Chinese New Year is on Thursday 3rd February this year which meant that we had to have our End of Year family feast on Saturday 29th January as it was the only date we could get most of the family together without having to take time off work. For the past few years, I’ve taken up cooking duties – 2009 was an 8 course affair, 2010 was a 10-course monster which very much nearly killed me and I had decided that I was only going to do 8 courses in 2011. That said, I had a lot more time off beforehand this year so I could plan things properly and well, given that it’s going to be the Year of the Rabbit and I myself am a Rabbit, I felt the need to really push the boat out and (for some reason) really test my culinary skills so I tentatively aimed for 10 dishes again.
Choosing what dishes to cook was the first step: I wanted to make some traditional Hakka dishes and there are certain dishes that are mandatory for CNY – Braised dried oysters with black sea moss (Ho See Fat Choi), a plate of green veg (gai lan or choi sum), steamed whole fish. Then you also had dishes that ppl liked to eat (chicken with shiitake mushrooms, sweet and sour ribs). Searching on t’interweb for traditional Hakka dishes, I kept seeing some dishes repeatedly – Kau Yuk (pork belly with taro) which I was going to do anyway, salt-baked chicken, eight treasure duck, stuffed tofu. The eight treasure duck was something that intrigued me: A whole duck is de-boned and stuffed with glutinous rice with 7 other ingredients – hence eight treasure – before being cooked. I’d never de-boned a duck before and although I had a rough idea of what to do, the idea of doing so both terrified me (what if my knife skills aren’t good enough?) and excited me (if made well, the results would be spectacular). So, I opted to include it on the menu.
After a bit of a crisis of confidence, I decided to go for 8 dishes as given how we were aiming to eat about 1.30pm and I only have a small kitchen and stove when a lot of the dishes would have to be cooked on the day, I would have been pushing it a bit to do 10 dishes. The menu was going to be:
- Braised dried oysters with black sea moss and shiitake mushrooms (Ho See Fat Choi)
- Steamed green veg
- Steamed whole fish
- Pork belly and taro (Kau Yuk)
- Eight Treasure Duck
- Salt Baked Chicken
- Stuffed tofu and bitter gourd
- Roast suckling pig (which would be bought in as I don’t have an oven big enough)
A couple of days before the meal, the Mothership tells me that 9 dishes is better than 8 (as 9 sounds like the word for longevity), so I decided to do some fish maw and pig’s liver too as it was soup-based. So, 9 dishes it is – A compromise between feeling like I’ve wimped out with 8 dishes and probably killing myself by attempting 10.
The Kau Yuk was made a couple of days before: A slab of pork belly is cut into thick pieces and quickly marinated in some soy sauce and five-spice powder before it’s deep-fried for colour and hopefully won’t absorb too much water when steamed later. The pork is then sliced fairly thickly before being mixed with a bit more soy sauce, red bean paste and crushed star anise. The pork is then layered with the taro and dotted with some crushed rock sugar before steamed until the meat is tender
The day before the feast, I had to prepare the duck (which would mean de-boning it, making the stuffing and stuffing the bird), make the stuffing for the bitter gourd and tofu and stuff them. De-boning the duck ended up being more straightforward than I feared. Earlier in the week, I had de-boned a chicken as a test and was again surprised at the relative ease in which I completed it. It took me 30mins to do the first duck and 25mins to do the second. The duck is then marinated in some soy sauce, honey and sesame oil whilst I cook the stuffing. The stuffing consisted of:
- Glutinous rice (of course)
- Dried Chinese sausage (lap cheung)
- Dried pork (lap yuk)
- Small conpoy
- Dried shrimp
- Whole chestnuts
- Dried red dates
- Dried shiitake mushrooms
(I also added some spring onions for colour) All the dried ingredients had been soaked in some warm water for about 30mins before drained, the glutinous rice was soaked in cold water for 30mins then brought to the boil for 5mins and then refreshed.
The spring onions are fried in some oil before the lap yuk and lap cheung are added. After stir frying for a couple of minutes the small conpoy, dried shrimp, sliced shiitake mushrooms, chestnuts and red dates are added and mixed well. Finally, the cooked rice is added and everything is mixed well – Ensuring all the rice is coated in the mixture. Season lightly and allow to cool before stuffing into the (de-boned) duck and sealing with skewer or toothpick
The stuffing for the bitter gourd and tofu was more straightforward. Rather than using a mix of pork and/or (salted) fish, I decided to cheat a little and just used belly pork which was finely minced (or chucked in the food processor) then seasoned with a lot of fish sauce to give it that umami hit and finely chopped spring onions are added. The bitter gourd itself was cut in relative large logs and hollowed out so that they could be stuffed. After that, it was time to soak ingredients overnight for the final push in the morning before the meal itself.
The morning of the meal and there’s a lot to be done – None of this is helped by oversleeping and terrible lower-back and sciatica pains, but I soldier on. First of all, I need to get a broth of some sort on for the fish maw: A couple of pork bones I got from the butcher are chucked into a pot with some (soaked) large conpoy and a few thick slices of ginger then covered with water before being brought to the boil and then lowered to a simmer. By the time we eat around 1.30pm, it should be ready.
Next, salt baked chicken: The mix is pre-packaged and is readily available in Chinese supermarkets, the main ingredient is a dried ginger powder from a specific type of ginger (which exactly, I don’t know) but it’s sometimes called Sa geung which literally translates as “ginger sand”, I mixed a couple of sachets with some five spice powder and crushed star anise before rubbing into the cavity of the birds. The chickens (some lovely free-range birds) are wiped dry and another sachet of the chicken mix is rubbed on. I left the chickens to marinate for a few hours whilst I got on with other dishes.
With the chicken marinating and the first duck now in the oven, I start stuffing the tofu, then brown off in a pan and steam to cook through.
I’m now on a roll: The second duck is done so the chickens are put into the oven to roast off. The recipe I read suggested putting some water into the roasting tray and covering the whole thing with foil so as to steam the chicken so it stays moist. However, I’ve never had a problem with dried chicken meat whenever I’ve roasted them, so I roast them as you normally would. With the chickens roasting away and the ducks now kept in a warm place to rest, I get the Ho See Fat Choi started. The shiitake mushrooms have been soaking overnight and rather than waste the water they’ve been soaking in, I pour it into a wok (along with the water that the dried oysters have been soaking overnight in) and add a touch of oyster sauce, rice wine, dark soy and white pepper. This mixture is brought to the boil and the shiitake mushrooms are added and boiled for 30mins until tender, then the oysters are added and the mixture is simmered for another 20mins or so. The black sea moss has been soaked for 10mins before being drained and added to the oysters and shiitake mushrooms mixture. A bit of slaked cornflour to thicken it slightly and it’s ready to plate up
Into the final straight now – The house is filling up with family, the suckling pig has been collected so it’s time to chop the meats whilst the fish and veg are steaming away.
First of all, the chicken. I said earlier that I was confident about not having to steam it first to ensure the moistness and as I chopped the breast piece, it revealed pearly white, moist flesh cooked just right, yet the bone is still red:
Told you I was confident in my chicken-roasting abilities!
The duck was another thing I was proud of, cutting down the length of the duck and opening up to expose the rice, it looks and smells better than I could have hoped. There’s a bit of a crowd gathering in the kitchen at this point so I gather some spoons to let ppl have a taste; to my relief and delight the unanimous verdict is that it’s good:
From there, the cooked green veg is drizzled with some oil and oyster sauce, the fish is topped with some finely shredded spring onions and coriander and both taken out to the table. The stuffed tofu and bitter gourd is re-heated and a sauce is made from the juices collected when they were steaming. The fish maw and pig’s liver as added to the broth and it’s ready to go. All that’s left is to chop the suckling pig.
I’d done it – Even cooking dishes for the first time seemed to have worked out well. The only dish I wasn’t so happy with was the Kau Yuk as I didn’t put enough red bean paste or star anise into it, but the flavour was still OK. But I was proud of all the other dishes – Especially the Ho See Fat Choi and Eight Treasure Duck. I’m told that everyone really enjoyed the food and in all honesty, when I hear that or see everyone enjoying themselves, it makes all the hard work and effort worth every second. That said, I seem to have set the bar quite high for next year…
Gung Hey Fat Choi to you all.
The full set of photos can be viewed on my Flickr