Undergraduate Carmen Yeo plans to whip up a steamboat feast for her family for Chinese New Year.
To prepare for the momentous task ahead, she and her mother have signed up for a three-hour festive steamboat class at Tools of The Trade (ToTT) Cooking Studio early next month.
"I have always had an interest in cooking, so I thought, 'Why not learn traditional recipes for Chinese New Year as it is celebrated year after year?'" the business student, 23, explains.
Last year, she attended a pineapple tart making session at the culinary studio - her first cooking class.
Ms Yeo joins many culinary enthusiasts who are taking it upon themselves to learn the complicated process of preparing festive goodies, which now run the gamut from classics such as kueh bangkit (coconut tapioca cookies) to newfangled fare such as Chinese New Year macarons.
They head to home-based studios, culinary schools or community centres and choose from a buffet of hands-on workshops or demonstration classes. Fees range from $20 to $200 a session.
For this festive season, zealous home cooks can pick up tips and shortcuts to recreate signature dishes such as the extravagant pencai, a multi-layered dish with premium ingredients, or the popular yusheng (raw fish salad). There are also classes on making New Year goodies such as kueh lapis (layered cake), bak kwa (barbecued pork) and cookies with a local or international twist such as laksa or caramel flavour.
Some schools began offering Chinese New Year cooking or baking classes last month and these usually run up to the holiday.
Such festive culinary classes typically attract mostly housewives in their 40s and older, but cooking schools and instructors say they are increasingly seeing younger students, from teenagers to adults in their 30s.
For instance, Madam Irene Yip, a culinary instructor with the People's Association who has been teaching for more than 30 years, notes that the number of students in their 20s and 30s has grown by at least 20 per cent in the past five years.
"More youngsters want to learn to make traditional Chinese New Year dishes nowadays. It's a way for them to destress while picking up skills that will benefit them in the future," says Madam Yip, 65.
With a growing group of younger students comes a rising demand for festive recipes that go beyond the time-honoured favourites.
Bamboo charcoal pineapple tarts, pork floss cookies, Chinese New Year-themed cupcakes, macarons and even hors d'oeuvres are just some of the treats culinary studios now offer to entice non-traditionalists who crave new flavours.
Ms Grace Tan, 37, director of ToTT, says: "Over the years, the themes of cooking classes have evolved to include new trends, such as macarons, and specific cooking techniques, such as sous vide, which immerses vacuum-sealed food in hot water.
"With the palates of consumers becoming more adventurous, we are seeing more classes teaching nontraditional Chinese New Year treats."
Of the eight classes her studio offers on Chinese New Year dishes and goodies, three focus on modern concoctions such as chili crab blinis and macarons with sesame butter cream and festive fondant designs.
Music teacher Wendy Ong, 26, is one who aims to serve her family and friends some unusual treats this year. The baking enthusiast will take either a Chinese New Year-themed macaron or cupcake baking class.
"Every Chinese New Year, there are the usual suspects of pineapple tarts, love letters and so on. So I thought, 'Why not learn something different this year?'" she says.
Still, classes featuring traditional recipes remain popular, say culinary schools.
At Creative Culinaire The School, pineapple tarts, almond cookies and kueh lapis are the top items students are paying to learn to bake.
Ms Judy Koh, 53, the school's founder and principal chef, says she prefers to focus on traditional recipes.
"We believe that no matter how much Singapore has modernised, we still need to know and learn our roots and traditions. Otherwise, before you know it, we might be eating biscotti and Western cakes for Chinese New Year," she adds.
Not all schools are seeing growing interest, though.
At Chef Cookery Studio in Smith Street, for instance, owner Raymond Sim says he expects 30 to 40 students to attend the four festive-themed classes this year, down from 50 to 60 last year and 70 to 80 in 2013.
"Existing students have learnt to make most of the Chinese New Year dishes and the younger generation does not seem to be interested to cook festive dishes," he says.
Specialising primarily in main dishes such as boneless chicken with eight treasures and abalone as well as shark's fin soup with lobster and dried scallops, Mr Sim, 53, notes that students might be put off by the lengthy preparation time of such dishes.
Four to five hours before a class starts at 7pm, prep work must begin to ensure a robust soup stock for dishes such as shark's fin soup, he explains.
The fees may be a hurdle too.
A class that features three main dishes, including shark's fin soup, costs $148 per person.
"As people think it's not ethical to eat shark's fin nowadays, we had to replace shark's fin with bird's nest two years ago. But its texture is not very nice in savoury dishes, so we used lobster meat instead. These ingredients are expensive," adds Mr Sim.
For home-based culinary teacher F. Fong, however, business has at least doubled over the past five years.
The number of students has grown from six to seven students a class in 2010 to 15 to 18 last year.
She will cap the number of participants in each class at 12 this year to offer more personal attention.
Mrs Fong, 50, has also seen a 20 per cent jump in the number of students in their early 20s and 30s in the last two years.
During Chinese New Year, she offers seven themed classes ranging from the traditional, such as pineapple tarts and bak kwa, to self-concocted creations such as laksa cookies. Each class of six to 12 students costs $75 to $85 a person.
"My students give me feedback on the type of cookies they want to learn to make and I come up with new items. One can't stay stagnant and keep teaching the same items," says the 50-year-old, who has been teaching from home for 10 years.
Ms Emily Goh, 45, has been attending Mrs Fong's classes for the past four years as a way to destress.
The e-commerce coordinator says: "With the prices of Chinese New Year goodies increasing bit by bit every year, I thought, 'Why don't I bake them myself to save money?'
"I can also bring a little joy to my family by ensuring that I bake with good ingredients and a dose of love."
Chef Cookery Studio
What: Learn to cook boneless chicken with eight treasures and abalone, sweet and sour fish with fresh fruits, and fresh prawns with a rice crust. The class runs for about 11/2 to 21/2 hours.
When: 7pm next Thursday
Where: 465 Crawford Lane, 02-16
Info: E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or call 6299-3653
What: You can learn to whip up traditional fare such as yusheng and pencai here or dishes with a twist, such as Chinese New Year Briyani In A Prosperous Parcel. This is briyani with Chinese and liver sausages, chestnuts and mushrooms, wrapped in filo pastry.
Learn to make desserts such as durian steamed milk with egg, tau suan (split mung bean) and Thai chendol with jasmine syrup as well.
There are also classes on festive cold canapes, such as marinated Thai eggplant on tomato pesto bread and grilled portobello mushrooms with cheese and tomato sauce.
Classes, which are 2 to 21/2 hours each, feature cooking demonstrations. Containers will be provided for students to take some of the food home.
When: 2pm tomorrow (pencai); 7pm next Monday (dessert); 7pm next Wednesday (briyani); 7pm next Friday (canapes); 2pm next Saturday (yusheng)
Where: Block 148 Toa Payoh Lorong 1, 01-927
Cost: $80 to $148
Info: Call 6252-2260, SMS 9105-5461 or go to www.chefswarehouse-sg.com
People's Association (PA)
What: As part of its 50.Taste project, PA is offering classes which teach you how to bake delicacies such as kueh bangkit with gula melaka and sesame seeds.
The project promotes the appreciation of the evolution of Singapore's cuisine in the past 50 years, in conjunction with the SG50 celebrations.
Other treats including cashew nut cookies and orange butter cake will be taught as well.
There are also classes that teach main dishes such as stir-fried sea cucumber with vegetables, stewed pig's trotters and fried prawns in hot bean sauce.
When: Tomorrow to March 14
Where: Various locations around Singapore
Cost: $20 to $90
Info: Search and sign up for classes at one.pa.gov.sg by typing "CNY" or the names of items you are interested in, such as "pineapple tarts", in the search bar.
SCS-PA Pineapple Tart Baking Courses
What: Home-grown butter brand SCS has tied up with the People's Association to offer classes on how to make pineapple tarts - both the traditional ones and healthier versions with less sugar or without salt. Classes which cater to kids and men are also available.
When: 10am to 12.30pm tomorrow (healthy tarts); 2 to 4.30pm on Feb 1 (traditional tarts); 10.30am to 12pm on Feb 7 for kids' class; 7 to 9.45pm on Feb 12 for men's class
Where: Various community clubs around Singapore
Cost: $20 for PA members and $25 for non-members. An additional ingredients fee of $5 to $10 applies to some classes.
Students will receive a goodie bag each, which contains an apron, oven mat and notebook.
Info: Sign up at one.pa.gov.sg
Shermay's Cooking School
What: Join chef Aki Watanabe, who obtained her professional culinary licence at Tokyo Masuda Culinary College, as she demonstrates how to make delicacies including a sesame and cheese twist pastry, walnut-topped cookies filled with apricot honey caramel, and sable cookies made of peanuts and kinako, a roasted whole soya flour.
Recipes for banana and jasmine tea mini butter cake and milky lavender cookies will be provided as well.
Participants can get 5 per cent off regular-priced items at the shop, excluding specials, discounted items and kitchen appliances.
When: 2.30 to 6.30pm on Feb 8
Where: Block 43 Jalan Merah Saga, Chip Bee Gardens, 01-76
Info: Sign up at www.shermay.com or call 6479-8442
ToTT Cooking Studio
What: ToTT Cooking Studio has classes that teach quirky dishes for Chinese New Year such as spicy minced prawns served in lettuce cups and pan-seared scallops with homemade barbecue sauce for hors d'oeuvres.
You can also learn to make macarons with orange and sesame buttercream, with fondant designs such as "fu", the Chinese character for fortune.
When: 10am to 1pm on Feb 7 (hors d'oeuvres); 3 to 6pm on Feb 6 (macarons)
Where: 896 Dunearn Road, 01-01A
Cost: $68 for the hors d'oeuvres class, $118 for the macarons class
Info: Sign up online at content.tottstore.com/classes or call 6219-7077
The Creative Home Baking
What: It is possible to make bak kwa at home. Home-based culinary instructor F. Fong can teach you to make the barbecued pork. She also holds classes on baking traditional and unusual Chinese New Year cookies such as kueh makmur, custard flower cookies and laksa cookies.
Where: 78 Marine Drive (exact address will be given upon registration)
When: 2.30 to 5pm next Saturday (bak kwa); 9.30am to 1pm on Feb 7 (Chinese New Year cookies)
Cost: $75 (bak kwa), $80 (cookies); groups of three pay a special rate of $220 for the bak kwa class or $228 for the cookies class
Info: Call 9858-4883, e-mail email@example.com or go to creativehomebaking.blogspot.sg
Creative Culinaire The School
What: Learn how to bake traditional Chinese New Year cookies such as cashew nut cookies, spicy dried prawn cookies and cornflake cookies.
A class which teaches participants how to make sugee cake and egg white lapis, a light and fragrant treat which is low in cholesterol, is also available.
Learn how to make savoury treats such as kueh pie tee and fruit rojak too.
For every two Chinese New Year classes signed up for, each participant will receive a $10 gift voucher, redeemable at both Creative Culinaire The School and its food and beverage arm, Caffe Pralet.
Where: 17 Eng Hoon Street 01-03, Eng Hoon Mansions
When: 1 to 6pm tomorrow (cookies), 1 to 6pm on Feb 5 (cake and lapis), 1 to 6pm on Feb 4 (savoury treats)
Info: Call 6324-1663 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
Little Green Kitchen
What: Made a New Year resolution to eat more healthily? Little Green Kitchen chef Shalu Asnani has customised three vegetarian Chinese New Year dishes - vegetable spring rolls with sweet chilli-ginger dipping sauce, stir-fried arrowroot with shiitake mushrooms and roasted peanuts, and New Year noodles with five-spice tofu and garden vegetables.
Where: 1 Hacienda Grove, 03-05
When: 11am to 2pm on Feb 5, 2 to 5pm on Feb 11
Cost: Each hands-on cooking class costs $85 a person
Info: Call 9763-1483 or go to www.littlegreenkitchen.com.sg
This article was first published on January 23, 2015.
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