When it comes to cooking up feasts for Lunar New Year, it’s wise to play it safe, at least if you are superstitious. There are certain foods eaten at the start of the year because they’re said to be auspicious. Eating them might not bring good fortune or wealth, but I hope they bring you happiness, because they’re delicious.
CLAMS WITH BLACK BEAN SAUCE
Clams are said to bring great blessings to a household. This dish is a Cantonese cuisine classic, and easy to make.
20 grams fermented black beans
15ml Chinese rice wine
1kg fresh clams, with shells about 3cm long
2 garlic cloves
2-3 thin ginger slices, peeled
1-2 red bird’s-eye chillies
1 each red and green banana chillies
About 20ml cooking oil
1 heaped tsp cornstarch
2 spring onions
Fresh coriander sprigs
Briefly rinse the black beans with water, then drain them and put them in a bowl with 20ml of hot water. Soak for about 15 minutes, then mash them with a fork and mix in the rice wine.
Rinse the clams under cold running water then drain them in a colander. Cut the garlic cloves in half then thinly slice them. Slice the bird’s-eye chillies in half lengthwise, scrape out the seeds and finely chop the flesh. Cut the banana chillies into thin rounds. Chop the spring onions. Dissolve the cornstarch in 15ml of cool water.
Place a wok over a high flame, pour in the cooking oil and, when it’s hot, add the garlic and ginger and stir-fry for about 30 seconds, or until fragrant. Add the bird’s-eye chillies and stir, then mix in the black beans and the liquid. Cook until sizzling, then add the clams, the banana chillies and about 100ml of hot water. Stir well, then cover the wok with the lid and turn the heat to medium. Cook for several minutes, or until the clams are cooked, stirring occasionally. If needed, stir in a little more water (the clams will give off a lot of liquid). When the clams are done – the shells will open – push them to the sides of the wok to create a well in the centre. Stir the cornstarch/water mixture, then drizzle it into the liquid in the well. Stir everything together then transfer the ingredients to a serving dish, sprinkle with spring onion and garnish with fresh coriander sprigs. Serve with steamed white rice.
My ancestry is southern Chinese, so my family didn’t make dumplings for Lunar New Year, which is more a custom of northern China; the dumplings symbolise wealth in the upcoming year. But making these is a tradition that’s easy to embrace because many hands wrapping the dumplings makes the work go by much faster and, of course, the results are delicious. I prefer boiled dumplings to the pan-fried ones (potstickers) because the texture is lighter and they’re also easier to wrap (you can just fold them over, rather than making pleats in the dumpling skin), but I’ve given the technique for wrapping and cooking them both ways. More traditional cooks would make their own dumpling skins, but using shop-bought ones is much easier. Buy the round wrappers for sui gao or gyoza.
3-5 dried shiitake mushrooms, depending on size
200 grams young napa cabbage (also called Chinese white cabbage)
150 grams Chinese green chives (use the flat variety)
50 grams spring onions
A 1cm-long chunk of fresh ginger, peeled
500 grams slightly fatty minced pork
15ml soy sauce
15ml Chinese rice wine
Fine sea salt, as needed
½ tsp granulated sugar
1/8 tsp finely ground white pepper
1 tsp sesame oil
2 tsp cornstarch
About 60 round thin wrappers
Cooking oil (for potstickers)
For the dipping sauce:
Chilli oil, chilli paste and/or chopped bird’s-eye chillies
Finely shredded ginger
Minced spring onions
Rinse the shiitake mushrooms then put them in a bowl and cover with warm water. When the mushrooms are fully hydrated, squeeze out the excess water. Remove and discard the stems then very finely chop the caps.
Finely chop the napa cabbage and put it in a bowl. Sprinkle it with a few tablespoons of salt and mix well. Leave for about 30 minutes, mixing occasionally until the cabbage is wilted. Put the cabbage in a colander and rinse it under cold running water, turning it with your hands and squeezing it. Taste the cabbage – it shouldn’t taste salty; if it does, continue to rinse it. Drain the vegetable then spread it on a clean, dry dish towel. Roll the towel tightly and squeeze out as much water as possible. Repeat, using a second clean, dry dish towel. Put the cabbage in a large bowl and add the mushroom. Finely mince the Chinese chives and spring onions and add them to the cabbage. Finely mince the ginger and put it and the minced pork into the bowl. Add the soy sauce, rice wine, half a teaspoon of sea salt, the sugar, pepper, sesame oil and cornstarch. Thoroughly mix the ingredients together. Shape some of the mixture into a small patty and pan-fry it in a skillet until cooked. Taste to check the seasonings and adjust, if necessary.
To make boiled dumplings, put a heaped spoonful of the filling in the centre of a dumpling skin. Use water to lightly dampen half the edge of the dumpling skin then fold over the other half and press firmly to form a half-circle. Place the dumpling on a tray lined with cling film, lightly pressing the dumpling so the base of it is flat and it stays upright. After shaping them all, bring a large pot of water to the boil and add the dumplings – you’ll need to cook them in batches. Simmer until they float to the surface, then use a metal skimmer to scoop them out and drain them. Put them in bowls and let each diner mix the dipping sauce to taste.
To make potstickers, put a heaped spoonful of the filling in the centre of a dumpling skin. Use water to lightly dampen half the edge of the dumpling skin then bring the two sides over the filling. Pleat the far side of the dumpling so it forms a crescent shape. Place the dumpling on a tray lined with cling film, lightly pressing the dumpling so the base of it is flat.
To cook them, heat a wide skillet (preferably cast iron) and coat it lightly with cooking oil. When the skillet is hot, put the dumplings in a spiral pattern in the pan, placing them so they’re slightly touching each other. Let the bottoms sizzle for about a minute or until browned, then add about 60ml of water to the pan. Immediately put the lid on the pan and reduce the flame. Let the dumplings simmer for a few minutes to cook the filling, then remove the lid. Turn the flame to high and cook until the water is evaporated and the bottoms of the dumplings crisp up slightly. Turn off the flame. Invert a large plate over the skillet. Protect your hands with pot holders and working carefully and quickly, firmly hold the plate and skillet together and turn them over. Lift the skillet away; the potstickers will (or should) be on the plate, bottom-sides up. If they’ve stuck to the skillet, use a spatula to remove them, then place them on the plate.
Serve immediately and let each diner mix the dipping sauce to taste.