Nature of the feast
Hongkongers are eating increasingly lighter, less greasy fare at Lunar New Year. Tradition certainly still plays a big part in the festivities: ingredients such as dried oyster, and black fungus that looks like hair, are still at the heart of the spring celebration.
These ingredients symbolise good things happening in the coming year, such as weddings, births and big birthdays. But something is certainly changing.
'Lunar New Year is more relaxed,' says Vincent Lam, a slow food aficionado and enthusiastic home cook. 'Twenty years ago, you had to be in the flower market until the small hours on Lunar New Year's Eve. The longer you stayed up, the longer your parents lived [according to belief]. But I go to bed at 10pm now. The flower market is too dirty and packed for me.
'Lunar New Year is all about ho see - good happenings,' Lam adds. Stewed pigs' knuckles traditionally loom large on menus, for instance. 'They symbolise money coming in,' Lam explains. 'Pigs' knuckle means making money in a slightly improper way, this augers well for money making in the year ahead.'
Chinese lettuce, san choy, is always popular. This is associated with life and longevity. If there are children in the house, there should be green onions and Chinese celery around. These symbolise hard work and diligent studying.
'But these are all traditions that are slowly dying out, because people don't cook at home any more,' Lam says. 'They go to restaurants instead. That's why they are booked solid at this time of year. If you do cook, you have to cook way too much. That's because there must be leftovers ... That's a tradition that dates back to the days when Chinese people were starving.'
Asked to name dishes commonly made by families over Lunar New Year, chef Ip Chi-cheung, from the Island Shangri-La hotel, lists: steamed whole fish, steamed whole chicken, braised sea moss and dried oysters, vegetables, braised Chinese mushrooms with lettuce, chicken and fish maw soup, braised abalone and braised pork knuckles.
These are all very traditional. But sauce and condiment maker Lee Kum Kee is promoting a switch to lighter dishes this year. It has designed a special range of dishes for home cooking during Lunar New Year.
'The traditional ingredients are normally large fish and big chunks of meat for goodwill and blessings. But this year's recipes are lighter and healthier,' Lee Kum Kee's Raymond Tse says. There is less emphasis on tradition, and foods such as pork knuckle, dried oysters and steamed whole chicken.
'People are tired of the traditional high-cholesterol menu. That's why we have designed these lighter suggestions for people to try at home this Lunar New Year,' Tse says.
Michelin-star chef Paul Lau of the Ritz-Carlton's Tin Lung Heen restaurant selected three dishes for his celebratory Lunar New Year menu: wok-fried prawns with salted egg yolk, wok-fried fresh abalone, and chicken with spring onion and ginger. For dessert, he suggests sweetened red bean cream with glutinous dumplings. These dishes were selected for their suitability and ease of cooking at home
Ginger and spring onions are used to remove abalone's briny smell and make it more appetising, he explains. 'Chicken also enhances the taste of the seafood.' The theme of one ingredient being employed to improve the flavour of another continues with the salty egg yolk enhancing the flavour of the prawns.
In the case of ingredients that have no intrinsic taste by themselves, a strongly flavoured ingredient imparts its taste, such as with the glutinous dumplings.
'These contain no taste, so the red beans give them a sweet flavour,' he says.
Prawns are especially popular at Lunar New Year for two reasons, Lau says. Firstly, the Cantonese pronunciation of 'prawn' is the same as that for 'laugh'.
'It is a good sign to be happy in the Lunar New Year. Secondly, after the prawns are coated with salted egg yolk, they look like gold nuggets. This symbolises good fortune in the New Year.'
Abalone is a premium ingredient that is widely used during Lunar New Year. 'When served, the abalone will be cut in a way that it looks like a flower. That symbolises prosperity in the new year,' Lau says. When it comes to dessert, he adds, Lunar New Year is a time for family gatherings. The glutinous dumplings are round. Together with the sweet red bean cream, this symbolises a sweet family reunion.
Chicken is an essential element in family meals. This dates back to the days when people could not easily afford meat or chicken, explains Lee Man-sing, chef de cuisine at the Mandarin Oriental's Man Wah restaurant.
'That's why chicken is still viewed as a prestige ingredient and a very important element in family meals,' he says. 'Lettuce sounds similar to 'brings wealth' in Chinese. That's why it's popular in Lunar New Year dishes.' Lee's menu suggestions are stewed dried seafood in casserole, braised chicken served with lettuce, and braised vegetables and mushrooms in preserved taro sauce.
Another tradition that survives is avoiding meat dishes in favour of vegetable dishes on the first day of Lunar New Year. 'It's thought that this will ensure longevity, especially for Buddhists,' Lee says. 'Moreover, as meals before the first day of Lunar New Year are usually heavy, having vegetable dishes allows people to refresh their appetites.'
Cooks usually make bulk portions of vegetable dishes and put them aside, leaving them out of the refrigerator. 'They are reheated and served to feed guests at family reunion meals,' Lee says.
Recipes by chef Paul Lau at the Ritz-Carlton
Wok-fried prawns with salted egg yolk
1 egg yolk
1/2 tsp sesame oil
Cornstarch, as required
For the egg yolk paste
2 salted egg yolks
10 grams unsalted butter
2 tbsp chicken stock
Sugar, to taste
Mash the steamed salted egg yolk
Cook the unsalted butter on a low heat
Stir well with salted egg yolk and sugar
Add chicken stock and stir until it emulsifies
Cool the salted egg yolk paste in refrigerator for later use
Wash the prawns, remove the heads and peel them
Season the prawns with sesame oil
Dip in the egg yolk and corn starch
Heat some oil in a wok; deep-fry the prawns for 40 seconds
Shake off excess oil
Heat some more oil in the wok
Add three tablespoons of salted egg yolk paste with the prawns
Fresh abalone and chicken with spring onion and ginger
3 pcs abalone
100 grams chicken meat
2 pcs spring onion (green part)
5 grams ginger
5 grams garlic
For the abalone marinade
A pinch of sugar
1/2 tsp salt
A few drops sesame oil
1/2 tsp corn starch
For the chicken marinade
A pinch of sugar
1/2 tsp soy sauce
A few drops of sesame oil
Corn starch, as required
For the sauce
1 1/2 tbsps chicken stock
1 tsp oyster sauce
1 tsp sugar
Dark soy sauce, to taste
Wine or sesame oil
Take the abalone from its shell and cut into pieces, marinade for 10 minutes; cut chicken meat into pieces and marinate
Heat oil in wok and add ginger Cook the chicken meat for 30 seconds and abalone for a few seconds. Shake off excess oil
Heat two tablespoons of oil add spring onions, salt and garlic, then add chicken meat and abalone
Stir in chicken stock and other seasonings
Add wine or sesame oil
Red bean cream with glutinous dumplings
1kg red beans
5 litres water
750 grams sugar
3.6 grams dried mandarin peel
500 grams glutinous flour
Blend the glutinous flour and water
Roll the dough into small balls
Rinse and soak red beans
Bring the water to boil together with the dried mandarin peel
Pour red beans into the boiling water, then simmer for an hour
Lower the heat
When the red beans become creamy, add the sugar
Add the glutinous dough balls and cook for five minutes
Braised chicken with lettuce
1 whole chicken
10 grams ginger
40 grams spring onion
500 grams lettuce
1 tbsp oyster sauce
30 grams rock sugar
600ml supreme broth
Half bottle preserved clam sauce
Dip chicken into soy sauce and deep fry
Remove from oil then braise for 30 minutes
Allow to cool and cut into pieces
Put the chicken and all other ingredients together and reheat
Dried seafood in casserole
160 grams dried oyster
80 grams conpoy
40 grams Japanese mushrooms
300 grams sea cucumber
40 grams sea moss
Half a chicken
300 grams roast pork belly
500 grams lettuce
80 grams garlic
100 grams oyster
40 grams sugar
40ml dark soy sauce
Steam the conpoy and Japanese mushrooms, set aside
Pan fry the dried oyster and sea cucumber
Steam all the other ingredients individually
Put all ingredients in a casserole, braise for one hour
Add soy sauce and reheat for 15 minutes
Vegetables and mushrooms in taro sauce
80 grams deep-fried bean curd sheet (sweet)
160 grams deep-fried bean curd sheet (plain)
160 grams eggplant
80 grams deep-fried bean curd puff
20 grams lily buds
30 grams brown fungus
160 grams black mushrooms
160 grams glass noodle
300 grams baby pak choy
Preserved taro, half piece
80 grams oyster sauce
120 grams sugar
Deep fry the eggplant, bean curd sheet, bean curd puff and drain
Heat a pan and lightly saute and toss the preserved taro until fragrant
Add the other ingredients, cover and braise for 30 minutes