Text Susan Jung / Photography Jonathan Wong / Styling Nellie Ming Lee
Many dishes are served during Lunar New Year because they're believed to bring good fortune in the months that follow. I'm not convinced that eating these dishes will bring me health and wealth, but they certainly make me happy.
Fresh abalone with spring onion and ginger (pictured)
There's a big difference between fresh abalone and the dried stuff. While the latter is very expensive to buy and time-consuming to prepare, fresh abalone is reasonably priced (although not exactly cheap) and it cooks quickly. Buy the abalone as close as possible to the time you're going to cook it, and have the seafood vendor clean it.
12 fresh abalone, with shells about 6cm long, cleaned
100 grams spring onions
100 grams fresh ginger, peeled
25ml oyster sauce
15ml soy sauce
15ml rice wine
Cooking oil, as needed
Slice the ginger across its fibres into pieces about 2mm thick. Cut the spring onions into 5cm lengths. In a bowl, mix together the oyster sauce, soy sauce and rice wine. Dissolve about two heaped tablespoons of cornstarch in about 60ml of cool water (the exact amounts don't matter because you won't need all of the mixture; it's used to thicken the sauce).
Heat a wok over a high flame and add about 100ml of cooking oil. When the oil is very hot, add the spring onion and stir-fry very quickly, so it's slightly blistered but still bright green. Scoop the onion from the wok, leaving behind most of the oil, and drain the pieces on paper towels. Heat the oil again, add the ginger and stir-fry constantly for about 30 seconds, until the slices are slightly browned and blistered. Scoop the ginger from the wok and drain on paper towels. Pour off all but about 15ml of cooking oil from the wok.
Place the wok over a medium-high flame. When it's hot, add the abalone and the ginger and stir-fry briefly, then stir in the sauce mixture. Lower the heat, cover the wok with the lid and simmer the ingredients for one to two minutes, or until the abalone is almost cooked. Remove the lid and turn the heat to medium-high. Stir the cornstarch/water mixture, then drizzle it in slowly while constantly mixing the ingredients in the wok. Add just enough cornstarch so the sauce lightly coats the abalone and ginger. Stir in the spring onion, cook for about 30 more seconds then put the ingredients on a serving dish. Serve immediately.
Faat choi jai
I didn't like this dish when I was very young because the flavours are so rich and complex, but I love it now. The ingredients list looks daunting, but after all the dried products are soaked and sliced, the dish is quite easy to cook. It can be made in advance and reheated - just add some water if it thickens too much.
The over-harvesting of faat choi - often called "hairy moss seaweed", although it grows on land - is said to be causing soil erosion in northern China. You can leave it out of this dish or substitute a fake version.
45ml rice wine, divided
6 dried oysters
30 grams faat choi
6 large dried shiitake mushrooms
6 dried cloud ear mushrooms
12 dried lily stems (also called gum jum or golden needles)
3 sheets dried bean curd skin
1 small bundle mung bean noodles
6 fresh water chestnuts, peeled
12 fresh straw mushrooms
125 grams fresh bamboo shoots, husks removed
1 chunk (about 8cm) lotus root, peeled
2 heads baby napa cabbage
30ml cooking oil
2 slices of ginger (about 2mm thick), peeled
2 squares fermented bean curd
2 tsp sugar
Fine sea salt, to taste
Soak the dried oysters in warm water for 15 minutes. Drain them, then put them in a shallow bowl and drizzle with 15ml of rice wine. Steam over a high heat for 15 minutes, then cool. Slice the oysters about 5mm thick and put them back into the bowl and cover with cling-film. Thoroughly rinse the faat choi then drain it and squeeze out the water. Put it into a bowl, add the remaining rice wine, mix thoroughly and leave for 10 minutes. Rinse well, then drain it and squeeze out the excess water.
Rinse the dried shiitake, cloud ear mushrooms and lily stems then put them in a bowl. Cover with 300ml of warm water and soak until they are pliable. Squeeze out the excess water from all the ingredients. Strain the soaking liquid into another bowl through a fine sieve to remove any grit. Discard the stems from the shiitake mushrooms. Slice the shiitake and cloud ear mushrooms about 5mm thick. Trim off the hard buds from the end of the lily stems.
In another bowl, soak the bean curd skin and mung bean noodles in warm water until pliable, then drain them and squeeze out the excess water. Cut the bean curd skin into 2cm-wide pieces and the mung bean noodles into shorter lengths.
Slice the water chestnuts about 5mm thick. Halve the straw mushrooms. Quarter or halve the bamboo shoots (depending on size), then slice them into 3mm-thick pieces. Cut the lotus root in half lengthwise and slice it about 3mm thick. Halve the napa cabbage lengthwise, remove and discard the core, then cut the cabbage into 1cm-wide pieces.
In a small bowl, mix the fermented bean curd with the sugar and the liquid from steaming the oysters to make a rough paste. Heat the oil in a pot, add the ginger and stir for about 30 seconds, or until fragrant. Mix in the fermented bean curd mixture and a little salt, then stir in the oyster, faat choi, the shiitake, cloud ear and straw mushrooms, lily stems, bamboo shoots, lotus root and water chestnuts. Add the liquid used to soak the dried mushrooms then bring to the boil. Lower the heat and simmer for an hour, stirring occasionally. Mix in more water if it gets too thick (it should be slightly soupy). Taste for seasonings and adjust, if needed. It can be made in advance up to this point. If you've refrigerated it, heat it until simmering, adding more water, if needed. Add the bean curd skin, mung bean noodles and cabbage, then simmer for 10 minutes. Taste for seasonings again, then serve.