Home cooks are often faced with a seemingly insurmountable mountain of work every Chinese New Year. This is largely because classic family meals can be elaborate and generally require advance planning, shopping and hours of cooking. But perhaps the solution is simpler than it seems: pick easier recipes.
Here, two chefs share easy-peasy recipes for Chinese New Year that are so hassle-free, you won’t believe how little work is required of you.
Chef Bryan Teh, executive chef, The Emperor at Dorsett Grand Subang
The bubbly Teh has over 17 years of experience in the F&B industry and is very precise about the exact style of Chinese cuisine that he specialises in. “My cuisine style is Malaysian Chinese, which is very different from the Chinese food in China or Hong Kong,” he says, referring to the liberal use of belacan and other local spices and herbs in Malaysian Chinese food.
Perhaps the most quintessential Malaysian Chinese dish, one that typifies Chinese New Year in all its glory is yee sang, the raw fish dish accentuated by pickled vegetables, crackers and plum sauce and tossed together for good luck – it is believed that the higher the toss, the better the year will be.
The word yee sang itself is generally associated with an increase in wealth, which is why it is so popular during CNY her. But because it is uniquely Malaysian, it is lesser known outside our shores.
“The last two years I was working in Macau during Chinese New Year and I made yee sang, but I had to explain what it was to guests, because they had never seen it before,” says Teh, laughing.
The dish is synonymous with auspicious qualities, and each ingredient added to the mixture has a positive attribute.
Leeks, for example, are equated with ideas for growth, cucumbers and papayas with happy returns and carrots with good luck.
The ingredients added atop like peanuts signify fertility, while the white pepper and five-spice powder translate to wealth; the plum sauce means a sweet year ahead while the oil is heralded as liquid gold.
Teh says because yee sang is such a local construct, it can be adapted in different ways to suit trends and predilections.
“You can improvise everything, even the sauce, because it’s very Malaysian anyway, so you can tweak it to local tastebuds,” says Teh.
Teh, for example, has been a keen observer of the trend towards healthier eating. “People are more into healthy food. They like things less sweet and less salty. When people eat yee sang, especially older people, they often feel that it’s too sweet. Before, chefs and home cooks even used to add Ribena to the sauce to give it a nice colour and taste, which is why it became so sweet. But my homemade yee sang is a bit acidic and has less sugar in the sauce,” he says.
Teh adds fresh fruits like pineapples, young mangoes, apples and jackfruit into his yee sang to give it a fresher taste and balances this with a Thai-inspired sauce that has unique ingredients like ginger flower and lemongrass. The result is a fresh, flavourful yee sang with a lightly sweet, herbaceous dressing.
For home cooks looking to make yee sang at home, Teh says it is incredibly simple to recreate. “All the ingredients can be bought in the market and the sauce is very easy to make, so it’s just about assembling and then tossing,” he says.
PROSPERITY HEE HAR PINK PRAWNS WITH FRESH FRUITS YEE SANG
Serves 6 to 8
For the yee sang
200g white radish, julienned
200g carrot, julienned
1 young mango, julienned
1 pear, julienned
50g pineapple, julienned
50g jackfruit, julienned
50g green apple, julienned
50g sliced pickled leek
50g sliced pickled papaya
50g sliced pickled cucumber
50g green yam, sliced thinly
50g red yam, sliced thinly
100g Thai dried cuttlefish
500g fresh prawns
For adding to the yee sang
30g sesame seeds
30g ground peanut
1 to 2 tsp five-spice powder
2 tsp white pepper powder
30ml vegetable oil
2 packets crispy crackers
For the Thai yee sang sauce
350ml plum sauce
200ml plum oil
10g ginger flower
10g garlic, minced
10g onion, minced
15g cili padi, chopped finely
30g lemongrass, sliced thinly
25ml lime juice
15g Chinese parsley
Section and arrange all the yee sang ingredients on a large platter, with the prawns in the middle. Sprinkle sesame seeds, peanuts, five-spice powder and white pepper powder. Drizzle oil and yee sang sauce over this and add crackers. Toss together.
Chef Michael Wong, executive chef, Lei Mei at Le Meridien Putrajaya
The irrepressible Wong has accumulated over 30 years of experience in the restaurant industry and is a master at tweaking classic Cantonese dishes and reworking them into fine-dining offerings. Wong says the ability to create new Chinese meals is something that comes from experience and can only be developed with time.
“Sometimes when you are very experienced with Chinese food, you can create new dishes based on your experience. You have to have the knowledge first, then you can infuse your own creativity. My food is based on my own creativity – it’s not old-style Cantonese food,” he says.
Like Wong’s dish of steamed cod fish with spinach congee and wolfberry, which was developed on the back of a classic fish congee. “Normally people steam cod fish with soya sauce or deep-fry it. But here, fish porridge has been modified to become the main course.
“Normally, with congee, the rice is more substantial than the fish, but it has been reversed here because I wanted to create something new,” he says.
The result is a light, flavourful dish that boasts fat, tender fish laid atop a mound of spinach-infused congee.
It’s an incredibly healthy dish that looks pretty and is also unbelievably easy to make. “The fish and the spinach are just steamed and the congee is simply left to cook for two to three hours until it is very smooth. The congee can even be made the day before and re-heated and combined on the day,” he says.
To ensure the dish turns out perfectly, Wong says there are a few things home cooks should keep an eye out for. “Pick very fresh fish and serve the dish hot – if you serve the fish cold, it will have a more fishy taste because of the oil in the fish,” he says.
Wong also came up with the CNY dish of crispy prawns coated with lemon dressing and tropical fruit salsa, in allusion to the auspicous properties of prawns.
“Every hotel, restaurant or home will cook prawns because the Cantonese word for prawns is har, which is equated with happiness and laughter,” says Wong. The prawns are delicious – each fat piece has a crispy crust coated in sumptious lemon-infused mayonnaise. This richness is cut a little by the fruit salsa, which adds a fresh, tropical note.
“You just need to prepare and marinate the prawns in advance. And when you start cooking, it should take you no more than 20 minutes from start to finish,” says Wong.
Wong’s pro tip for nailing the dish? Use potato starch to marinate the prawns instead of the more common tapioca flour or cornflour. “If you use potato starch, the prawns will come out very crispy and the colour won’t be so brown,” he says.
Wong says while these dishes are easy on the eyes (and just as easy to prepare), he thinks taste-wise, they will measure up too.
“Colour and taste is most important. Some people can make the meals look really fantastic, but when you taste it, the taste is not there. These meals have both,” he says.
CRISPY PRAWNS WITH LEMON MAYONNAISE DRESSING & TROPICAL FRUIT SALSA
Serves 4 to 6
8 prawns, shelled and deveined
salt and white pepper, to marinate prawns
4 tbsp potato starch
4 tbsp mayonnaise
a few drops lemon juice
2 tbsp mixed fresh fruits (grapes, apples, mangoes, strawberries diced very finely)
2 tbsp black tobiko
Marinate prawns with salt and white pepper and coat with potato starch.
Heat oil in a wok until hot. Deep-fry prawns till crispy. Drain oil and set aside.
In a bowl, add prawns, mayonnaise and lemon juice and stir to coat evenly. Place fruit cocktail on serving plate and arrange prawns on top. Sprinkle tobiko and serve.
STEAMED COD FISH WITH SPINACH CONGEE AND WOLFBERRIES
Serves 2 to 4
salt and pepper to taste
400g cod fish fillet
12 wolfberries, for garnish
2 tbsp fried shredded ginger, for garnish
2 Chinese parsley leaves, for garnish
Boil rice with water to make congee. Water should be four times the amount of rice.
Steam the spinach then blend until fine. Stir spinach into 100g of cooked congee. Add salt and pepper.
In a steamer, steam the cod fish fillet until cooked, about 8 minutes.
Soak the wolfberry in hot water until soft, then drain.
Plate the congee on a serving dish, and arrange fish fillet on top of congee. Garnish with wolfberries, shredded ginger and parsley. Eat hot.