Happy Chinese New Year everybody – xin nian kuai le! Today opens the Year of the Goat in the Chinese lunar calendar, and with it come a whole raft of celebrations.
New Year is a time when those living away from home return to their family (the largest annual human migration in the world!), and marks fifteen whole days of celebration among roughly a sixth of the world’s population – surely it’s only right we celebrate too? London claims to have the biggest Chinese New Year celebrations outside the country itself (although San Francisco think theirs is bigger), so if you’re around look out for the Chinese New Year Parade this Sunday, starting at 10 am from Duncannon Street, by Trafalgar Square.
Numerous foods are traditionally eaten at this time of year, often because of their auspicious associations – dumplings represent wealth, chicken is served whole to represent family unity, and shrimp are eaten for happiness, since the Cantonese for shrimp (ha) sounds like the word for laughter.
Not least, of course, the food is also delicious. We’ve collected a few recipes for your own celebrations, some fairly straightforward and others more a labour of love. Have a crack at some of them and why not let us know the results of your efforts – enjoy!
Quick and simple! Steamed sea bass with pak choi, from BBC Good Food.
small piece of ginger, peeled and sliced
2 garlic cloves, finely sliced
3 spring onions, finely sliced
2 tbsp soy sauce
1 tbsp sesame oil
splash of sherry (optional)
2 x 140g fillets sea bass (halibut, bream or even trout would substitute well)
2 heads pak choi, quartered
In a small bowl, mix all of the ingredients, except the fish and the pak choi, together to make a soy mix. Line one tier of a two-tiered bamboo steamer loosely with foil. Lay the fish, skin side up, on the foil and spoon over the soy mix. Place the fish over simmering water and throw the pak choi into the second tier and cover it with a lid. Alternatively, add the pak choi to the fish layer after 2 mins of cooking – the closer the tier is to the steam, the hotter it is.
Leave everything to steam for 6-8 mins until the pak choi has wilted and the fish is cooked. Divide the greens between two plates, then carefully lift out the fish. Lift the foil up and drizzle the tasty juices back over the fish.
From BBC Good Food.
Next up, traditional dumplings, also called potstickers, a wonderful snack any time of the year but eaten over New Year for wealth. It can’t hurt to try…
These are a bit more fiddly, but so, so worth it!
Authentic Chinese Dumplings (Jiaozi), from Eat Boutique:
1 Napa medium/large cabbage, chopped to yield approximately 10 cups (once you add 1/2 tablespoon salt to wilt cabbage, the yield will be approximately 4-1/2 cups)
1 pound lean minced pork
1 pound raw chopped shrimp (optional)
1 tablespoon sesame oil
1-1/2 tablespoon light soya sauce
1-1/2 teaspoon salt
2 Packages of store-bought Dumpling Wraps, or make your own.
Homemade Dumpling Wraps
Makes about 80 wraps
600ml lukewarm water
If the gods and the stars align, you will have just enough wrap and filling. If you don’t, then do what we do: make an omelette with the extra filling, or use the extra dough to make Chinese spring onion pancakes.
Finely hand chop the cabbage (or pulse in a food processor being careful not to over pulse and end up with puréed cabbage). Put in a colander set in the sink or a bowl, and mix in a 1/2 tablespoon of salt and let stand 10 minutes. This will draw out the juice from the cabbage. Squeeze out the excess liquid and add the cabbage to a large mixing bowl with rest of the filling ingredients. Mix with hands until well combined. Refrigerate this mixture while you make your dumpling wraps.
To make the dough, take a large bowl and add 600ml water to 600g flour. The ratio is always 1:2 by volume, but it’s better to have a slightly wetter dough that you can add flour to if you find it too sticky. Use chopsticks or a spatula to mix until you get a shaggy dough. Dump onto a floured surface and knead until smooth. Let it rest 10 minutes.
Take a quarter of the dough (work with a bit at a time, and cover the rest with plastic wrap so it doesn’t dry out) and roll out to a big long snake shape, about an 1″ in diameter. Cut the dough into approximately 3/4″ thick pieces. Generously dust one piece with flour and flatten into little discs with the palm of your hand. Use a rolling pin, and with a back and forth motion, roll along outside edge, turning dough as you go. The idea is to have a thinner edge all around and thicker middle to support the filling. While this is time consuming, it’s well worth it if you want a hearty, chewy skin. If this rolling method is too challenging, just roll each piece flat throughout.
Don’t have the patience or time for all this? Don’t worry. Store-bought wraps are fine too. It all ends up in your stomach just the same, so do your best.
Brush the excess flour from the surface to be sealed and spread some filling on top. Get as much in as you comfortably can, but do not over fill so that it bulges out. You want a clean seal of the edges without pieces of meat filling in between. Especially important if you plan to boil the dumplings; the water will leak in and dilute the flavour.
Pinch the middle firmly together, and make a pleat towards the centre from each side across the top, making a crescent shaped dumpling. Make sure all edges are tight and well sealed all around. If you are using store-bought wraps, you will need to run a wet finger (have a small bowl of water handy) along half the edge to seal together. Fresh dough does not need water.
Place them on a floured tray and freeze. Once frozen, store in a large Ziploc bag. You can pan fry or boil from frozen, or cook it from fresh.
To fry, you need a large non-stick frying pan with lid for steaming. Drizzle some vegetable oil and arrange your dumplings like sardines, it’s okay that they touch. Over high heat, let it sizzle for a minute or two, then add water so the level is about one third the way up the side of the dumplings. Cover and let it steam on high heat.
Keep an eye on the pan so it doesn’t completely dry out and burn the bottom of its precious cargo. Depending on whether the dumplings were frozen or extra large (please don’t make them too humongous), you may need to add a little bit more water and keep steaming. It should be done when the dough on the top looks cooked. Take the lid off the pan, letting the rest of the water cook off and the bottoms of each dumpling crisp on the pan. Watch closely so they don’t burn! This takes only a few minutes. Check underneath with a spatula for golden brownness and remove immediately from heat.
Serve with bottom side up so that the skin stays crispy. Dip in your favorite dipping sauce or eat the traditional way with Chinese soy vinegar and garlic chili sauce. Caution: Watch out for the hot soup that squirts out on the first bite!
From Eat Boutique.
For dessert, the almond-flavoured steamed New Year cake will ensure an auspicious year ahead. Although you might not have the required ingredients on hand, the only essential one is glutinous rice flour; all others can be substituted! It’s not all that difficult so treat yourself – pay a quick visit to an Asian supermarket and give it a try!
Again, a little fiddly, but worth it for all the good luck you’ll get!
Traditional Chinese New Year cake:
Total Time: 20 mins, plus 3 hrs steaming time
Makes: 8 to 10 servings
480ml water, plus more for steaming
1 (1-pound) package Chinese brown sugar (whatever sugar you have on hand can be substituted!)
1 pound sweet rice flour – about 360g
2 tablespoons vegetable oil, plus more for coating the pan
2 teaspoons almond extract
10 dried seedless Chinese red dates, also known as jujubes, for garnish (optional)
1/2 teaspoon toasted sesame seeds, for garnish
This traditional steamed Chinese New Year cake, known in Mandarin as nian gao (“higher year”), is flavored with almond extract and Chinese brown sugar. It’ll bring you good luck in the new year! After a few days, the chewy cake will harden up; Grandma Ruby, who gave us this recipe, dips hardened leftover slices into beaten egg and pan-fries them in vegetable oil to soften the inside and crisp up the outside.
1. Place the measured water and brown sugar in a medium saucepan. Set over medium heat and stir occasionally until the sugar has completely dissolved, about 10 minutes. (Do not let it boil.) Remove from heat and let cool until warm to the touch.
2. Meanwhile, fill a 14-inch wok with about 1 1/2 inches of water and place a 12-inch bamboo steamer inside. (The water should not touch the bottom of the steamer.) If you don’t have a wok and a bamboo steamer, use a large frying pan and foil as described above in “Special equipment.” Bring the water to a simmer over medium heat. Coat a 9-inch round cake pan with vegetable oil; set aside.
3. Place the rice flour in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment. With the mixer on low speed, slowly pour in the sugar-water mixture, beating until smooth, about 2 minutes. If needed, stop to scrape down the sides of the mixer with a rubber spatula.
4. Add the measured oil and continue beating on low speed until the batter is smooth and the oil is incorporated, about 5 minutes. Add the almond extract and beat until just incorporated. Pour the mixture into the prepared pan.
5. Carefully place the pan in the bamboo steamer or on top of the foil coils. Cover the bamboo steamer with its lid or cover the wok or frying pan with a tightfitting lid or a sheet of aluminum foil. (Do not cover the cake pan directly with a lid or foil.) Steam until the cake is very firm to the touch, about 3 hours, checking every hour and replenishing the wok or pan with hot tap water as needed. While the cake is still warm, garnish with the dates (if using) and sesame seeds. Let cool on a rack to room temperature. Run a knife around the outside of the cake, then slip a thin spatula under the cake to lift it out. Serve it sesame seed side up.
NB: You can bake this if you don’t have a steamer! Heat the oven to 180°F and arrange a rack in the middle. Coat a 13-by-9-inch baking dish with butter. Pour the mixture into the prepared dish and bake for 40-45 minutes, until the edges are just starting to brown and the top is just set (a bubble may form, but it will flatten as the cake cools. Remove from the oven and let cool for 30 minutes before serving. Wrap leftovers tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate.
What to buy: Chinese brown sugar is made from unrefined cane sugar. It can be found in the dried goods section of Asian markets and is sold in 1-pound bricks that separate into slabs.
Sweet rice flour, also known as glutinous rice flour or mochiko, is produced from sticky rice grains and is actually gluten-free. It’s available at Asian markets in the starch section. Regular rice flour, which is produced from long-grain rice, will not yield the same results.
Dried Chinese red dates, also known as jujubes, are olive-sized, sweet, and prunelike, and are used in both savoury and sweet dishes. They can be found in the dried goods section of Asian markets.
Special equipment: If you don’t have a large bamboo steamer, create your own steamer. Take two 24-inch-long pieces of aluminium foil and loosely roll and crumple each one widthwise into a 1-inch-thick piece. Form each piece into an “S” shape and place both in a large frying pan or a large straight-sided pan with a tight-fitting lid. Add an inch of water and bring it to a simmer. Proceed with the recipe, placing the cake pan on top of the foil coils rather than in a bamboo steamer.
Have fun, and happy new year
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