Saturday, July 13, 2024

No idea what to cook this Lunar New Year? Here are a few tasty recipes to get you started, from ‘bakkwa’ pasta to fruity ‘yee sang’ | Eat/Drink

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Italian 'fusilli aglio e olio' meets Chinese 'bakkwa.' — Pictures by CK Lim
Italian ‘fusilli aglio e olio’ meets Chinese ‘bakkwa.’ — Pictures by CK Lim

KUALA LUMPUR, Jan 30 — Reunion meals are a happy occasion when family members can gather together after some time and distance apart (everyone busy with their own lives) and catch up over delicious, sometimes decadent, dishes.

But it can get repetitive, of course. Nothing wrong with that; it’s what tradition is, after all. But sometimes one gets bored of the same steamboat/hotpot or neon-coloured yee sang. Sometimes mixing things can be an even greater reason to rejoice.

With that purpose in mind, how about we really switch things up by incorporating a Chinese New Year favourite in a decidedly unexpected way? We all love bakkwa — those squares of flattened, grilled/barbecued dried meat. Once you start snacking, it’s hard to stop.

Well, why not introduce it to an Italian classic and see what sparks — or fireworks, rather — fly? Instead of pancetta, slivers of bakkwa can add a savoury-sweetness to pasta aglio e olio (rather than spaghetti, I’ve used fusilli here but use whatever pasta you prefer).

That’s right: bakkwa pasta. It’s East meets West for a taste that’s the best. (Pardon the cheesy sloganeering — but who isn’t in the mood for some cheer, however pun-ish?)

Moving on, rather than the same old same old lohsang, have a fruitful Chinese New Year with this fruity yee sang instead. By using fruits such as strawberries, apples, mandarin oranges and even pineapple (its Hokkien name, ong lai, also sounds like “Fortune’s coming”), your yee sang will pop with fresh flavours and vibrant colours (with none of the yucky artificial additives).

Have a fruitful Chinese New Year with this fruity 'yee sang'!
Have a fruitful Chinese New Year with this fruity ‘yee sang’!

Perhaps you’d like to add some ròusōng (meat floss) to your take on the fruity yee sang above. Rather than buying commercial stuff that might be saturated with sugar, salt and MSG, there is a frugal way to make festive meat floss at home.

For a fraction of the price of purchasing it, you can make use of shredded meat left over from making soups and broths to create all the preservatives-free, mouthwatering meat floss you’d like! Make it fancy by adding dried seaweed, roasted chilli flakes, toasted sesame seeds, fried ikan bilis or even curry powder!

Homemade meat floss (left). Nourishing abalone and fish maw soup (right).
Homemade meat floss (left). Nourishing abalone and fish maw soup (right).

Speaking of soups and broth, how about some nourishing abalone and fish maw soup? Abalone and fish maw are prized delicacies, after all, perfect for festive occasions such as these. Add some dried scallops and dried shiitake mushrooms, and every spoonful will be an explosion of umami goodness.

For a “prosperity” pairing featuring the same ingredient — in this case, tangy mandarin oranges — try this Abundance Chicken and Auspicious Salad (the latter being one of three ambrosial iterations, as a matter of fact). The citrus is synonymous with Chinese New Year as their name in Cantonese — kam — is a homonym for gold (which does lend itself to the prosperity angle, no?)

Savoury, sticky ‘Abundance Chicken’ (left). A tangy salad of mandarin oranges, rocket and sunflower seeds (right).
Savoury, sticky ‘Abundance Chicken’ (left). A tangy salad of mandarin oranges, rocket and sunflower seeds (right).

The juice of the mandarin orange keeps the chicken thighs moist while perfuming the dish subtly. The flesh of the citrus joins a medley of grapefruit segments, spicy rocket leaves and toasted sunflower seeds for a light and refreshing salad.

Experience “double happiness” with a duo of prawn dishes, as since the word prawn in Cantonese — “ha” — is also the sound of raucous, joyous laughter.

First, try these moreish tomato chilli prawns; the barely there sauce coats the prawns and lingers on your fingers. Oh tasty. Then some steamed fresh prawns with ginger and wolfberries; their delicate sweetness a thing of beauty.

Double happiness with tomato chilli prawns (left) and steamed prawns with ginger and wolfberries (right).
Double happiness with tomato chilli prawns (left) and steamed prawns with ginger and wolfberries (right).

Time for dessert. We’ve had mandarin oranges already; how about some honey baked peaches with vanilla cream instead? The caramelised stone fruits, the depth of organic honey, the richness of crème fraîche infused with vanilla seeds, and toasted almond flakes for some crunch.

Or for something truly addictive — not unlike a near bottomless container of keropok — try baking my version of DoubleTree by Hilton’s famous chocolate chip cookies. I’ve swapped the vanilla extract with a shot of espresso, resulting in a darker cookie with a hint of the aroma of freshly roasted coffee.

Honey baked peaches with almond flakes (left). Dark chocolate chip cookies with espresso (right).
Honey baked peaches with almond flakes (left). Dark chocolate chip cookies with espresso (right).

Or perhaps it’s more traditional to finish your reunion dinner with some Chinese desserts. There is a difference to the robust, in-your-face sweetness of honeyed peaches and chocolate cookies and the more gentle, soothing sweetness of a bowl of Cantonese tong sui, for instance.

Consider the calming nature of snow fungus tong sui with ginkgo and red dates. The recipe is a basic one, the ingredients uncomplicated — snow fungus (xuě er), red dates (hóngzǎo), ginkgo nuts (báiguǒ) and rock sugar (bīngtáng) — yet a taste of this tong sui will revive palates after all the rich foods you’ve had (and what is Chinese New Year without rich, decadent foods?).

Snow fungus 'tong sui' with ginkgo and red dates (left). Steamed 'nian gao' with grated coconut (right).
Snow fungus ‘tong sui’ with ginkgo and red dates (left). Steamed ‘nian gao’ with grated coconut (right).

If that sounds like too many ingredients, here’s something even simpler: the always auspicious nian gao (sticky rice cake made from glutinous rice floor and brown sugar). The reason for its popularity during Chinese New Year lies in its name which sounds like a combination of “year” (nian) and “higher” (gao) in Chinese, suggesting every bite leads to a more prosperous year ahead.

My version comes with a topping of freshly grated coconut and gula Melaka, which perfumes the nian gao beautifully when it’s steamed. Soothing, almost gelatinous tong sui or sticky, über-gooey nian gao — you decide.

Either way, it promises to be a sweet ending to your reunion dinner and, hopefully, of sweeter things in the year to come. Gong Xi Fa Cai and Happy Year of the Tiger!

For more Weekend Kitchen and other slice-of-life stories, visit

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