Tradition. It's the very foundation upon which the Chinese New Year celebration is built upon. But with the slew of new-fangled yusheng variations (itself not a traditional dish), luxed-up pen cai and even non-Chinese chefs getting in on the act, where do the festive favourites of yore fit in?
Perhaps a trifle uneasily, which is why putting together a reunion meal today that might resemble that enjoyed in the motherland is more an exception than the norm. But if you look close enough, you'll find a handful of purists in the restaurant scene who are still intent on preserving their heritage.
If you're aiming to bring some tradition back into your reunion dinner, here's a quick tour of the different Chinese dialects and their contributions to culinary history.
Hokkien cooking can be traced back more than 2,100 years, to the Han Dynasty circa 156 BC. The people lived on fertile land and this was reflected in their cuisine. Hence, farm produce was their mainstay, with wheat, potato, yam and radish being their main dietary staples. Meat and seafood were eaten only on special occasions, says chef Alfred Ow of Quan Xin Yuan Restaurant, adding, "our cuisine is down-to-earth and hearty".
A bowl of noodles is a must on the first day of the Chinese New Year, as it symbolises long life for every member of the household. If chicken is served, protocol dictates that the head be offered to the most senior member of the family, the wings to the males who travel for a living, and the drumsticks to the children.
Vegetables are also symbolic, explains chef Ow. "Apart from mustard green and chives, which both mean 'evergreen and everlasting' in our dialect, radish is a 'must' during the festive season. That's because radish is referred to as cai tou, which sounds like the phrase, 'Good things come in abundance'."
Radish, then, is the main ingredient in Ganbei Luobo, a dish that Quan Xin Yuan offers during the festive season. "We have served this dish for years at our 80-year-old restaurant," says Chef Ow, "and nothing has changed in the recipe, except that fresh meat has been replaced by dried scallop".
Like much of Hokkien cuisine, the ingredients are straightforward while a lot of emphasis is placed on the cooking itself. "Only radish, carrot, dried shiitake mushrooms, and dried scallops are used in this dish," Chef Ow explains. "However, the key to the stock used for braising is the top-quality dried flatfish; it gives it a unique sweetness and aroma".
Quan Xin Yuan Pte Ltd
252 Jalan Besar
An ancient saying goes: "fu li zi chu, shi zhu yin shi". Translated, it means that while the food is good enough to be offered to the deities, it is also fit for people. The home region of the Teochews is located by the sea, sandwiched between Guangzhou and Fujian. Their food is deceptively simple, placing great emphasis on the freshness of ingredients, and complex cooking methods used to retain purity of flavour.
Traditionally, the eve of Chinese New Year sees the Teochew family gathering around the dining table, or setting off firecrackers until dawn to chase away bad luck. During this prolonged eating ritual, a steamboat would be placed at the centre of the table. Zhang Xinmin, a Shantou-based expert on Teochew cuisine, explains, "Every dish and ingredient that is used is significant in some way. The symbolism could lie in the shape of the ingredient or in its name, which may be similar in sound to an auspicious object or word."
Chinese New Year is also a period to splurge, especially on food. The Teochews are adept at cooking prized seafood, be it fresh produce or dried delicacies. It is also common to present family and friends with expensive foodstuffs during the festivities. Jasmine Lee, the fourth generation owner of Teochew restaurant, Huat Kee (1988) Pte Ltd, remembers how luxury ingredients were gradually introduced in her restaurant. "It was the second generation owner - my grandfather - who started to offer Braised Baoyu Haishen, or abalone with sea cucumber. The name sounds like 'you are guaranteed for a promotion' in Mandarin makes it popular with customers."
In this dish, specially selected 24-head Australian abalone is braised with sea cucumber in superior stock for hours. "In the past, the sea cucumber would be toasted over charcoal fire for extra crispiness and a caramelised taste before serving. Now, we use a blowtorch to scorch it instead."
Teochew Restaurant Huat Kee (1998) Pte Ltd
74 Amoy Street
Guangdong was one of the earliest provinces to attract migrants from across the Chinese mainland, as well as foreigners to trade and make a living. Thus the natives of Guangdong, the Cantonese, had long enjoyed a cosmopolitan lifestyle which is reflected in their rich cuisine.
Cantonese families would save for months to put together a lavish meal for Chinese New Year. Apart from the usual meat dishes, expensive dried delicacies would make their annual appearance on the dining table. More so than almost any other ethnic group, the Cantonese are obsessive about naming their food. Pig's tongue would be named to sound like "profit", dried oyster to become "good blessing", and fish made to signify "abundance".
Chris Kuang, chef of Moi Lum Restaurant Pte Ltd, says, "Pig's trotters have always been important for Chinese New Year because its name sounds like 'good things will fall into one's hand'. Braised Pork Trotter in Black Moss is a dish that almost all Cantonese would eat at their reunion meal."
But certain adjustments had to be made to suit today's taste buds. Dried oyster used to be an ingredient in the dish, because its name ho xi sounded like good fortune. Unfortunately, its musky flavour did not sit well with young diners, so they dropped it. Black moss, on the other hand, was spared. Fa cai, or windfall, has always been a part of this dish. "Luckily, everybody likes to have a windfall on their hands and we managed to keep it in!" smiles Chef Kuang.
Moi Lum Restaurant Pte Ltd
38 Maxwell Road
The Hakka were originally nomadic tribes from northern China. In historic times, they were uprooted and migrated southwards. The majority of them eventually settled in Fujian, Guangdong, Shenzhen and Hong Kong. Hence Hakka cuisine today varies according to where its practitioners reside.
The Hakkas were a hardworking tribe who ate what they sowed. Because of their historic tribulations, the Hakkas are frugal, and even during festive seasons, expensive delicacies such as abalone and shark's fins are hardly seen on the dining table.
Pen cai, according to Lai Fak Nian of Plum Village restaurant, "originated when families would bring a simple dish or two with them, when they visited the ancestral hall at festive times. The men would stay the whole day, loitering and playing card games. So when it came to meal times, the food would simply be stacked on top of each other for reheating". Pen cai began as a communal dish; however most restaurants have turned it into an expensive dish by 'upgrading' it with abalone, sea cucumbers and other prime foodstuffs.
"My version of Pen cai came from my ancestral hometown in Meizhou, near Fujian," explains Mr Lai. "The ingredients are even simpler than those offered in the New Territories in Hong Kong."
While Pen cai may appear to be simply a pot full of various foods, there are certain ingredients crucial to the mix because of their auspicious significance.
To start, mustard greens are placed at the bottom of the pot to keep the meat from sticking. This also ensures that the vegetables absorb all the essence from the stock, becoming more tasty. When all the ingredients have been stacked, a few huge leaves of cabbage are used to cover the pot. "These leaves retain the heat during cooking, so the whole dish would have a braising effect," Mr Lai explains.
The other ingredients that would go into the pot would be fish balls, pork balls, beef balls, pig's trotter, chicken and the ubiquitous stuffed toufu.
Plum Village Restaurant
16 Jalan Leban
The influx of mainland Chinese to Singapore has also meant the mushrooming of different cuisine variations beyond those of the Guangzhou region. Zhejiang, for example, is one of China's eight major cuisines. The province comprises the cities of Hangzhou, Shaoxing and Ningbo, and is simply known as the "land of fish and rice". The characteristic methods of Zhejiang-style cooking are frying, steaming and braising, its most famous dish being Dongpo Ro, which requires both quick-frying and braising methods.
For the past century, another Zhejiang dish that has been a must for Chinese New Year is Ba Bao Ji, or Braised Eight-Treasure Chicken. Although Eight-Treasure Duck was made famous in Zhejiang and Shanghai, it is believed that the original version came from Sichuan as Eight-Treasure Chicken. Eight carefully selected stuffings, such as lotus seed, bamboo shoots and gingko nuts, are used. According to Chef Colin Liang of Silk Road Restaurant, "Chicken is also much preferred because ji sounds like 'luck' in Mandarin". While the original version may be humble, nowadays abalone and black moss are added because of the affluence of our society.
"The preparation of the dish is time consuming: the chicken is deboned, stuffed, and deep-fried briefly, then braised before steaming," explains Chef Liang. "The stuffing for this version would be gingko nuts, lotus seeds, chestnuts, mushrooms, roast pork, black moss and abalone."
When served, the chicken would be sliced from the back and its stuffing exposed to the diners.
Silk Road Restaurant
165 Tanjong Pagar Road
Although Shanghai is located next to Zhejiang, its cuisine has a unique identity and is known simply as Hu cuisine. Since the early days, Shanghai's population has been one of immigrants from the nearby provinces; its cuisine is thus a melting pot of Jiangsu and Zhejiang cuisines. The Shanghainese are specially known for using alcohol and soy sauce in their cooking.
Shanghai enjoys an abundance of fresh water ponds inland, and the East China Sea off its shores. It therefore enjoys freshwater produce as much as the catch from the sea.
Food served during the Spring Festival is seldom lavish. In fact, most of the food is simple home-cooked dishes such as fried nianguo, smoked freshwater carp, Eight-treasure rice and Quan Jia Fu, which is a much lesser-known dish outside of the Shanghai family. According to Eve Liu, who runs Pu Dong Kitchen, "Quan Jia Fu is a must for all Shanghainese families during the Chinese New Year.
The name of the dish means 'the whole family will be showered with blessings through the year'. The ingredients are simple: meat balls, bamboo shoots, sea cucumber, squid, mushrooms, and lastly, fried egg dumpling."
The egg dumplings are made of thinly fried egg skin wrapped with meat stuffing. They are found in many Shanghainese dishes and snacks at home. These ingredients would be arranged in a pot and simmered in a tasty broth before being served to the family.
Pu Dong Kitchen
271 Bukit Timah Road
#B1-02 Balmoral Plaza
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