Enter the Dragon

23 Jan

Gong xi fa cai! Chinese New Year festivities started on Monday, marking the beginning of the Year of the Water Dragon (more auspicious, but less of a great band name than Metal Rabbit). Bayan Indah, Malaysia’s hottest cooking school (apparently), hosted a Chinese Festivities class last Saturday, which I attended — not as a student, but as an assistant. I still learned quite a lot, like how very little I know about Chinese cooking.

The Reunion Feast

The menu was created to reflect a typical “reunion” meal at a Chinese-Malaysian home: whole poached chicken, lotus root soup, loh hun chye or Buddha’s Delight (because it’s vegetarian), fried shrimp, tong yuen (rice dumplings in ginger syrup), and the inevitable yee sang. The reunion dinners (or luncheons) are where Chinese families gather to celebrate the new year. Traditionally, the first reunion dinner is on the eve of the new year, when the sons return to their parents’ (with spouses and children in tow). The first day is reserved for immediate family, and then the daughters return to their parents’ on the second day. The rest of the 14-day (!) celebration is filled with visits to friends, relatives, and business associates, frequently at yet more reunion dinners. It’s like Christmas and Thanksgiving together, to the power of 10.

(By the way, readers who are familiar with traditional Chinese cuisine will note the marked absence of pork in the above menu; this is because Bayan Indah’s kitchen is pork- and alcohol-free, the better to accept students of all backgrounds. Most non-Muslim Chinese would serve at least one or two pork dishes at an important occasion like the New Year.)

First course: yee sang! This is, of course, the quintessential New Year’s dish for Malaysians and Singaporeans. It’s basically a composed salad of finely shredded vegetables and fruits, topped with fish (traditionally raw), plum sauce, and crunchy bits. The fun part is tossing it together with all of the people at your table. It’s fairly easy to put together: a mandoline makes short work of shredding the vegetables, and the rest is just arranging. The time-consuming part is making all the crisps (lam yue crackers and dyed yam strips) and pickles (green papaya and ginger) from scratch. Fortunately, Rohani and the team had this all prepped by class time. (Apparently, they tried to do it during the class last year, and no one ate until 3 p.m.)

There were no such short cuts with the chicken, which we poached whole. And by whole, I mean whole: the head and feet were intact, and only the feathers and internal organs removed. The method is simple but precise: stuff chicken with ginger, green onion, and garlic, and plunge into boiling water. When the water comes back to a boil, cover and cook for 10 minutes, then turn off the heat and leave covered for 40 minutes. (No peeking.) Then cool in an ice bath to stop the cooking, and hang dry.

It looks a bit grisly, but this produces the tender, moist chicken that makes chicken rice such a simple but satisfying dish. The reason the chicken is kept intact is that cutting things apart is considered inauspicious. It’s also why fish and shrimp are frequently served whole at Chinese restaurants. Of course, you actually can’t serve chicken whole. Have you ever tried to cut up a steak with chopsticks? Instead, the chicken is carved, then rearranged back into its original form.

Poached chicken might not seem like a particularly special dish, but it would have been an extravagance for the average Chinese family not that long ago, when meat was costly and a whole chicken would only be served once a year.

“Prosperity prawns” seemed like a pretty straightforward fried shrimp recipe, except for the secret ingredient: custard powder in the batter. The custard powder gives the shrimp a slightly sweet, slightly vanilla taste. It’s the unplaceable flavor that I’ve been trying to figure out in Chinese fried items. A legacy of the British empire, I suppose, like marmite chicken. Perhaps Doctor Who’s fish fingers and custard combo isn’t so disgusting after all?

In the interest of post length, I’m skipping past the soup and the vegetable courses and going straight to dessert.

These little balls aren’t ice cream, they’re tong yuen — sticky rice dumplings (mochi) in syrup. (I grew up eating a Japanese version, where the dumplings are served plain with a sweet red bean (azuki) soup. The color is all-natural; the pink is made with beets, while the yellow is colored with pumpkin. The Malaysian twist is that the dumplings are filled with sweet sesame or peanut paste.

And that brings us to the end of our reunion dinner. Here’s to a roaringly prosperous and joyful new year for all SOK readers! Looking forward to another year filled with exciting new food adventures. Yam seng!

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