Cantonese families would be busy making deep-fried mini peanut puffs for Chinese New Year. These days however they would rely on off-the-shelf commercial versions, as making these tidbits has always been tedious. These mini puffs resemble little wallets and it is believed that the bulkier they are shaped, the more prosperous and bountiful the coming year. Somewhere in the less trodden corners of Chinatown Complex Food Centre sits a stall where hand-made puffs are still on sale.
Mr Pan has been a Chinese pastry roadside hawker for more than 40 years. He sold a traditional Chinese crisp rice sweet cake along Smith Street until urban redevelopment in the early '80s necessitated relocation to the nearby commercial complex.
Only during Lunar New Year would Mr Pan enlist the help of relatives and friends to make the laborious Deep Fried Candied Peanut Puff at Pan Ji Cooked Food. He learnt these recipes from his father who migrated from China. According to Cantonese tradition, the deep-fried candied peanut puff was one of the few snacks that called for deep-frying in the kitchen just before the arrival of the new year - which was good. Deep-frying was considered an auspicious activity because the oil and grease involved served as a 'lubricant', ensuring smooth and unhindered passage through the year ahead.
Giving tradition a contemporary twist, two 20-something Le Cordon Bleu-trained patissiers have taken the Hokkien word "wang lai" or pineapple and given it a trendy interpretation. Wang Lai, meaning "prosperous starts", is traditionally a principal ingredient of pineapple tart, but finds itself incorporated into the éclair, courtesy of Sarah Tan and Michelle Looi from L'éclair by Sarah Michelle. After experimenting with various recipes, the girls found the perfect formula in a version that used premium honey pineapple, cooking it with the actual juice and reducing it to a paste. Like most homemade pineapple, there is a hint of cinnamon giving it a comfort food feeling. Look out for the pineapple curd-like cream that gives a zing to the refreshing flavour.
There are also two more flavours available during the festive season between Jan 27 and Feb 28 - bak gua and sesame seed.
L'ÉCLAIR by Sarah Michelle
190 Clemenceau Avenue
#01-28 Singapore Shopping Centre
Tel: 6635 7909
Pan Ji Cooked Food
Blk 335 Smith Street
#02-078 Chinatown Complex, S 050335
Tel: 9754 9643
Tan Sum Joo Provision Shop
Blk 270 Queen Street
#03-50/54 Albert Centre, S 180270
Tel: 6339 3185
Sze Thye Cake Shop
Blk 2 Beach Road #01-4795, S 190002
Tel: 6337 7010
Supreme Tastes Jiang Nan Cuisine
#02-181/182 Marina Square Shopping Mall, 6 Raffles Boulevard, S 039594
Tel: 6333 4038
Tea Bone Zen Mind
98 Emerald Hill Road, S 229374
Tel: 6334 4212
Teochew Restaurant Huat Kee
30 Orange Grove Road
#02-01 RELC Building, S 258352
Tel: 6423 4747
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