An initiation into nobility

This has got to be the best reunion dinner we have had all these years for Chinese New Year. The restaurant was well-lit and spacious, the food was not only tasty but they were also very fresh — the prawn shells actually stuck to their flesh which meant they were really fresh. From the way the yusheng was topped off with fried enoki mushroom to the sharksfin being presented in fragrant young coconut shells to the skeletal pomfret looking like a piece of art to the glutinous rice and abalone being served in baby pumpkins, each dish tasted as good as they looked. To end the evening, we had a choice of two desserts, mochi and glutinous rice balls and aloe vera with dried longan. It was truly a meal to remember and so very appropriate as a reunion dinner meal for Chinese New Year.

I did a CNY series last year for 15 days of the Chinese New Year, beginning with the Eve. You are welcomed to view the series again. In it, I talked about why certain foods are served during Chinese New Year and what they represent. For convenience, I have linked the series here by day again. I suggest you view them by the day, rather than all at once.

Day 1, Day 2, Day 3, Day 4, Day 5, Day 6, Day 7, Day 8, Day 9, Day 10, Day 11, Day 12, Day 13, Day 14, Day 15.

The food that was served during the reunion dinner was served with a certain purpose in mind — to usher in wealth, family unity, goodwill and success in all our endeavours. So, here’s wishing all my readers, Chinese or otherwise, a Happy (Chinese) New Year to one and all! May you be blessed with wealth, health and may you prosper in every way!

This restaurant was voted the best restaurant in 2013 by Time Out Kuala Lumpur Food Awards. It serves Cantonese food.

NOBLE MANSION,
P1-01, Level 1 Podium, Plaza 33,
No. 1 Jalan Kemajuan, Seksyen 13, 46200 Petaling Jaya,
Selangor Darul Ehsan.
Tel: 03-7932 3288, 03-7960 8992.

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Seared fresh salmon on the yusheng

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Adding in the sachets of spices.

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The whole dish was topped off with small bits of fried enoki mushroom which was very creative.

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Yusheng, after it had all been tossed and mixed.

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Sharks’ fin soup in a young coconut. The fragrance of the coconut was lovely. Apart from drinking the soup, one could also eat the coconut flesh if one wanted to. A novel way of serving traditional soup.

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Young suckling pig skin minus the meat. We don’t know where the meat went to. Underneath the skin were fresh mushrooms. Without the meat, it meant that we were not quite that full. I wonder what they did to the meat and we didn’t ask either.

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The skeletal pomfret that looked like a piece of art.

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Drunken prawns that were so fresh that the shells stuck to the flesh! On the menu, it read Tiger Prawns. But these prawns did not look like tiger prawns at all.

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Glutinous rice with abalone served in baby pumpkins. Another novel way of serving.

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Mochi and rice balls with sesame seeds.

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Aloe vera with fungus and bits of dried longan

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CNY series: On the fifteenth (and last) day of New Year…tang yuen and chap go mei

On the fifteenth day of New Year my mama said to me
15. tang yuen and chap go mei

A few events take place on the last day of the New Year. One is chap go mei where people light up lanterns. One legend has it that a beautiful crane of the Jade Emperor flew down to earth and it was slaughtered by villagers. In his fury, the Jade emperor wanted to destroy the entire village. The emperor’s daughter took pity on the villagers and warned them. A wise man from another village suggested to the villagers to make and light up red lanterns, set up bonfires and set off firecrackers on the last three days of the new year. When the Jade Emperor’s troops descended from heaven, they saw the village ablaze and reported accordingly to the emperor. Disaster was averted. Hence on the last day of the New Year, firecrackers are lit and lanterns are made and lit as well a part of the celebrations. This day is not to be confused with the Mid-Autumn Festival later on in the year, which is also known as the Lantern Festival.

Fireworks were a big part of my CNY celebrations when I was growing up (the next highlight after hong bao collection) and the 15th day was the last day I could play with them. And play, I certainly did. The street we lived on was converted to fireworks street on certain nights. We would line or pile up our fireworks and take our turns firing them off into the night sky. The fireworks ranged from plain sparklers to shooting lights, to popping balls of fire that would break out into little droplets or form a flower in the sky, to spinners and everything in between. Some would be handheld and others placed on flat surfaces before being fired off. I remember on one occasion, a firework misfired and came at me instead of shooting off into the sky. I ducked in time to save my face! Whew! There was always a risk of fire and reports of houses being burnt down as a result of fireworks were not unheard of. After a few years, fireworks were banned. Today, fireworks are set off at the beginning and end of CNY in a controlled manner, usually as part of a very large celebration. It’s nowhere nearly as fun as holding it and experiencing the trepidation that it might explode in your hand when lit — adding to the thrill.

For most families, however, chap go mei is more like a second family reunion where the focus is again on family togetherness and food. Lighting of lanterns is not common in Malaysia and Singapore and is usually left to the Mid-Autumn Festival when the celebration is longer.

The moon is also supposed to be perfectly ‘full’ or round on that day, and many people eat sweet dumplings on the day.It is also a family affair as the dumplings in a bowl symbolises family togetherness.

Tang yuen is also eaten at the onset of winter when Chinese families in China reunite to celebrate the winter Dongzhi Festival (winter solstice), usually around the December period . The dumplings made then can be sweet or savoury, unlike during CNY when it is only sweet. On that day, everybody is considered a year older as under the Zhao Dynasty, that was their new year day and the tradition continued. The winter celebration however, is not well-known nor common in Singapore and Malaysia, unlike CNY and the Mid-Autumn Festival.

Lastly, it is also the first of two Valentine celebrations in the year. The 15th day was supposedly the only day that young maidens could dress up and walk out of their homes, albeit still chaperoned, to admire the many lit lanterns. The boys would also walk out, under the pretense of looking at lanterns but in fact, it was to look at the beautifully adorned young ladies. Mandarin oranges would be thrown into the river with messages on them and hopeful lads would fish out the oranges further down stream, with the hope that he has found the love of his life. It was said that the sweetness or sourness of the orange was also an indication of the sweetness or sourness of the impending relationship.

On this day, it is not uncommon for single ladies to write their mobile numbers, name and New Year wishes and throw them into bodies of water where the festivities are held, in the hope that a young man further along (with a fishing net, no less) would pick up the Mandarin and give them a call. Though not all are looking for love, many throw oranges into water as part of the festivities. This year, the western Valentine’s Day is within CNY as well. In some countries, lanterns were designed in the shape of hearts and they were on sale before the 15th day of CNY.

This brings us to the end of this series. Thank you for reading. Xin Nian Kuai Le! Wan Shi Ru Yi! Happy New Year! May all go well for you!

Tang yuen from:

Dessert Story, Hougang Avenue 10, #02-18, Singapore 538766. Tel: 6387 6620.

Ji De Chi, 63 Jurong West Central 3, #03-102/103/104 Jurong Point 2 Shopping Centre. Tel: 67948887.

This is known as tang yuen and is usually eaten on the last day of CNY. These ones are sesame seed ones in ginger syrup soup. These are from Dessert Story.

Pink peanut paste and white sesame paste tang yuen at Ji De Chi, Jurong Point. This is a nice place for Hong Kong type desserts.

Mango sago pomelo from Ji De Chi, Jurong Point as well.

Glass jelly and sea coconut, also from Ji De Chi. This too was nice.

CNY series: On the fourteenth day of New Year…long life noodles and jiao zhi

On the fourteenth day of New Year my mama said to me

14. long life noodles and jiao zhi

Noodles are very popular among Asians not just because of their taste but because they are symbolic of long life. The longer the noodles, the better. For most important events in a person’s life like birthdays and weddings, noodles are served.

For CNY, different types of noodles — egg, rice, beans and wheat — are cooked differently depending on location, climate and dialect group of the people enjoying them. The plate of noodles featured here, Ee-fu noodles, is served with mushroom, chives and bean sprouts. This is not an overly expensive dish but very satisfying (albeit carbohydrate/calories heavy). On other occasions, the noodles may be served with meat or prawns.

Another common food is jiao zhi. It took me a while to find the jiao zhi. To do that, I had to go to a Chinese restaurant that served China Chinese food and not Cantonese food (to do my China Chinese friends who are not Cantonese, justice). In the end, the place that was most convenient, location-wise, was Lao Beijing. One can’t go too wrong with a restaurant name like that. It was my first time there and I have to say that they serve pretty good Chinese food. We tucked into our chives and pork dumpling and ate them with vinegar and sliced ginger (the way the Chinese eat their jiao zhi). That was our only order that evening. The skin was thicker than the Japanese gyoza skin and the filling was rather tasty and hearty. The difference between gyoza (the Japanese got this dish from the Chinese) and the Chinese ones is the thickness of their skin. The Chinese like to make their own skins by hand and they are slightly thicker and more chewy. The Japanese have kind of perfected their gyoza skin to a certain thickness (across the country, like they are efficient with most things in Japan) and so their skins tend to be more mass produced and consistent. The Koreans also have their own dumplings and they too tend to make their skin by hand. And yes, they celebrate the lunar new year with dumplings as well.

One time, I was confused about the dumplings and asked for vinegar and ginger for my gyoza in a Japanese restaurant. They didn’t have them at all and I asked them why, forgetting that the Japanese do not eat their gyoza with vinegar and ginger. I have since updated my dumpling database. There are also many types of frozen dumplings as they are very popular. The dumplings may also be fried.

The reason why dumplings are served for CNY is because they resemble gold ingots. Some people even put a coin in one or two of the dumplings and it becomes a game that people play, i.e. find the coin in the jiao zhi, a reminiscence of the olden days. Dumpling making is also a common CNY tradition practised by many Chinese in China especially as preparation for their family reunion dinner on the eve of the Lunar New Year, which is celebrated before the 15 days.

Braised ee-fu noodles from Yu Zhen Xiao Chu, Hougang Mall #02-24, 90 Hougang Avenue 10, S(538766). Tel: 6387 9968.

Tea and Jiao zhi from Lao Beijing, Plaza Singapura #03-01, 68 Orchard Road, Singapore 238839. Tel: 6738 7207. (Lao Beijing has outlets internationally so readers from outside of Singapore may locate one and try their dumplings. The jiao zhi is served all year round, not just at CNY. Some readers may be curious enough to make some on their own. There is a Polish blogger who wrote down step by step how to make Korean dumplings here. I found the steps clear and easy to follow. One can get the tofu, vermicelli(white looking noodles) and kimchi from a local Asian grocer store. Kimchi is spicy so go easy on how much you want to put in your dumpling. If you are unsure of the noodles to get, download the picture to your smartphone and show that to the grocer at your Asian store and ask them for that item or a similar item to it if that particular one is not available.)

Braised ee-fu noodles with mushroom, chives and bean sprouts. These egg noodles are usually served at Chinese wedding banquets.

This is ‘sang mee’, egg noodles that are commonly found in Malaysia. The name of the noodles sounds like ‘live’ or ‘alive’. This noodle was made by a friend of mine and she ate it with a selection of other dishes.

Ginger slices in vinegar.

Chives and pork jiao zhi. The greenish looking dumpling is the one with the chives. The pink looking one is made from pork.

Inside the jiao zhi.

Flower buds, herb slices, red dates, wolfberries, dried prunes and rock sugar. They looked really nice. All the ingredients were pretty, fragrant and sweet for guests to have a pleasant tea experience. The sweetness is especially for CNY, where one wishes for sweetness in the year.

The cup of tea is ready.

CNY series: On the thirteenth day of New Year…nian gao

On the thirteenth day of New Year my mama said to me

13. Nian gao

Nian gao is sticky rice pudding that has been mixed with sugar, Chinese dates, chestnuts and wrapped in lotus or banana leaf (depending on which country one is in). The item is usually offered to the kitchen god (to those who practise such beliefs) in the hope that the stickiness would cause the mouth of the god to be sticky and limit its report to only the good and leave out the bad when it visits heaven.

The words also sound like ‘every year go up’ or being promoted every year. The pudding is eaten either steamed or sliced and fried with an egg batter. When I was young, I looked forward to eating the fried version as I liked the crunchiness of the egg batter outside and the sticky gooey taste on the inside. I do not seem to see this a lot in Singapore generally, e.g. in supermarkets and shops, except maybe in Chinatown. I used to eat this only once a year. This is eaten by the Chinese in several countries and is not unique to this region.

Malaysia Boleh, #03-28 Jurong Point 2, 63 Jurong West Central 3. The stall that sold the nian gao pieces was located near the entrance.

Photo courtesy of a friend.

A piece of nian gao coated with batter and fried. It was crunchy on the outside and sticky on the inside. As this was commercially sold as a snack, it seemed overfried in oil that had been used for frying many times over. It was crunchy but not the best way to eat this (because of the oil) though some people like this because of the extra crunch. Some people eat nian gao between fried yam and tapioca slices. Home-fried nian gao the way I used to have it growing up is still the best.

This pic is contributed by a friend in Hong Kong. The nian gao slices are lightly coated with egg batter and fried. This is the home-fried version.

My same friend in Hong Kong decided to try frying the nian gao again a second time as it was a little light the first time. This time, it is perfect! It looks just like the way I used to have it when I was growing up. Some things do not change and that’s nice to know in a time and age where change has become a constant.

 

CNY series: On the twelfth day of New Year…lotus root

On the twelfth day of New Year my mama said to me

12. lotus roots

Lotus roots, lin ngau, in Cantonese, sounds like ‘every year have’ or abundance every year. This was usually made as a soup with soft pork bones and octopus. This is an inexpensive dish and healthy as well. Lotus roots can also be sliced and fried as a snack or sweetened as a candy. This is one of my favourite vegetables.

A friend of mine said that the fibre in the root also symbolises relationships that are not easily cut. Another interpretation of the root is success in any new ventures or business or that the venture will take root and grow. Still one more interpretation of the use of this root is to keep an open mind (represented by holes in the root) to new ideas. This soup is not unique to just Singapore and Malaysia but is also served in Hong Kong.

I love this root simply for its crunch, whether in a soup or fried as a snack. When cooking this, it has to be soaked in water once the skin has been scraped off to prevent it from turning black.

Soup Restaurant, 90 Hougang Ave 10, #02-21 Hougang Mall S(538766). Tel: 6386 6188

The lotus roots are cut up. This is also a fibrous vegetable.

A bowl of lotus root soup. This soup is also cooked with octopus.

CNY series: On the eleventh day of New Year…wafers, seeds and nuts

On the eleventh day of New Year my mama said to me
11. wafers, seeds and nuts

Love letters are one of the most popular wafers during CNY. It is eaten only during CNY as it is difficult to make. This is a peranakan snack and is also known as kueh kapek or flattened cake(wafer). There is nothing really symbolic about it except perhaps for the ingredients of rice flour and eggs (among other ingredients) and the mold with Chinese characters that the batter is poured into. Because of the tediousness in making it, this is usually only made during CNY. Its close cousin, the rolled up version, is called kueh belanda, which means Dutch cake (wafer). The origins of this recipe is believed to be from the Dutch when they occupied Indonesia who in turn introduced it into Malaya in the past. Three other snacks — kueh bangkit (made from tapioca flour), honeycomb wafers (made from corn flour) and kueh baulu also made from tapioca flour — are also commonly eaten during CNY.

Dried melon seeds, symbolic of fertility, are commonly served and eaten during CNY. These seeds are common among Chinese everywhere. The seeds are dried, packaged and sold. Some seeds have preservatives on them so that they have a longer shelf life. Some companies would say that their seeds are preservative-free as a marketing strategy, to draw customers to their presumably healthier products. I liked the white melon seeds more than the black ones as they were easier to eat.

Nuts, especially peanuts, are linked to longevity. They are usually served with their shells though many are made into peanut cookies as well. I am nuts about nuts so this is one of my favourite snacks as well.

Dried white and black melon seeds. This is symbolic of fertility.

Peanuts with their shells on.

Peanut cookies. Photo, courtesy of a friend who baked them.

I grew up on White Rabbit sweets. When I found these at the supermarket, I was quite glad until I realised that these have red beans in them and are not the White Rabbit brand though they look similar. The sweets are wrapped in paper-thin rice paper that are eaten along with the sweets.

Kueh baulu

Love letters that are rolled up. This is called kueh belanda and not kueh kapek though in English, they are both known by the same name.

I didn’t know this was kueh bangkit until I tasted it. Made from tapioca flour, this is traditionally white in colour with a red dot and not brown and glazed like this with sesame seeds. But times may have changed and the cookies too.

I am so pleased to finally be able to add this picture, courtesy of another friend, to show some more CNY goodies. In the left tray, on the top, we have pineapple tarts. The white (or creamy) looking cookies next to the tarts are kueh bangkit. They are usually white. The little rolls in the middle are prawn rolls, also commonly served in Singapore and Malaysia during CNY. In the right tray, the triangle-looking things are kueh kapek (or love letters), an old favourite. The cashew-shaped cookies on the top are cashew nut cookies. Several of the cookies here are a result of peranakan influence.

CNY series: On the tenth day of New Year…fish

On the tenth day of New Year my mama said to me
10. a whole fish

Fish is another auspicious animal in Chinese culture because of the homophone of the word. Fish, in Mandarin (it has the same sound in Mandarin) and most Chinese dialects, is very similar in sound to abundance. The expression, nian nian you yu in Mandarin means every year there is leftover (as a result of abundance). Many even cut and fold red packets in the shape of a fish as part of CNY decor to symbolise abundance.

Fish has to be eaten steamed and whole; no frying is allowed even if one prefers fried fish. A fish is usually served on its side, though most restaurants serve large fish standing upright as it looks more presentable. But traditionally, fish is served whole and on its side and most homecooked fish is served that way. The fish has to be freshwater fish as well. When the side that is facing up has been eaten, the bone is then removed and the next side may be eaten. Depending on how superstitious one is and whether one lives near the sea, a fish is never flipped because fishermen believe that their boats would flip or turn over in the water, a sign of bad luck or something unpleasant happening when they go to sea. Some city folks do not hold on to that belief and the fish is flipped rather than deboned as it is easier to eat.

fish

Steamed fish on its side. Photo, courtesy of a friend.

Fish that is served at a restaurant. It is ‘standing’ upright. Photo, courtesy of another friend.

A hong bao that has been cut and designed into the shape of a fish. It is hung on a bamboo plant which is also considered auspicious and is known for its hardiness and longevity. Bamboo plants are evergreen even in winter.

CNY series: On the ninth day of New Year…seafood

On the ninth day of New Year my mama said to me
9. lobster, scallop and abalone

I love homecooked meals and especially when it is done by the best cook in the family! No, it’s not me. For dinner, we had high-value items which are usually eaten this time of the year. The first dish was broccoli and scallops. The scallops were actually brought back from overseas as someone we knew was travelling. So the price was less and the taste was more! To my North American readers, the seafood from your part of the world were simply yummilicious! Broccoli flowers were used because they were green and plentiful (flower wise), hence symbolic of  ‘ever abounding’. The scallops symbolised wealth. So the combination was symbolic of riches in abundance. The ingredients may be mixed with other ingredients or each other. It doesn’t really matter. Both are good in their own right.

The lobster is also symbolic of a few things. Firstly, the red symbolises good fortune, especially during CNY. Next, it is huge like a dragon prawn or shrimp. The lobster from North America was about a metre in length, including the whiskers! Talk about huge! For these reasons, lobsters are considered auspicious for CNY.It was boiled and cooked in tomato sauce with tomato and cucumber and placed on lettuce.

The third dish consisted of abalone, sea cucumber, Chinese dried mushrooms and dried beancurd. This dish was not eaten on the same day as the top two, nor was it cooked entirely the Cantonese way though the ingredients in the food were auspicious across dialect groups. I am featuring it here as this post is about auspicious seafood during CNY. Incidentally, these seafood are also eaten at other times of the year and not just during CNY. They may or may not be eaten together on the same day.

Scallops with broccoli

Lobster with vegetables in tomato sauce, placed on a generous helping of lettuce.

Abalone, sea cucumber, Chinese dried mushrooms, dried beancurd skin and leeks cooked in a stew (at Soup Restaurant).

CNY series: On the eighth day of New Year…dragon’s meat

On the eighth day of New Year my mama said to me

8. bits of long yuk

I was told of a story about a man visiting London and he was talking about dragon tongue. His friend was curious and asked to see it. So the man took out a slice of red meat and showed it to his friend. The man was brave enough to take a bite, to see what it tasted like. Not detecting anything unusual about the taste, the man finally told his friend that it was just meat that had been marinated beforehand and then barbequed. The friend took the joke good-naturedly and laughed it off.

Why is it called dragon tongue? Well, perhaps it’s another play of words. Among Cantonese (in Malaysia), the word ‘long yuk’ sounds like ‘loong yuk’ (dragon meat) and to make it more fascinating, someone coined the expression ‘dragon tongue’. But this was meant more as a joke.

I remember having one slice of meat, if I was able to get a full slice, or I would put bits and pieces of the meat between two pieces of white bread for breakfast. That would be my treat. I was only allowed one slice a day because my mama didn’t want me to get a sore throat the next day. In the old days, nitrates were used in the marinating process and with the meat being barbequed or grilled, a sore throat was almost a guaranteed result if one ate too many pieces. But because they were so nice to eat, they were also irresistable. Today, nitrates are no longer used so readers can breathe a sigh of relief.

Long yuk (what the Cantonese in Malaysia call it) or bakkwa (in Hokkien) is basically minced or thinly sliced pork, marinated with sauces and then grilled over a fire. Because sugar is added to the meat to sweeten it, it is also high in calories plus it is grilled, resulting in it being ‘heaty’, i.e. your body has to work very hard to get rid of the toxin that comes from the burnt bits, so eat this in moderation. Chicken meat may also be used. In the olden days, the meat was sun-dried before it was grilled over a fire.

The process of making bakkwa is thought to be a way of preserving meat and is very similar to pork jerky. There are about 180 to 200 calories in a slice (or about 400 calories per 100g) depending on how much sugar has been added into the mixture. The terms yuk kuhn and ruo gan are its terms in Cantonese (Hong Kong) and Mandarin respectively. In Singapore, it’s most commonly known as bakkwa.

Several shops in Singapore and Malaysia specialise in making this meat and pre-CNY, prices are increased and the shops do a roaring business selling this. Nowadays there are derivations of the meat as well to include the spicy and sambal flavours. The meat does not keep for very long, so finish it as soon as you can. Years ago, the pieces were kept out in containers for a few days and they were still edible. Today, we keep our meat slices in the fridge and reheat them in the oven as they tend to go mouldy. Reheating them means that we have to be careful not to burn them. They do taste nice after being reheated again, like they have just come fresh off the grill.

I couldn’t work out why this made it to the must-have list for CNY but it is hugely popular during CNY especially, more than at any other time in the year. Probably the fact that it is reddened and sweetened (before it is baked or grilled) has something to do with it. To make things red (red is auspicious) and to sweeten them are good practices during CNY (never mind the calories). Because of its popularity during CNY, the prices go up but that has not stopped the long queues. Some people resort to making their own because of the price and it is probably healthier too.

Slices of long yuk or bakkwa (depending on which dialect you are more comfortable with). They are usually made of pork or chicken though there are now more premium pieces which fetch higher prices. To make a slice go further, it may be cut into smaller pieces.

CNY series: On the seventh day of New Year…a whole chicken

On the seventh day of New Year my mama said to me
7. a whole chicken

One of the important traditions of CNY is to serve a whole chicken. It has to be whole and not halved or in pieces though of course one has to chop up the chicken before it is consumed. The chicken is also usually steamed, not roasted, to symbolise purity. The idea of a whole chicken — along with head and feet as well — symbolises family unity and togetherness. In family togetherness, no one is to be left out.

For more aesthetics reasons however, the head of the chicken is sometimes left out, as is its clawed feet. Chicken steamed with dark sauce tastes better than the white steamed one, so there are changes to this practice as well. The idea of serving a whole chicken to symbolise family togetherness is still practised by many families celebrating the new year. The fowl is also more easily obtainable than some of the more pricey new year foods and goes a lot further as a dish than the expensive food items.

This is steamed white chicken. This picture is courtesy of a friend of mine. The more common practice is steamed white chicken to symbolise purity.

This chicken was served whole first, before it was eventually chopped up. This is the dark soy sauce version.