With Lunar New Year almost upon us, it's time to start cooking auspicious dishes. The first recipe makes use of dried oysters and lettuce while the second includes a large quantity of dried scallops - all of these ingredients are supposed to bring good fortune in the new year.
Minced dried oysters, pork and vegetables in lettuce cups (ho see soong)
This dish was my grandmother's speciality: something she made only on special occasions, such as Lunar New Year, when she cooked for at least 30 people. What separates a good version of the dish from a great one is the knife-work: the dried oysters and vegetables must be hand-chopped as finely as possible. Don't use a food processor, or the results will be coarse, not refined.
The oysters and mushrooms need to be fully hydrated, which can take several hours; I start soaking them the night before.
This dish is usually served with hoisin sauce, but try it without first - the delicate flavour can be overwhelmed by the strong, sweet sauce.
8-10 large dried oysters, about 150 grams
10-12 large dried shiitake mushrooms, about 100 grams
3 celery stalks, about 225 grams
125 grams fresh bamboo shoots (tender part only)
6-8 fresh water chestnuts, about 100 grams, peeled and rinsed
500 grams minced pork
20ml soy sauce
10ml rice wine
½ tsp granulated sugar
¾ tsp fine sea salt
1/8 tsp finely ground white pepper
3 tsp cornstarch, divided
About 45 grams oyster sauce
About 35ml cooking oil
2 spring onions, cut into 5mm lengths
10ml sesame oil
Iceberg lettuce cups
Hoisin sauce (optional)
Rinse the dried oysters and mushrooms then put them in a bowl, cover with warm water and leave to soak for several hours, or until fully hydrated. Drain them and squeeze out the liquid. Pour the soaking liquid through a fine sieve to remove any sediment. Squeeze out the liver (which is soft and greenish-grey) from the dried oysters and rinse them well, then chop them into 4mm pieces. Remove and discard the mushroom stems, then cut the caps into 4mm pieces. Put the oysters and mushrooms in a bowl.
Cut the celery, bamboo shoots and water chestnuts into 4mm pieces, keeping the ingredients separate. Boil the bamboo shoots for five minutes.
Put the minced pork in a bowl and add the soy sauce, rice wine, sugar, salt, white pepper and one teaspoon of cornstarch. Mix well and leave to marinate for about 15 minutes. Dissolve the oyster sauce in 80ml of the oyster and mushroom soaking liquid.
Place a wok over a high flame and when it's hot, pour in about 15ml of cooking oil. Add the celery and bamboo shoots and stir-fry for two minutes. Add the water chestnuts and stir-fry for a minute, then mix in the oysters and mushrooms. Cook for another minute, stirring often, then transfer the ingredients to a bowl. Put the wok back over the high flame and add 10ml of cooking oil. When the oil is hot, add the pork and use the spatula to break it into very small pieces. Stir-fry until the pork loses its pink colour, then stir in the vegetable and oyster mixture. Add the oyster sauce/soaking liquid mixture and stir well. Lower the heat, cover the wok with the lid and simmer for about three minutes, stirring often. Taste the mixture and add a little salt and/or oyster sauce, if needed. Dissolve the remaining two teaspoons of cornstarch in about 30ml of the soaking liquid and mix into the ingredients. Turn the flame to high and stir constantly. The sauce should lightly coat the ingredients; if it's too dry, add more soaking liquid, if it's too wet, stir constantly over a high flame until the sauce is reduced slightly. Stir in the spring onions and sesame oil then transfer to a bowl.
Scoop the mixture into iceberg lettuce cups that have been smeared (if you like) with a small amount of hoisin sauce.
The recipe appears in my cookbook, A Celebration of Food (published in 2012), and last year, I made a video, demonstrating the technique. Since then I've adjusted the method: rather than steaming the dried scallops to soften them (a necessity, because they won't get softer once you start cooking them with the oil), I now simmer them in water, which makes it easier to shred them into small pieces. I was reluctant to try this at first, worrying that the flavour of the scallops would get diluted, but it doesn't. So ignore the steaming step in the video and cookbook, and follow this technique, instead. Another new technique - use the chopper attachment of a food processor or immersion blender to shred the scallops, but don't overprocess them.
Use the smallest dried shrimp you can find.
500 grams dried scallops
300 grams shallots, minced
12 large garlic cloves, minced
100 grams small dried shrimp
75 grams Chinese dried ham
6-8 red bird's-eye chillies
About 10 grams fine chilli flakes
60ml fish sauce or soy sauce
1 heaped tbsp dried shrimp eggs
1 litre canola or corn oil, plus more as needed
Rinse the dried scallops. Pour 500ml of water in a wide saucepan and bring to the boil. Add the scallops and cover with the lid. Simmer, stirring often, until the scallops are very soft and have absorbed all of the water (about 15 minutes). If they seem dry, stir in more water. While the scallops are still hot, pull them apart into fine shreds, discarding any hard bits.
Cut the ham into 3mm cubes. Remove the stems and seeds from the bird's-eye chillies, then mince the flesh.
Pour 500ml of oil into a wok then add the shallot. Heat over a medium flame, stirring often, until the oil starts to sizzle. Stir in the scallop, garlic, shrimp, ham, chilli, 10 grams of chilli flakes and the fish sauce or soy sauce. Mix well then add another 500ml of oil. Bring to a simmer then lower the heat and cook very slowly - the oil should sizzle very gently. Cook for at least three hours, stirring often, and add more oil as needed when the mixture becomes dry. After three hours, stir in the shrimp eggs (and more chilli flakes, if desired) and cook for two more hours, or until the mixture is dark, thick and oily.
Ladle the XO sauce into a large, sterilised jar and pour in more oil so the ingredients are submerged. Store in the fridge, and decant into smaller jars as needed.
Styling: Nellie Ming Lee