Chinese New Year is fast approaching in all its celebratory glory, heralding the start of a season of feasting. While many people will choose to head to restaurants to celebrate their annual reunion dinner, others will opt to cook family-style meals at home instead.
But what if you could bridge that divide and cook a restaurant-style Chinese dish in the comfort of your home?
Here, two chefs give you the opportunity to do just that, by sharing recipes for their signature Chinese New Year dishes and offering guidance and advice on how to nail each dish.
Chef Tan Kim Weng, executive chef, Yen at the W Kuala Lumpur
The soft-spoken, incredibly well-mannered Tan specialises in Cantonese and Szechuanese cuisine and has been a chef for 29 years, so you could say he knows a thing or two about Chinese food. In 2017, Tan even won the Scripps Network Asian Cuisine Chef of the Year Regional award at the World Gourmet Summit 2017.
Having always prioritised customers’ needs, Tan says he has noticed that there is an increasing trend of people wanting to mix and match their Chinese food, with many keen to incorporate spicier offerings into their meals. Which is why he came up with the CNY dish of Szechuan-style poached star grouper fish with preserved vegetables and green peppercorn, a perfectly-balanced spicy dish loaded with tender pieces of fish and accentuated by sharp mouthfuls of peppercorn – just enough to titillate the tastebuds without assasinating your tongue in the process.
“I would say the spice level is 6/10, which is the level that most people can accept. We cannot do it very, very spicy until your tongue is numb,” he says, referring to the famous Szechuan mala sauce that literally translates to tongue-numbing.
The dish also has an auspicious quality to it as fish is an especially important part of CNY celebrations, as the Mandarin word for fish is yu, which means extending the wealth. The traditional holiday greeting of Nian nian you yu literally means abundance and prosperity every year.
For home cooks endeavouring to add this wonderfully spicy offering to their CNY reunion dinner table, Tan has a few tips to offer. “Select good dried chillies for this dish. Look at the size of the chillies, don’t select small ones and choose bright coloured chillies. You will need to pay attention to these things because sometimes shops keep the chillies for too long, so if you choose old chillies, there will be no oomph in your dish in the end,” he says.
Another dish that Tan has introduced at his restaurant is braised Ningbo rice cakes with pickled vegetables and king prawns. The dish features delicate slices of rice cakes, which have soaked up all the rich flavours in the dish and are tender with an addictively chewy bite.
Ningbo rice cakes originate from the city of Ningbo in China, and are called nian gao locally. The glutinous rice cakes are a common feature during CNY, because they are equated with raising oneself each year.
“When people eat this, they believe that their lifestyle level will be raised every year. That’s why traditionally, Shanghai people will celebrate the new year with these rice cakes. In Malaysia, some restaurants are starting to do it, so it is now a trendier dish, which is why we purposely made it for Chinese New Year,” says Tan.
To get the texture of the rice cakes just perfect, Tan advises home cooks to spend time making sure the rice cakes are cooked well.
“You have to take a bit of time to cook the ningbo, because it has a very flat taste, it’s made from glutinous rice, so you have to make sure it absorbs the seasoning and really soaks in the flavours. Take your time doing this,” he says.
Tan also says home cooks who are unable to find the original Ningbo rice cakes can replace them with Korean rice cakes instead, as they share a similar texture.
Ultimately, Tan says he believes these two dishes are easy for home cooks to recreate for CNY and will be nice new additions to the family table, in keeping with a growing demand for different Chinese fare during the festive period.
“They are easy to make and the taste goes very well during the CNY season, so you can mix-and-match with your usual home-cooked dishes,” says Tan.
SZECHUAN-STYLE STAR GROUPER WITH PRESERVED VEGETABLES AND PEPPERCORN
Serves 3 to 4
For the chicken stock
1.6 kg chopped chicken pieces
2 slices thick ginger
2 green spring onions
10g longan meat
250g boneless star grouper fish fillet (can be replaced with pomfret)
salt to taste
white pepper to taste
1 tsp Chinese wine
1 tsp corn starch
For making the spicy oil
4 tbsp cooking oil
10 dried chillies, soaked
10 Szechuan peppercorn
For cooking together
2 tbsp cooking oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tsp ginger, minced
1 stalk spring onion, chopped
1 1/2 tbsp Szechuan chilli bean paste
10 dried chillies, soaked
2 tbsp hot bean sauce
400ml homemade chicken stock
30g fresh shiitake mushrooms, sliced
40g preserved vegetables
30g leeks, sliced
salt to taste
2 tsp Szechuan green peppercorn
3 Szechuan round red peppercorn
2 tbsp spicy oil
a sprig of coriander leaves, for garnish
To make the chicken stock
In a large pot, add water. Put the chopped chicken pieces in, boil for 1 minute and immediately remove the chicken and drain.
In a stockpot, add ginger, green onions, longan meat and chicken and add water to cover chicken (just an inch over the chicken). Boil for 1 minute, then lower the heat and simmer for 1 hour. Remove chicken and set stock aside.
Slice the fish fillet diagonally and marinate with all the marination ingredients. Set aside.
To make the spicy oil, add oil in a wok and fry dried chilli and Szechuan pepper over low heat until fragrant (do not burn them). Chop peppers coarsely when cooled. Set spicy oil aside.
In a wok, heat up oil and fry garlic, ginger and spring onions. Add Szechuan chilli bean paste, dried chillies and hot bean sauce and stir to incorporate. Pour in 400ml of homemade chicken stock. Bring to a boil then gently add in vegetables and cook for 2 minutes. Place the fish slices in the mixture and stir gently to combine. On low heat, cook for 1 minute or till the fish is cooked. Season with salt to taste and remove from the heat.
Transfer mixture to a bowl and top with green peppercorns and red peppercorns on top. Heat up 2 tablespoons of the spicy oil and pour over the mixture. Garnish with coriander leaves and serve immediately.
BRAISED NINGBO RICE CAKE WITH PICKLED VEGETABLES AND KING PRAWN
240 Ningbo rice cake (can be replaced with Korean rice cakes)
1 freshwater king prawn, cleaned and cut into 4 pieces
1 tbsp cornflour
2 tbsp oil
1 tsp chopped garlic
25g minced chicken
4 fresh shiitake mushrooms, sliced
2 tbsp Tianjin pickled cabbage
1 tbsp cooking wine
60ml chicken stock (re-use chicken stock recipe from Szechuan fish)
1 tsp soya sauce
1 tsp oyster sauce
chicken seasoning to taste
white pepper to taste
sugar to taste
Slice the rice cake into thin slices. Rinse the rice cakes in water and drain.
Coat the prawn with a bit of cornflour. Heat up wok over high heat until smoking, and add oil to coat the wok. Sear the prawn to brown. Remove and set aside.
Leave some oil in the wok; add garlic, minced chicken, mushrooms and pickled cabbage. Stir-fry on high heat for a minute and add the cooking wine. Add the chicken stock and rice cakes and mix well for 30 seconds.
Put the prawn in and cover mixture for 1 minute. Remove cover and add the soya sauce, oyster sauce, chicken seasoning, white pepper and sugar. Mix well and stir-fry until the rice cakes are cooked through but still chewy. Serve hot.
Chef Ric Teoh, sous chef, Toh Yuen at Hilton Petaling Jaya
The bubbly Teoh has been working in restaurants for over 20 years now, and has spent time in kitchens in Malaysia, the Maldives and London. As a result of all that experience, Teoh has been able to observe the ebb and flow of trends as they come and ago, which is why this CNY, Teoh has opted to go with menu options that are lighter and healthier, in keeping with the growing trend for healthy food that he has noticed in the past few years.
“Now people all want healthy food and during the reunion dinner, there will be elderly people, so I think healthy food is better for the whole family,” says Teoh.
Teoh’s simple CNY meal of double boiled wolfberry with minced chicken and dried scallop soup is an interesting dish where a layer of solidified minced chicken lays atop clear, flavourful soup. The dish offers new discoveries – the chicken paste has gingery undertones and a silken quality, almost like silken tofu, while the clear broth delivers understated flavours.
The dish makes for a great addition to home cooks’ repertoire of Chinese meals as it is incredibly easy to make and requires minimal human involvement – blending and steaming are the two major cooking components of this meal.
Teoh says the secret to nailing this homely dish is to make sure not to overdo the components.
“When you blend the chicken meat, don’t overblend. And when you steam the soup, stick to doing it for a maximum of 1 hours and 15 minutes, because if you steam it for too long, the meat will break up and it will be messy,” says Teoh.
Teoh also came up with the dish of Hock Chew style five-grain rice with braised yam and seafood. The dish features five-grain rice topped with a delicious braised seafood sauce where yam plays a starring role.
It is a light meal that also feels sumptuous and comforting.
Teoh decided to incorporate five-grain rice into the meal partly because it is healthier than polished white rice and also because five is an auspicious number to Chinese people.
The associated five blessings – happiness, luck, longevity, wealth and health – are often tied in with the number and the five grains themselves were important to ancient China and are often considered sacred.
Teoh says the dish is very easy for home cooks to replicate as many things can be done simultaneously.
“While the rice is cooking, you can make the sauce, so from start to finish, it should only take a maximum of 45 minutes. For Chinese New Year, everyone is always rushing, so this really saves time,” he says.
Teoh does add, however, that if one key element is observed, it will help tie the whole dish together. “When you’re boiling the yam with the black pepper, it is important to keep boiling until it is aromatic. If you stop boiling before you get to this point, it won’t turn out as well,” says Teoh.
HOCK CHEW-STYLE FIVE-GRAIN RICE WITH YAM AND SEAFOOD
For cooking the rice
800g five-grain rice
2 tbsp diced fried garlic
2 tbsp sliced spring onions
For cooking the yam and seafood
oil, for deep-frying
240g Penang yam, cubed
1.2 litres cold water
black pepper powder to taste
salt to taste
sugar to taste
120g chicken stock powder
120g tiger prawns, cubed
120g grouper fillet, cubed
2 asparagus spears, sliced
6 tbsp potato starch
8 tbsp evaporated milk
To cook the rice
Cook the rice in a rice cooker for 45 minutes. In a wok, toss and stir-fry the rice with the garlic and spring onions to coat evenly. Set aside.
To make the yam and seafood
In a pot, deep-fry yam till fully cooked.
Heat up a wok till hot, then pour cold water in, along with yam and black pepper powder. Leave to boil on high heat until aromatic.
Season with salt, sugar and chicken stock. Add in prawns, fish and asparagus and cook on high heat for 8 to 10 minutes. Thicken with potato starch until mixture is sticky.
Turn off the heat and add evaporated milk and stir to combine into the sauce. Put rice in bowls and ladle sauce on top of the rice. Eat hot.
DOUBLE BOILED MINCED CHICKEN, WOLFBERRY AND DRIED SCALLOP SOUP
400g chicken meat, minced
2 egg whites
40g spring onion
20g chicken seasoning
salt to taste
sugar to taste
4 dried scallops
2 litres water
In a blender, blend all the ingredients (except water) together until it forms a paste. Remove from the blender.
Mix the chicken paste with water until combined.
Put the combined mixture into 4 individual bowls and steam in a steamer for 1 hour and 15 minutes. Chicken mixture should thicken into a mass and liquid will be at the bottom of each bowl. Serve soup hot.
Check out next Sunday’s edition of StarLifestyle for more restaurant-style CNY recipes.