Chinese New Year


Not sure about you but I was super happy to say goodbye to 2021 and welcome a brand-new year.  Feels like we may be edging towards a much better place than this time last year so I’m brimming with optimism and enthusiasm and I’m hatching up all sorts of plans for 2022.  I’m determined to snatch any excuse to celebrate, the birds starting to sing in the mornings, the stretch in the evenings, the first primroses…always a sign St. Bridget’s Day is around the corner.  We make a special St. Bridget’s Day cake, crystallise the primroses and decorate the top with the frosted flowers and freshly picked wood sorrel – so beautiful…you might like to make this on February 1st to celebrate our female patron saint. 

But in today’s column, we’re going to celebrate Chinese New Year, a two weeklong bonanza based on the Lunar calendar.  This year, celebrations start on the 1st of February and last until the 15th finishing with the Lantern Festival.  The Chinese Zodiac gives each year an animal sign, 2022 is the year of the Tiger – how exciting is that.  People born in the year of the Tiger, such as 1938, 1950, 1962, 1974, 1986, 1998, 2010 are said to be brave, competitive, unpredictable and confident, so now you know…

There are all sorts of traditions and superstitions attached to celebrating the Chinese New Year also known as the Lunar New Year or Spring Festival to make it more inclusive globally.  The Chinese travel, often thousands of miles, to be with their families and friends to eat, drink, cook and have fun together.   Traditionally, there’s a frenzy of spring cleaning for weeks before to have everything sparkling for the celebration.   As ever, food is at the centre of every celebration.  In Chinese culture, the colour red symbolises happiness, energy and prosperity so red lanterns, dragons, fireworks, candles, medallions are everywhere…. I love the tradition of ‘Hong Bao’, giving red envelopes with a gift of money tucked inside – such excitement for the children. 

For the past few years as a result of the pandemic, festivities have been curtailed and many families have not been able to get together to celebrate but there’s a growing optimism that 2022 may see the tentative return of parades, lion dances and family reunions. 

China is such a vast country.  Every region has different customs but all families plan an exciting New Year feast.  The traditional dishes are all symbolic – lucky foods, guaranteed to bring good fortune… 

Here are some of the favourites:

Spring rolls resembling bars of gold. 

Dumplings look like gold and silver ingots.  They are shaped like little purses, the more you eat, the richer you’ll be…

Noodles, some up to 2 feet long, symbolise longevity. 

A whole steamed fish – tender and delicious with a dipping sauce –known as ‘dayn daron’ or big fish in mandarin, suggests abundance. 

Little rice balls, filled with sweet red bean paste, signify family harmony, unity and togetherness.

There’s also a sweet glutinous rice cake – Nian gao (which can be sweet or savoury).  The word loosely translates to ‘higher up’ – obviously a positive, this is beloved by Chinese but not to everyone’s Western taste.

Fortune cookies – each crisp sugary cookie contains a piece of paper with a surprise prophecy. 

Tangerines are the most traditional citrus fruit to grace the table and gift to friends.  The Chinese characters sound like the word that means good fortune so here we are again, it’s all about good luck. 

So invite a couple of special friends around, have fun creating a little Chinese feast during the New Year celebrations and welcome better times ahead. 

Rory O’Connell’s Chinese Sliced Fish Soup

This soup is light and refreshing and the fish can be varied according to what you have available. The basic Chinese stock is essential for an authentic result. The fish in the recipe can be replaced with thin slices of chicken breast or pork fillet, so the soup is really versatile. A little finely sliced chilli may be added if heat is required. Feel free to experiment with your additions. I have on occasion eaten this soup without the fish and replaced it with lots of chopped fresh herbs and called it a herb broth. The final assembly is quick and easy.

1.2 litres (2 pints) Chinese stock (see below)

225g (8oz) lemon sole or plaice or turbot or brill fillets, skinned

18 – 24 prawns or shrimps or mussels, cooked and shelled

1 head of Iceberg or Cos lettuce

2 spring onions or scallions, finely sliced at an angle

2 tablespoons of coriander leaves

salt and pepper

Cut the filleted fish into pieces, about the side of a large postage stamp. Quarter the lettuce and remove any tough core. Finely slice the remaining quarters against the grain. Place the stock in a saucepan and bring to a simmer. Add the fish pieces and after 1 minute the prepared shellfish. Simmer for a further minute. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Place some of the shredded lettuce in hot soup bowls. Season with salt and pepper. Divide the cooked fish and shellfish between the bowls and ladle in the hot broth. Garnish each bowl with spring onions and coriander leaves and serve immediately.

Basic Chinese Stock

1.5kg (4lbs) chicken bones or pork spareribs, or a mixture

6 slices of un-peeled fresh ginger root, about 1cm (1/2 inch) thick

8 large scallions or spring onions

cold water

Place the bones, ginger and onion in a saucepan that they fit snugly into. Cover with cold water. Bring to the boil. Skim off any froth that rises to the surface. Turn the heat down and allow to simmer gently for about 2 hours. Taste and if you are not happy with the flavour, allow it to cook for longer. Do not cover the stock during the cooking. Do not allow it to boil as the stock will reduce and become too strong. When happy with the flavour, strain, cool and refrigerate until needed. Remove any solidified fat from the surface of the stock before using. The stock will keep in the fridge for a few days or may be frozen. 

Fran’s Chinese Beef Dumplings

Dumplings can have a myriad of fillings.  I also love a mixture of shrimp and pork but try these delicious beef dumplings given to me by a past student Fran Borrill. 

Makes 40

1-2 packs gyoza/dumpling wrappers

1 heaped teaspoon Sichuan peppercorns

100ml (3 1/2fl oz) boiling water

900g (2lb) minced beef (15% fat)

2 tablespoons fresh ginger, minced

1 bunch spring onions, minced

3 Chinese cabbage leaves

2 tablespoons soy sauce

2 teaspoons roasted sesame oil

1 red chilli, minced

salt and pepper to taste

Dipping Sauce

2 teaspoons chilli oil (taste to see how hot it is before adding)

3 tablespoons  hoisin sauce

120ml (scant 4 1/2fl oz) soy sauce

4 teaspoons roasted sesame oil

1 teaspoon caster sugar (optional)

3 tablespoons Chinese black vinegar or balsamic

1 tablespoon ginger, minced

2 tablespoons spring onion, minced

2 cloves of garlic, minced

To make the Dipping Sauce, put all the ingredients into a jam jar and shake.

Next, make the dumplings.

Place the Sichuan peppercorns and boiling water into a heatproof jug and allow them to soak for 10-15 minutes.

Mix the rest of the ingredients together in a large bowl (by hand is best) until they are well combined.

Strain the Sichuan peppercorns and retain the liquid.

Pour half the water into the beef mixture and stir until it has absorbed.  Repeat with the remaining water.

Put a scant teaspoon of the mixture into the middle of a dumpling skin, wet the outer edge with water and fold the dumpling together (into a half-moon shape) by pleating one edge against the other.

Heat a tablespoon of oil in the bottom of a frying pan or wok.  Fry the dumplings until one side is brown and crisp, 2-3 minutes.

Then add 2 tablespoons of water to the pan/wok (please note that the oil will split due to water being added) and cover immediately with a lid for 5-6 minutes to allow the dumplings to steam.

Serve immediately with the dipping sauce and enjoy.

Stir-Fried Prawns and Pork with Crispy Noodles

Recipe taken from ‘How To Cook’ by Darina Allen, published by Kyle Books (2021)

Super-fast and delicious and fun to do.  I love the contrast and textures of sweet, sour, sharp and salty flavours.  We love to pile the crispy noodles into lettuce leaves or wraps.

Serves 4

100g (3 1/oz) rice vermicelli

6 tablespoons vegetable oil

4 tablespoons finely chopped shallots

6 garlic cloves, finely sliced

1/2 – 1 teaspoon chilli flakes (or to taste)

400g (14oz) minced pork

200g (7oz) cooked prawns or shrimps, cut into 8mm (1/3 inch) chunks

a large handful of beansprouts or 80g (3 1/4oz) spring onions, cut at an angle

1 – 2 tablespoons light soft brown sugar

2 tablespoons fish sauce

2 tablespoons mirin

a large handful of coriander leaves

juice of 2 limes, plus lime wedges to serve

For this recipe, break the vermicelli into shortish lengths about 10 – 12.5cm (4-5 inch).

Deep-fat fryers vary in size so fill the fryer up to the recommended line and heat the oil to 180˚C (350˚F).  Alternatively, fill a deep saucepan with 5 – 7.5cm (2-3 inch) depth of oil. 

Cook the noodles in batches until crisp – they puff up like magic in just a few seconds. Drain on kitchen paper.

Heat 3cm (1 1/4 inch) oil in a wok over the highest heat, add the shallots and stir-fry for 1 minute.   Add the garlic, chilli flakes and pork and continue to stir-fry for a further 2 minutes or until the pork is almost cooked.  Add the prawns, beansprouts, sugar, fish sauce and mirin and stir-fry for 2-3 minutes or until the prawns are heated through.  Add the coriander. Toss, taste and add more fish sauce, mirin or sugar if necessary.  Add the lime juice.

Spoon the pork and prawn mixture over the drained noodles.  Serve with lime wedges on the side.  Alternatively, pile into lettuce leaf wraps. 

Deh-Ta Hsiung’s Steamed Grey Sea Mullet

Deh-Ta Hsiung, a Chinese chef who came to the school on several occasions to give us a “Taste of China”, was so excited by the flavour of grey sea mullet  that he almost emigrated to Ireland! I give you his delicious recipe for steamed fish with his permission. 

Serves 4 as a main course

1 grey sea mullet weighing approx. 700-900g (1 1/2 – 2lbs) (sea bass could be used instead)

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon sesame seed oil

4 spring onions

2-3 dried mushrooms, soaked and thinly shredded

50g (2oz) pork fillet or cooked ham, thinly shredded

2 tablespoons light soy sauce

1 tablespoon rice wine or sherry

4cm (1 1/2 inch) piece peeled ginger root, thinly shredded

2 tablespoons oil

Scale and gut the fish (if not already done), wash it under the cold tap and dry well both inside and out with a cloth or kitchen paper. Trim the fins and tail if not already trimmed, be careful and use strong scissors and watch out for the very sharp spines. 

Slash both sides of the fish diagonally as far as the bone at intervals of about 1cm (1/2 inch) with a sharp knife.  In case you wonder why it is necessary to slash both sides of the fish before cooking, the reason is twofold: first, if you cook the fish whole, the skin will burst unless it’s scored and secondly slashing allows the heat to penetrate more quickly and at the same time helps to diffuse the flavours of the seasoning and sauce, also as the Chinese never use a knife at the table, it is much easier to pick up pieces of flesh with just a pair of chopsticks.

Rub about half the salt and all the sesame seed oil inside the fish and place it on top of 2-3 spring onions on an oval-shaped dish.

Mix the mushrooms and pork with the remaining salt, a little of the soy sauce and wine.  Stuff about half of this mixture inside the fish and rest on top with the ginger root.  Place in a hot Chinese steamer over a wok and steam vigorously for 15 minutes.

Meanwhile, thinly shred the remaining spring onions and heat the oil in a little saucepan until bubbling.  Remove the fish dish from the steamer, arrange the spring onion shreds on top, pour the remaining soy sauce over it and then the hot oil from head to tail.  Serve hot.

If you don’t possess a steamer big enough to hold a whole fish, it can be wrapped in silver foil and baked in the oven at 230˚C/450˚F/Gas Mark 8 for 20-25 minutes. 

Fortune Cookies

It’s such fun to make Chinese fortune cookies, each one has a strip of paper hidden inside with a Chinese wish or proverb. They are made from a simple tuile batter. Spread them really thinly and mould as soon as they come out of the oven, otherwise, they become brittle and crumbly. Have your little wishes ready to pop in.

Makes 30-32

140g (scant 5oz) butter

4 egg whites

210g (7 1/2oz) caster sugar

155g (5 1/4oz) white flour, sieved

3 tablespoons cream

1/2 teaspoon pure almond extract

Preheat the oven to 200°C/400°F/Gas Mark 6.

Line a baking tray with parchment paper.

Melt the butter gently and allow to cool a little.

Put the egg whites and sugar into a spotlessly clean bowl and whisk for a few seconds. Fold in the flour and mix. Add the melted butter, cream and almond extract. Mix until well combined.

Spoon 1 teaspoon of batter onto a prepared baking sheet, spread with the back of a spoon into a thin even 10cm (4 inch) round.  Allow room for spreading and don’t attempt to cook more than 3 or 4 at a time, otherwise it will be difficult to shape  them quickly enough.  Bake until the edges of the cookies turn golden brown, 6-8 minutes.

Have all your Chinese proverbs ready. Lift one of the cookies off the baking tray with a spatula. Lay the strip of paper across the centre, fold the cookie into a semi-circle and pinch the rounded edges gently together.  Insert your thumb and index finger into the  open ends and fold them down to meet underneath.  This whole process should only take about 10 seconds. Cool on a wire rack. Repeat with the others and eat within a couple of hours or store in an airtight container with a (silica crystal packet).  Happy Chinese New Year!

About the author

Darina Allen
By Darina Allen


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