Chinese New Year 2021: Singapore Chefs Share Why Some Traditional Dishes Mean So Much
There is much to appreciate about Singapore’s diverse dining landscape. The breadth of authentic fare across a range of Chinese cuisines alone is inspiring, with many notable renditions of traditional dishes—across several dialects, to boot—standing the test of time.
These, thankfully, include several must-haves gourmands seek at the annual Chinese New Year feast. But as wildly popular the lush options like Peking duck and pen cai continue to be, we should remember that there is a host of less commercial classics that families look forward to whipping up year after year—proving in the process that the best way to preserve such time-honoured recipes is to cook them at home.
From Father to Son
For chefs like Liu Ching Hai of fine dining Cantonese restaurant Summer Palace, the significance of heirloom dishes at the celebratory table cannot be underestimated, citing as a fine example a dish of steamed pearl garoupa with banana blossoms, black fungus and red dates prepared in the traditional Cantonese style. “My earliest memory of the dish is my paternal grandmother making it, and I don’t remember a Chinese New Year without it,” the Hong Kong-born chef shares, noting as well the significance of serving a whole fish, which in his culture symbolises a good start and end to the year.
To be sure, the ingredients used are part of a calculated move to ensure Lady Luck has the backs of those who partake in the feasting. Yet, despite the obvious and necessary pageantry that accompany a Chinese New Year meal, some of the best examples of treasured dishes passed down through generations are surprisingly modest dishes that have earned their place at the family table.
This fish dish, for instance, uses banana blossoms, which when dried, resemble golden needles. “This is significant because it alludes to an abundance of wealth,” Liu explains, as do affordable everyday ingredients such as dates and mushrooms, which are also meant to invite success and prosperity. He particularly loves the dish’s comforting fragrance and how, in spite of its humble origins, most people consider it a spectacular dish, highlighting its popularity at wedding banquets. He adds: “At home, my wife and I enjoy the head of the fish, while my kids don’t fight us for this piece and are happy to eat the tail and body—everyone wins!” There is indeed much to love about the dish, but particularly how “the ingredients come together very harmoniously with a splash of hua diao wine, oyster sauce and corn starch,” he explains. “[The preparation] was always in the hands of my paternal grandmother until it got passed down to my father and eventually to me. I hope to pass it down to my sons and for them to carry on its legacy.”
A Blessing and A Responsibility
Over at the home of Martin Foo, group executive chef of Crystal Jade, the dish he and his family look forward to this time of the year is one close to the hearts of the Hainanese community. “Coconut chicken is a dish that originated in Hainan, China, and it is one of the more famous dishes in Hainanese cuisine,” Foo affirms. “It is a refreshing and light soup that combines the sweetness of coconut water (Hainan is well-known for its coconuts) with the savoury and meaty flavour of chicken,” he continues, taking time to expound on what he feels is the essence of Hainanese cuisine. Compared with other Chinese dialect cuisines, dishes “are generally lighter”, requiring less elaborate preparations and simple ingredients.
The same dishes, he adds, are also designed to showcase the natural taste, aroma and freshness of the ingredients used. “We usually try and pick older coconuts for this dish—the older, the better as the flesh of the coconut contains coconut milk and oil which makes the soup more fragrant and sweeter. I also prefer to use kampong chicken, which has better flavour and is less fatty,” Foo elaborates.
Passed down from his grandparents, he recalls how his mother would prepare the dish on the first day of the Chinese New Year. The original recipe didn’t call for the use of bean curd skin; this was Foo’s initiative as the ingredient’s name, he explains, sounds like the phrase for “full of blessings” in Mandarin. Of course, he notes that bean curd skin also absorbs the sweetness of the soup while adding textural contrast to the dish.
Nostalgia is another key ingredient, as a large part of the joy that comes from sharing this dish with the family involves shared memories of Foo’s late parents. “I have the responsibility to maintain this family tradition and pass it on to the next generation, so that they will also have the knowledge to prepare this must-have Hainanese dish that the family can enjoy together during Chinese New Year,” he insists. “My nephew, who is also a chef, has mastered the techniques to prepare this dish and I hope he will pass it forward as well.”
(Related: The Best Spirits to Serve at Your Reunion Dinners)
Heart of the Matter
The commitment to preserve the authenticity of heritage dishes is in itself a noble cause, but there is clearly more at stake when it comes to family recipes. For pastry chef Pang Kok Keong, who shocked fans when he shuttered his feted patisserie Antoinette in June last year, cooking Hakka dishes his mother used to prepare for the family is a way preserve the unique bond they share. The dish of braised bamboo shoots and pork is one such as example. He shares: “I understand that other dialects make this dish as well; for me, it is a dish my mum used to prepare every Chinese New Year and I’ve since taken over preparing it and bringing it to her (for the reunion dinner) two years ago.”
It is a humble dish but one that requires days to prepare. The dried bamboo shoots, he explains, are extremely tough, requiring long braising time preferably over a charcoal stove. “This is also when the bamboo shoots absorb all the flavours from the leftover roast (used in the dish),” he adds, citing the “long and tedious” preparation time as the reason why he only makes it once a year.
Pang has been exploring his Hakka roots through various initiatives, and is currently running Pang’s Hakka Noodles, a cosy stall in the Xin Tekka food court at Tekka Place mall in Little India. But keeping the family tradition alive by way of his mother’s most loved dishes is what he currently finds most rewarding. Another must-have at the reunion dinner, he shares, is an umami-packed dish of deep-fried pork belly that is first marinated with primarily fermented bean curd. “This is a classic Hakka dish; we usually enjoy it wrapped with lettuce, much like how Koreans (enjoy) their barbecued pork belly,” he declares with a laugh, before adding that he hopes his children will appreciate these dishes more as they grow older and eventually learn to cook it. To be sure, as good as they would need to be to stand the test of time, heirloom dishes like these celebrate more than our mutual love of food.
- Photography Jason Ho