Happy Prosperous Sheep Year!
I wrote this article about traditional Cantonese foods eaten during Chinese New Year for DEPARTURES online here. (I included an old-school Canto-Singaporean salad, northern Chinese mutton hot pot and a modern Hong Kong lamb tartare for Year of the Sheep as well). Their photo editor didn’t bother putting on all the press images I laboriously tracked down for them from various PRs right before busy CNY, so here they are on my own personal blog. 😉 Kung Hei Faat Choy to you!
The simple rice cake has been a ceremonial offering since antiquity, and is still the star of the Lunar New Year table. Northern Chinese varieties are unflavored and white in color, but the Cantonese variety is sweetened with brown sugar and tinted a dark amber. Nin gou literally means “Year Cake” but it’s also a homonym for “Year High” — symbolizing growth, a higher income or exalted position. The health-conscious opt for minimalist steaming, while kids will prefer it pan-fried, often dipped into an egg batter, so that the outside packs a caramelized crunch while the inside remain gooey and stretchy. Try cook and food writer Theresa Mak Lai-man’s artisanal version, spiced up with fragrant ginger. Her line of traditional cakes and puddings, Da Shi Jie, is available at most Hong Kong upscale supermarkets like city’super and Great. (+852) 5131 3230, www.dashijie.com.hk/retailers
Lo baak gou 蘿蔔糕 (Radish Cake)
Another New Year classic, although it’s a perennial on dim sum menus nowadays, either written in English as “turnip cake” or “carrot cake” in Singapore. Pity the poor angmo who orders expecting a sweet dessert. This savoury pudding should be called a daikon cake, as it’s made with daikon, or the Asian white radish. The winter root vegetable is grated, then mixed with rice flour. Other ingredients like dried shrimp, dried black mushrooms, laap cheung (Cantonese preserved sausages) and Chinese Jinhua ham are stir-fried and added into the batter for extra umami. It is velvety soft when steamed, golden crisp when pan-fried. Two-Michelin star Yan Toh Heen at the InterContinental Hong Kong uses high-end Japanese pork for their Kagoshima Thick Cut Daikon Pudding. B/F, 18 Salisbury Road, Tsim Sha Tsui, Kowloon; (+852) 2313 2323
The reason for all these New Year cakes is that traditionally the women of the household only had a couple of days to rest (after cooking up a storm on New Year’s Eve for the whole clan). These puddings were concocted in advance so that the only chore the women had to do when one’s family became fungry was to steam or pan-fry the cakes, then serve. The Cantonese water chestnut cake is more of a dessert cake. Translucent fluoro yellow in color, they are made from water chestnut powder, sweetened with sugarcane juice. The texture is like a firm jelly, with a delightful crunch from pieces of water chestnut embedded in it. The iconic Fook Lam Moon — “Hong Kong millionaire’s canteen”— switches it up with Korean grain sugar to bring out the natural sweetness of the water chestnuts. Water chestnuts are called ma tai (horse hoof) in Cantonese as the peeled water chestnuts resemble the hooves of a horse. 35-45 Johnston Road, Wanchai; (852) 2866 0663.
Faat choy hou si 髪菜蠔豉 AKA 發財好市 (Hair Vegetable and Dried Oysters)
This dish may seem rather alien to the non-Cantonese person, or even to Chinese from outside the Cantonese cultural sphere, but it is absolutely indispensable for Cantonese New Year. This is like the turkey for Hong Kong. Faat choy may be labeled as “sea moss” in posh English menus, but it’s not really a marine plant — it’s actually a photosynthetic bacteria from the Gobi Desert. Yum right? When cooked, it is reminiscent of seaweed or fine vermicelli, and looks like strands of black Asian hair. Faat choy literally means “hair vegetable” and rhymes with “get rich,” so it’s paired with plump sun-dried oysters—hou si—which sounds like “good market.” Order this quintessential CNY dish at Duddell’s, an art gallery cum Chinese restaurant, where it’s written on the menu as “braised conpoy (dried scallop) with dried oyster and sea moss.” Here it’s topped with fat umami-rich medallions of rehydrated scallops and encircled by delicious pea shoots. 3 & 4/F, Shanghai Tang Mansion, 1 Duddell Street, Central; (+852) 2525-9191.