Feast days: Mark Hix celebrates Chinese New Year in style
Saturday 24 January 2009
Unlike traditional British end-of-year celebrations, where the food plays second fiddle to a festive booze-up, the Chinese celebrate in a different fashion. In communities all round the world the Chinese mark their new year with two weeks of celebrations, in which everybody visits family and friends and they share meals together. Most celebrate with a big banquet that consists of 10-15 courses and delicacies that you wouldn't find in your average Chinese restaurant.
As each course is served, the host respectfully offers the choice pieces to the honoured guest or the eldest, and the fish course is traditionally served last so that some will remain on the table to see the new year in. This year, the Year of the Ox or Buffalo (a sign that symbolises prosperity through hard work), begins on Monday. You can join in the celebrations by having a dim-sum lunch in your nearest Chinatown, or cook up a feast for your friends with the recipes below; visit your local Chinese foodstore or supermarket to buy the ingredients.
Steamed scallops with black bean sauce
Try to buy large, freshly shucked scallops and ask your fishmonger to keep them attached to the cupped half shell. You will have to order these in advance.
6 large scallops, cleaned, in the cupped half shell
2tbsp salted, fermented black beans, rinsed in warm water and drained
2 cloves of garlic, peeled and crushed
3tsp finely grated root ginger
2tsp light soy sauce
2tbsp oyster sauce
2tbsp vegetable or corn oil
3 spring onions, shredded on the angle
Pre-heat the oven to 200C/gas mark 6. Mix the black beans, garlic, ginger, sugar, soy and oyster sauce in a bowl. Heat a wok and stir-fry the black bean mixture with the spring onions on a high heat for a minute or so, then spoon evenly over the scallops. Place the scallops on a tray, cover with foil and cook in the oven for about 8-10 minutes until the scallops are just cooked. Don't overcook them or they will be rubbery. Serve immediately.
Chicken and papaya soup
I came across this in Fuchsia Dunlop's book Shark's Fin and Sichuan Pepper (Ebury, £16.99), and thought it would work well at a Chinese New Year dinner. Fuchsia recommends a boiling fowl, which can be tricky to get hold of; I find that free-range chicken legs will do the trick.
1 free-range boiling fowl or 6 free-range chicken legs
20g piece of fresh root ginger, unpeeled
2tsp Shaoxing wine
Salt and freshly ground white pepper
2 spring onions
2 ripe papayas
Place the chicken in a pan of cold water, bring to the boil, discard the water and rinse the chicken.
Slightly crush the ginger with the side of a cleaver or a meat bat or heavy chopping knife. Place the chicken in a saucepan with enough water to cover. Bring to the boil, skim, season, add the ginger and wine and simmer gently for about an hour and a half until the chicken is tender.
Remove the chicken and strain the stock through a fine meshed sieve into another saucepan. Skim off any fat. The stock should be fairly strong; if not, continue simmering until it has a good flavour.
Once the chicken is cool enough to handle, remove the meat from the bone and break into fairly large bite-sized chunks and return to the soup with the spring onions. Peel the papaya, halve it and remove the seeds (see dumpling recipe below for using the skins and seeds). Cut into rough 2cm chunks and add to the soup. Season if necessary.
Shanghai-style five willow fish
This is traditionally made with freshwater fish, such as carp, and the "five willow" refers to the five shredded vegetables that would remove the muddy taste from the freshwater fish. A whole 2-2.5kg fish or 2 x 1.5kg fish should be plenty for six people. You can use anything from sea bass, sea bream, snapper, etc, or if your fishmonger sells carp, then give it a try.
1 large 2-2.5kg fish or 2 x 1.5kg ones, scaled and gutted
6-8 fresh or dried shiitake mushrooms (soaked overnight if dried)
Vegetable or corn oil for deep frying
50g root ginger, scraped and shredded
4 spring onions, trimmed and shredded on the angle
1 large carrot, peeled and shredded into matchstick-sized pieces
1 stick of celery, peeled if necessary and shredded into matchstick-sized pieces
1 small green pepper, shredded
2 red chillies, seeded and finely shredded
2tbsp light soy sauce
3tbsp Chinese black rice vinegar
150ml fish stock
2tsp roasted sesame oil
Score the fish 5 or 6 times diagonally then rub the salt into the fish. Heat about 4-5cm of the vegetable oil in a wok or deep fat fryer to 160-180C. Holding the fish by its tail, gently lower it into the oil and cook the fish for about 3-4 minutes on each side until the fish is just cooked and crisp. Remove from the oil and drain on some kitchen paper. Place on a serving dish and keep warm in a low oven.
Pour away most of the oil from the wok, leaving a couple of tablespoons. Remove the stalks from the mushrooms and slice them thinly. Stir fry the mushrooms, ginger, spring onion, carrot, green pepper, celery and chilli for a couple of minutes. Add the soy, sugar, rice vinegar and stock, and bring to the boil. Mix enough water with the cornflour to make a thin paste then stir into the sauce and simmer for a couple of minutes. Add the sesame oil, then spoon the mixture over the fish and serve.
Double-cooked yardlong beans
I always order this in my local Sichuan restaurant in Bethnal Green Road in east London, Gourmet San. It's a great accompaniment to meat or fish. The yardlong bean is also known as the long-podded cowpea, asparagus bean, snake bean, or Chinese long bean – but if you can't find yardlong beans then just use green beans. You can buy the preserved mustard cabbage in vacuum packs in Chinese supermarkets.
1kg yardlong beans or French beans, trimmed
150g minced pork belly
2tbsp light soy sauce
1tbsp Shaoxing rice wine or sherry
tbsp roasted sesame oil
Vegetable or corn oil for deep frying
5tbsp finely chopped preserved mustard cabbage
3 spring onions, shredded on the angle
6-8 dried red chillies
1tsp caster sugar
Cut the beans on the slant into rough 5cm pieces. Put the minced pork into a bowl and mix with 1 teaspoon of the soy sauce, 1 teaspoon of the rice wine and the same of sesame oil and mix well.
Pre-heat about 8cm of oil to 160-180C in a large thick-bottomed saucepan, electric deep-fat fryer or a heavy wok. Cook the beans in 3 or 4 batches for 3-4 minutes until they are tender and just beginning to colour. Remove with a slotted spoon and drain. Transfer a couple of tablespoons of the oil to a wok or large frying pan and cook the minced pork and the chillies on a high heat, stirring every so often to separate the pieces of meat. Add the preserved mustard cabbage and spring onions and stir over a high heat for about 15-20 seconds. Add the beans with the remaining soy sauce, rice wine, sugar and a tablespoon of water and stir well. Serve immediately.
New Year sweet dumplings
These glutinous dumplings are traditionally made for Chinese New Year and can be served in a sweet fragrant soup. I've used the skins from the papaya here from the soup to make a kind of Asian stock syrup.
For the dumplings
60g black bean paste, sesame paste or smooth peanut butter
3tbsp caster sugar
250g glutinous rice flour, plus extra for dusting
90g rock sugar or granulated sugar
For the sweet soup
The skins from the papaya
1 star anise
A small piece of root ginger (about 30g), scraped and roughly chopped
The cooking liquid from the dumplings
Mix the sesame paste with the caster sugar. Sift the rice flour into a bowl and mix with approximately 200ml boiling water, then knead carefully to form a soft, slightly sticky dough. Dust your hands with some rice flour and roll the dough into cherry-sized pieces and place on a lightly floured surface with some rice flour. Form each ball of dough into a flat round, then fill each one with a little of the sesame paste and gather the dough back up into a round shape again with no visible joins.
Bring 1 litre of water to the boil with the rock sugar and stir until dissolved. Add the dumplings in small batches and simmer for 5 minutes, or until they rise to the surface, then remove with a slotted spoon and transfer to a plate.
Add the papaya skins, star anise and ginger to the syrup and simmer gently for about 15 minutes, then strain through a fine-meshed sieve. Reheat the dumplings in the syrup for a couple of minutes, then serve in warmed soup bowls with a little of the syrup.
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