A Diary: Cooking for Chinese New Year in Singapore

Thursday, February 14, 2013

My cooking experiences for this CNY has been all here in Singapore and mostly good. I will keep some cooking and memory notes here so that I can remembered what I did and what we experienced.

Being a Christian, the Christmas festive should of course be a very special one. But there is something unique about Chinese New Year. No, it is not superior to other festivals. I can recall childhood memories of visiting the homes of my Malay school friends during Hari Raya. I could sensed then that the they were just as thrilled during their own festive season.

So, what is so special about CNY? Is it about the Bak Kwa?  Or how we laugh ourselves silly watching the funny HK CNY movies? Cantonese humor is a class of its own. Or being enthralled by the endless kungfu movies (they do not seem to run out of moves)? Is it the sound of fire crackers? And here, I have to say that I miss the noisy CNY atmosphere in Petaling Jaya.

Now, if there is an event which hold memories as far back as I can remember, right to the early years of my life, memories of tradition and family, it can only be CNY. This makes it special: it is a festival where families gather and where traditions and kept and relived.

CNY is special to a Chinese for these reasons. It is about family. It is about the process of traditioning, where we can never forget what made us, the cultural environment which a child grew up in. Every CNY connects us to the past, including memories of some beloved family members who have passed away. It connects us to family customs and traditions. Some were long abandoned, especially when one embraced a new faith. But I am glad much also remain, like ang pows, how we wish one another Kong Hee Fat Choy at the stroke of midnight on the eve, and of course, how family and friend gathered around food.

For this reason, for the Wongs, CNY anywhere else other than our PJ home falls short because that house holds so many memories. Sadly, it is now not always possible to be back in PJ every year.

I have to remember that this is a food blog, or else I can go on endlessly a both family and tradition. But our CNY cuisine is also an essential part of these customs and traditions.

I cook Chai Choy (Lo Han Chaibecause CNY after CNY, my mother did. Har Lok always appear in every CNY because it has become a part of the Wong tradition. We keep making these dishes because of such memories. We remember and we want to.

I made at least three lots of Chai Choy because this is one traditional dish which everyone loves. I had taken some effort to learn it as somehow something is missing if it is not offered during CNY. Wong Bok,  a very ordinary and cheap veg acquires a special status in this dish. In a bowl and with a pair of chopsticks in hand, it is a meal on its own. It can be eaten throughout the day outside of table meal times. I have already blog the recipe with some details on who to to cook it well. Every family has their own way of cooking this and if you are satisfied with yours, stick with your recipe. If you think it can be improved on, by all means, do so, especially for the CNY season.

Har Lok (Fried River Prawns in black bean and ginger sauce) taste different these days for the simple reason that we can hardly get our hands on wildly caught ones. We have to make do with farmed ones, which are not as sweet and the texture is different. They will still be good and I think the one of best ways to cook is to fry it in ginger and black bean sauce. If you cannot find river prawns, it will also be good for other types of large prawns. I have already written a post on how to cook large prawns well. This year I added Thai galangal to the ginger mix and I think it improves the taste.

It does take a few tries to do the Abalone or Treasure dish well, especially the sauce or stock. For this year's, I feel I have finally come up with a satisfying way of making it and it does taste like those we eat in fine dining Chinese restaurants. It pays to master the sauces - superior and normal - as they can go into different dishes. I find it to be a very efficient way of cooking and starting with this paves the way for other quality dishes, something which you want for your CNY line-up. These sauces or stock can "roll" over the CNY season and so, don't throw away leftover sauces.

Another dish worth a mention is Hakka Deep Fried Pork (Char Yoke - cover photo). This time round, I have not given the attention and care in deep-frying it. Marinating it well is not difficult. The skill comes in the deep frying and for this, there is just no short-cut. The oil has one hot enough at the start and it needs to be cleaned (dredged) or refreshed.

Large Angka Prawns: Deep fried and sauced later
Prawns in Butter Sauce made it's debut and I think it is one dish which will be making a more regular appearance in future CNYs. Everyone just loves it. 2 kilo is not enough and this is something I need to keep reminding myself. As it is eaten shell-less, you will be surprise how little 2 kilos of prawns is on a large plate. Prawns freeze well and I need to remember to buy them very early.

I did a batch of Roast Pork (Siew Yoke). There is nothing like fresh roast pork with great crackling skin. I sous vide it at 72C for 6 hours. Then into the fridge uncovered at the top shelf to dry the skin. After this, it is a breeze as all it needs is 20 minutes or so in your oven on high grill. It takes many hours to make this well and only a few minutes on the dining table before it is all gone. :) Remember to buy the right cut. Make sure it is "unbend" when poached so that the block of meat stays straight. I sliced off parts of the bottom after it is Sous Vide to flatten and to ensure a more regular shape.

Lap Mei Fun has yet to nudge its way to the CNY table as there is always so much of other things to eat. In our Strait-influenced cuisine with chillies, spices and all, the delicately flavored Cantonese Lap Mei Fun just don't fit well, unless eaten with other plainer dishes. Well, CNY stretches to 15 days and there may still be time to cook this.

I did have some great corn-fed Anxin Chicken this CNY. They are best eaten steamed with some great singer sauce but on a crowded dining table, they tend to be overshadowed by the other more colorful and spicier dishes. As with dishes of this kind, they are best eaten with plainer accompaniments and the delicate sweet meat  and texture of good chicken can be better appreciated this way.

Curry Chicken is always great, especially when guests are visiting from the 2nd day onwards. I was using Anxin Chicken and everyone just loved it. Good with rice and very good with bread. I enjoyed some hilarious Cantonese comedies with a plate of that and some bread in hand. Perfect.

So, there you go. I am mindful that cooking is a God-given talent and I trust that I am using it to serve others and perhaps inspire some to cook better. And during CNY, it serves so well in enhancing tradition and family. Where there is good food, the family gathers...and remember. Tradition is alive and new ones are being created and passed on.

Pictures are also cooking notes. I will leave some here below. CNY is not over yet. Have fun with your cooking.

Fresh Bamboo - Ready for eating after a 30 minute steam (whole)
Treasure Dish
Lap Cheong from HK

Sambal Belachan to go with Lo Han Chai
Chai Choy
Braising the mushrooms and dried oysters separately 

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  1. Yes, am so inspired by your post! Thanks for sharing!

  2. Perfectly cooked prawns look delicious. I like the presentation style of the food. 

  3. Roasted pork made my mouth watering. I like the list of the menu for the Chinese new year.

  4. is that deep fried pork belly on the first picture of this post?

  5. Yes, it is the Hakka deep fried pork