Celebrating family togetherness
With reunion meals nowadays limited to the cosy dinner on the eve of Chinese New Year (CNY), shared between the handful of members of the immediate family, it has become an even more casual affair.
Usually, there will be a fish maw soup with handmade fish balls bought from the same stall we have been patronising for decades, perhaps a whole steamed chicken, and a sweet white fungus soup for dessert.
Nothing remarkable but everything deliciously familiar - for us, anyway.
It is over the course of the 15 days of CNY that the more traditional foods make an appearance, and it would appear that my mother and I both have a taste for chewy, sticky rice cakes. Every year, we go through the day-long exercise of making steamed sweet nian gao - probably the single food item we dedicate so much time to making. Then, there is the savoury Shanghainese nian gao akin to the Korean rice cake.
The rice cakes are available all year round in both dried and fresh forms at neighbourhood supermarkets that are better stocked with Asian foodstuff, and can be enjoyed as both soup-based or stir-fried dishes.
There is no set way as to how Shanghainese nian gao is cooked: you can cook up a saucy, spicy dish of crabs and toss it in to sop up the goodness; you can add them to hotpots, or even just boil them in plain water and eat the slices with your favourite dipping sauce.
My mother, whose family hails from Zhejiang just south of Shanghai, prefers to stir-fry them with bok choy, shiitake mushrooms and thin strips of pork. She reminisces about her childhood days when her father would purchase a hunk of Jinhua ham and have it hacked into small chunks or sawed into thin strips and to be used to create an intensely umami stock for the nian gao dish.
Slices of the ham are also used to grease the wok to render a unique fragrance and flavour. Taking inspiration from this, my rendition of the dish incorporates jamon Iberico, more easily available today than Jinhua ham. And while my mother prefers her Shanghai nian gao slightly wet, I prefer mine slightly charred to the effect of savoury Japanese grilled mochi.
I also add a dash of mirin on top of soy sauce.
Indeed, rather than a shining showcase of culinary passion or fiercely kept traditions, the new year foods our family enjoys - such as the versatile Shanghainese nian gao - are humble reflections of our family's p r a c t i c a l ways.
- Koh Yuen Lin
A Peranakan feast
When I was young, I always knew CNY was near when my mother placed trays of cut vegetables out in the sun to dry in preparation for the making of Nonya achar. Nowadays, we buy our achar from the supermarket.
And when guests came to visit, we offered them a savoury tray on top of the homemade kueh kueh that came on the familiar revolving sweetmeat tray.
Those who drank did not like sweet items with their brandies, so my mother offered bak kwa, Chinese liver sausage, speared through with some pickled leeks, pei tan or preserved black eggs, ham cubes with pineapple, the achar, and spiced liver balls, or hati babi bungkus.
Seldom found on tables nowadays, these are liver balls flavoured with shallots and coriander powder and wrapped in caul lining before being steamed, then fried.
Also, we looked forward to dishes which improved with keeping, such as babi pongteh (braised pork and bamboo shoot in salted bean paste), itek sioh (duck braised in fragrant coriander and tamarind) and itek tim (duck soup with sour plums and salted mustard leaves).
Such dishes would be part of the tok panjang spread which the Nonyas would turn out for big occasions such CNY. This tok panjang, literally long table, would include copious amounts of fowl (duck or chicken) and meat (pork) all cooked in the inimitable Nonya style which is a little bit of Chinese and Malay, all married into a delicious whole.
There would also be ayam buah keluak (chicken cooked in a spicy tamarind gravy with the ubiquitous black Indonesia keluak nut), babi assam (pork braised in a chillied tamarind and soya bean gravy), satay babi, prawn sambal and yes, the array of full-bodied soups for which the Nonyas are famous.
Aside from the itek teem, there would be pong tauhu (tofu balls soup) and hee pior soup (fish maw soup), which is unlike any Chinese version, for it is full-bodied and hearty with fish, pork and prawn balls.
These days, I do not cook such a spread anymore. Instead, we have opted for the newish custom of having steamboat for the reunion meal, as all efforts can be concentrated on making the stock.
Families are smaller, restricting the size of the spread, and few come to visit for the new year now that many of us have restricted our visits only to homes where an elderly patriarch or matriarch still presides.
This makes the cooking of such a lavish feast a bit unnecessary. My son, however, keeps beating the gong for the keeping of such traditions, which makes me rethink the new customs that we have adopted over the years.
Maybe I should go back to the old new year feasts which my mother and grandmother used to prepare, without help, I must add.
Anyone for babi pongteh?
- Sylvia Tan
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