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.

Disaster. I'm not exactly sure what went wrong (future testing to occur...), but being high-gluten, the dough was much stickier than I was expecting. Too sticky, even after attempting to mitigate with gradual amounts of additional flour. The solution was to just apply even more flour: on my work surface, on my hands, and on top of the dough every time I rolled it out. And eventually, I managed to assemble some dumplings using a technique of minimal rolling and careful hand-stretching.

I was, however, happy with the dumpling filling: pork mince, chopped gingergarlic, spring onions, soy sauce, oyster sauce and sesame oil. Simple yet punchy, aromatic, and moreish.

Pork dumplings with Bok Choy

After boiling the dumplings, and eating most of them as soon as they were cool enough to eat, I assembled a dish of pan-fried dumplings with quickly-sauteed bok choy in soy and oyster sauce, topped with sliced red chilli and cilantro. Again, a simple dish but one that signifies, for me, my cultural background and the traditions I grew up with. Delicious.

Plating the bok choy reminded me of traditional Chinese koi paintings (credit:

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