Chinese new year: a feast in words

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“What do we need to do?”

“Wear something red!”

This post begins with festive Chinese food, ends with baklava, and has a soliloquy about photography at dinner parties.

On Saturday night, 12 friends gathered around our 3 meter long dining table for a dinner spanning more than 7 courses. I think I got a bit carried away when planning a menu to showcase the festive food that I have loved since childhood, flavours from other regions of China that I have discovered as an adult, and the sneaky bit of non-Chinese food that I can’t live without.

This year, menu planning had extra challenges. One guest is allergic to anything in the family of shallots, garlic, onion and chilli. Another guest is vegetarian. As with other dinners we’ve hosted, I tried to minimise the number of ‘special’ dishes for these guests. After all, having dinner with friends is much less fun if you are left out, food-wise.

At the start of the evening, I looked at our kitchen, with every bench space and every shelf in the fridge groaning under the weight of food – and the palpable sense of excitement – and the seriously decent alcohol. We were starting the lunar new year on the right footing.

We had fun setting the table. There were, of course, red napkins and red chopsticks. Each guest also got a red envelope with sweets and chocolates (in lieu of money). Scattered around the table were dried chrysanthemum flowers, gold-wrapped chocolates, miniature new year cakes (nian gao) and mixed peanut candy that I’ve found seriously addictive since my earliest days.

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Before I knew it, the all-day cooking extravaganza had become an all-evening eating odyssey.

Here is the menu:

Nibbles:

Tea eggs: in black tea, cinnamon sticks, star anise, dried mandarin peel and soy sauce.

‘Persian caravan’ fruit and nut mix: with white mulberries, sour cherries, baby figs, red raisins, cashews and almonds.

Entree:

Pork and garlic chives dumplings: pork mince, garlic, garlic chives, wombok (Chinese cabbage) and seasoning; home-made dumpling wrappers; wrapped dumpling style and ‘Din Tai Fung soup dumpling’ style.

Momofuku pork belly buns: DYI Momofuku! Red cooked’ pork belly braised until it has the tenderness of pulled pork and enriched with yellow ‘rock’ sugar; thinly sliced cucumbers, Chinese pickled mustard, shallots (optional), coriander, crushed peanuts, hoi sin sauce, all sitting in freshly made Momofuku steamed buns.

Tofu san choi bao: tofu glazed with a mixture of vegetarian oyster sauce (mushroom sauce), honey, five spice powder and light soy sauce; coriander, wombok and cucumber salad; all in a lettuce cup.

Mains:

Beggars chicken or clay chicken: This was easily the most theatrical dish of the evening. A whole chicken stuffed with shiitake mushrooms and other traditional Chinese goodies, marinaded in star anise, rice wine and soy sauce; wrapped in three layers of lotus leaves; encased in clay and baked for 3-4 hours to unbelievably juicy tenderness.

Noodles with tofu ‘dan dan mian’ sauce: Sauce made with tofu: Szechuan pepper, garlic and broad bean chilli sauce fried to eye-watering fragrance; simmered with vegetarian oyster sauce, pickled mustard, yellow ‘rock’ sugar and Chinese black rice vinegar; topped with cucumbers and coriander, served over ‘long life’ noodles.

Noodles with peanut and sesame sauce: peanuts, peanut butter, sesame oil, raw sugar, fish sauce and soy sauce; served with coriander and ‘hand cut’ style noodles.

Buddha’s delight: A traditional dish for new year’s day. I made mine with eight ingredients (ok, I cheat a little, but eight is a lucky number so indulge me?): mushrooms (shiitake, straw and oyster), golden lily flowers, bean curd, bamboo shoots, wombok (Chinese cabbage), fried tofu, fried gluten dumplings, bean vermicelli; seasoned with vegetarian oyster sauce and soy sauce.

Dessert:

Glutinous rice balls: glutinous rice dough, rolls into balls, half white and half coloured red; with black sesame filling and drizzled with ginger and pandan syrup; or with the unexpectedly popular peanut-maple syrup filling and more maple syrup.

Baklava: this was an impromptu addition to the menu. A guest’s mother made it yesterday afternoon. Imagine a long tray of freshly-baked, golden, syrupy baklava made by an Egyptian mum who also happens to be a professional chef. Yes, I’m in love with the baklava.

Boca negra: this is where the guests tried to convince themselves they have another dessert stomach: dark (bittersweet) chocolate, butter, sugar and eggs, baked to custard-like silkiness and rich beyond words. Details in an upcoming post as part of a TWD baking challenge.

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I didn’t take photos of the food. I still haven’t figured out how to take decent photos without interrupting the flow of food and conversation, and in a room lit by yellow-hued lamps that leaves the dining table in semi-darkness. Maybe next time we can play a game of ‘take a photo of that clay chicken before it runs away’.

Nonetheless, recipes coming soon. Maybe even the clay chicken – after all, we still have some dried lotus leaves, and when life gives you lotus leaves…

In the meantime, here are a couple of photos of the baklava, taken today. Did I mention I’m in love with the baklava?

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