Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Chinese New Year Dumplings

Goats, Westport, New Zealand

On February 19th, we welcomed in the year of the goat*. This marked the beginning of Chinese New Year, one of my favourite occasions to celebrate. As a person of Chinese descent, I've grown up with various traditions surrounding the 16-day holiday (including washing my hair on Chinese New Year's Eve to go into the new year cleansed of the year previous, and prepared to receive the festival season's luck and fortunes); and, of course it has always involved food.
*Or sheep, or ram - the Chinese character yáng  covers all three hooved animals, requiring an additional preceding character to clarify, e.g. shān yáng 山羊 translates to goat specifically (shān means mountain).

As with everything surrounding the Chinese New Year celebrations, there are symbolic foods you are encouraged to eat to invite good luck and prosperity in the coming year. The auspicious symbolism is derived from both the pronunciation or appearance of food being translatable to words or objects which inspire luck, wealth, or personal success and growth.

The foods vary across the different regions of China as well as different countries altogether. For example, in Singapore and Malaysia (where my family are from), a favourite dish to ring in the new year is the Yusheng (鱼生) or 'Prosperity Toss' salad platter. It consists typically of slices of raw fish (salmon in my experience), various (yet specific) shredded vegetables, crunchy crackers, peanuts, sesame seeds, and a slightly sweet/sour plum sauce, rice vinegar, lime and sesame oil dressing. It arrives at the table as a platter of ingredients, and the tradition is to stand with your table to toss the salad together, while reciting auspicious phrases or wishes. When I took my non-Chinese friends to do this last week, we simply said a prolonged Yum Sing ('cheers') during the toss, as I remembered doing growing up when we enjoyed the dish in a large setting of up to 20 tables doing it simultaneously. It's been a few years since my last Yusheng salad, so I relished reenacting the tradition and sharing it with friends who had never experienced it before.

The Yusheng platter at Yang Ming Yuan, Princes Street, Cork - seasonings, e.g. pepper, are inside the red envelopes

After moving out of home and missing out on my father's annual organised CNY celebrations and banquets, my go-to Chinese New Year celebration (and everyday comfort) food has been dumplings (jiaozi, 饺子). Last year, I made my first dumpling wrappers from scratch and was stoked with how easy it was (2 parts flour + up to 1 part just-boiled water + time). So last week, I decided to go all out and buy the special high-gluten flour from the Chinese supermarket which is supposedly ideal for dumpling wrappers.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Lemongrass Beef Noodle Salad

Savoured for it's fresh, fragrant and subtly citrus flavour, lemongrass is a penetrating - yet non-overpowering - component of many South East Asian dishes. If you enjoy Vietnamese or Thai food, you'll recognise the flavour straight away.

This noodle salad is loosely inspired by one of my favourite Vietnamese dishes: bun bo xao - stir-fried lemongrass beef served over room-temperature vermicelli rice noodles. Slices of steak beef (e.g. sirloin, skirt, scotch) are normally used, however I had some leftover beef mince in the fridge so adapted the idea to suit.

The salad aspect is also flexible - slices of cucumber, bean sprouts, shredded crispy lettuce, peanuts, crispy fried shallots, and fresh herbs, such as cilantro, basil, mint, small perilla (shiso) leaves are typical; but I used what I had, including thin slices of green pepper and mixed seeds, providing alternative elements of freshness and texture.

What is mandatory, however, are the cooled rice noodles, the Vietnamese dipping sauce/salad dressing, and the lemongrass, garlic and fish sauce beef marinade. 

Lemongrass Beef Noodle Salad

Monday, February 2, 2015

Chicken, Better Than I've Ever Known Before

What meat-eater doesn't love chicken? While top chefs might balk at the idea of the Colonel's meat-of-choice having any true culinary value - unlike beef, lamb or even duck, with their complex age-able flavours - the capacity of chicken as a vehicle for flavour is worthy enough for celebration. These were my thoughts after cooking the, aptly named, 'Bademiya's* Justly Famous Bombay Chile-and-Cilantro Chicken'.
*A quick Google search for 'Bademiya' brought me here and while the NYT recipe doesn't use milk/cream ('malai') in the marinade, 'Chicken Malai Tangdi' on the menu is my best guess at this dish's inspiration. Safe to say that Bademiya is also now on my 'Places to visit in India' list.

This page in my copy of The Essential New York Times Cook Book has been bookmarked since day one and I was stoked to finally try it out. It's list of ingredients is fairly basic, and if you have ever cooked any simple Indian recipes before, you'll most likely have what you need for the chicken in your pantry already.

And while not essential (a quality hot sauce would be a fine accompaniment), the Cilantro Sauce included in the recipe takes this dish above-and-beyond already finger-lickin' delicious - yet in an unexpected direction, given the slight bitterness and textural aspect of the walnuts.

Bademiya's Justly Famous Bombay Chile and Cilantro Chicken