Happy Lunar New Year#WeekendCooking

Happy Year of the Rabbit!

It’s been a busy few days preparing for the Lunar New Year.Spring cleaning is a must. The weekend before, we had vacuumed and cleaned the house, everyone pitching in. On Saturday, we put up some decorations like lanterns and red packets.

But perhaps some of the most important traditions revolve around food. In Singapore, Lunar New Year is a public holiday, at least for the first couple of days of the new year. This means you get to go visiting friends and family. And when people visit your home, you’re supposed to provide different treats and snacks. Common new year treats found in Singapore are:

pineapple tarts

love letters

bakkwa, a kind of grilled pork jerky

kueh bangkit, a crumbly cookie made with tapioca flour and coconut milk

When I was a kid, my mum would also make cookies like peanut cookies and checkerboard cookies. Last year, I posted about enjoying Yusheng in Singapore. This is a vegetable and raw fish salad that’s kinda unique to Singapore and Malaysia. For instance, it’s not easily found here in the Bay Area Chinese restaurants. And so I miss eating it during the new year!

This year, I made Chinese peanut cookies, as well as pork floss and sesame cookies (recipe here). Both cookies are the type that melt in your mouth, so they’re quite small.

It’s not easy being away from our families during these times that are about family and celebration. I often wish that we could go back to visit, so that my kids can get a chance to experience Lunar New Year celebrations too. I guess that’s why I try my best to keep some traditions going, like making new year cookies, even though we don’t have family visiting us!

This year, I also wanted to try making huat kueh or fa gao 发糕, which can be translated to fortune cake. It’s a kind of cupcake that’s steamed. They are often flavoured with brown sugar, but as we love the flavour of pandan leaves, I made this pandan coconut version (recipe here). The green color is from pandan paste. The batter is quite thick.

Steaming it in a pot. Make sure not to lift the lid until the 15 minutes are up.

Our other tradition is always having hotpot for our reunion dinner (tuan yuan fan 团圆饭). This takes place on Lunar New Year eve, and is meant for the family to get together for a meal.

It’s labelled “pudding” but nian gao is really not a pudding. It’s instead a rather firm sweet cake made with rice flour.

The best way to eat it is dip it in flour and beaten eggs, then pan fry it. The nian gao softens with cooking, and is delicious and sweet. I cook this for breakfast for the first couple of days of the new year, for a sweet start to the year.

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Weekend Cooking: Lo Hei and Yu Sheng

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 (Just some of the goodies from Singapore that my Mum brought with her)

Lunar New Year is awesome. Seriously. Especially as a kid growing up in Singapore.

It all starts on Lunar New Year eve where the family gathers for 团圆饭 or reunion dinner. In my family this meant going to my paternal grandparents’ house for a bit steamboat (what we call Hotpot in Singapore) dinner. The kids at one table. The adults at another. And piles of food waiting to be dipped into the hot broth either using the little wire baskets or chopsticks.
And as my grandfather ran a baking goods company, his suppliers/clients would send over massive cakes that night. There would be at least five or six different cakes. From chocolate to durian! All of us got to take home a big slice of each cake for breakfast. There would be a New Year countdown on TV to watch. New pyjamas to wear. And plenty to look forward to the next day, the first day of the New Year.

So why is it awesome? First, new clothes to wear! Second, after wishing people Happy New Year 恭喜发财 (gong xi fa cai) and other lucky greetings, they hand over red packets full of money. Plus visiting different relatives’ and friends’ houses meant a huge variety of snacks right at our fingertips. From delicate cookies like love letters and kueh bangkit to crunchy savory prawn rolls and bakkwa (a grilled pork slice that is both sweet and salty goodness). Sometimes herbal teas and soups or a lovely longan drink would be served. Most often it was cokes or fanta Orange. My sister and I would hang out with our cousins or friends, play games, run around or just watch tv. And of course all this meant we were on holiday from school for at the very least one day.

As a kid, yusheng, a salad with raw fish, didn’t mean much except that it was fun to “lo hei” or toss the salad with chopsticks for good luck. The higher you tossed, the more luck you were supposed to get. Of course that meant when we kids did the tossing, a lot of the food ended up on the table. The only part I enjoyed eating was the little pillow-shaped crackers. The rest was ugh.

But when I got older, I realized how harmonious the dish was. It’s pretty much a salad, full of vegetables like shredded daikon, carrots, pickled ginger and leeks, dressed with plum sauce, sesame oil, five spice powder and other spices. All topped with thinly sliced raw fish, preferably salmon. And ready to toss.

It’s fresh and vibrant. Sometimes a little too brightly colored but it’s for good luck and an impactful presentation so I can overlook that. The flavours are a mix of sweet sour and savoury. The crackers and nuts provide texture and crunch. The ginger provides some heat, the pickles a little crunch and sourness.

When dining out during the Lunar New Year, the waitstaff will offer auspicious sayings as they prepare the salad at the table. For instance, when adding the fish to the dish, nian nian you yu 年年有馀 or may you have abundance. See more here. 

 

My mum bought this ‘prepackaged’ yu sheng from Singapore. It has all the pickles and sauces. The rest, like the carrots and daikon and the raw fish have to be prepared.

 

Sprinkling the five spice powder

Checking the auspicious sayings online!

Ready to toss or ‘lo hei’ – the higher the better

 

The tradition of lo hei and yusheng seems to largely be a Singaporean and Malaysian one. It debuted in Singapore in 1964 and was apparently the creation of four master chefs.

It’s fun for the family – and really yummy to eat too. I was surprised that this packaged one was actually pretty good.

 

 

 

 

After yusheng we had hotpot with lots of vegetables, mushrooms, meat and more.

Then fruits, followed by mango pudding and fried nian gao!

 

Happy New Year!

 

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Weekend Cooking at Beth Fish Reads is open to anyone who has any kind of food-related post to share: Book (novel, nonfiction) reviews, cookbook reviews, movie reviews, recipes, random thoughts, gadgets, quotations, beer, wine, photographs