Remember this song?
Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens
Bright copper kettles and warm woolen mittens
Brown paper packages tied up with strings
These are a few of my favorite things
If you are a die-hard Sound of Music fan, you will remember Julie Andrews’ singing this. And I do so love it! And you will now know which era I was born in!
Anyways, with the Chinese New Year celebration this week, I’m compiling my favourite things because frankly, Chinese New Year is about food.
We Chinese cannot live without food. We celebrate all occasions with food. We drown our sorrows with food (recall that post-funeral makan is often lavish, sometimes a bit overly so. Perhaps we’re celebrating the life of the dead person with food too!). We celebrate baby’s full moon with passing around food.
Heck, any occasion is a FOOD binge.
So my favourite things of Chinese New Year is about food. Pardon me if I sound like a glutton. I probably am!
1. Ngar-ku chips (Arrowhead chips)
Think potato chips or crisps (to those who wish to be precise) but triple the addictiveness and you will get ngar-ku chips. Ngar-ku or arrowhead is a tuber about the size of a small potato, with a stem sticking out. It’s from China. Normally, it’s washed, peeled and sliced before it’s steamed with Chinese wax duck or wax sausages.
These days, the hip thing is to buy ngar-ku by the bucketload, peel them, slice them thinly and deepfry. My aunt does it. It’s back-breakingly hot work. Peeling the ngar-ku is one matter but slicing them using a mandolin right over hot oil in a wok is not something to cherish. And you have to be careful while frying them. They burn easily. So you have to be quick and nimble or you will end up with scorched (bitter) chips.
I usually have no time for such delicate things in the kitchen so I go out to the Lip Sin wet market and buy them (RM15 per canister). One tub is never enough. Sure it’s expensive (far more expensive than Lay’s Potato Chips) but it’s crispy, crunchy and so reminiscent of Chinese New Year!
(The ngar-ku is also called see-ku. The symbolism of this tuber is that if you plant some, you have a high likelihood of producing a male offspring as the stem of this tuber represents the boy’s you know what. Chinese traditions are all about symbolisms like this.)
2. Nin-koh (Glutinuous Rice Cake)
I get my nin-koh (Cantonese) or nian gao to Mandarin speakers from my favourite curry mee auntie. She makes the nin-koh herself and they’re made and wrapped the old fashion way, with banana leaves. Hers can be left unrefrigerated for 2 whole months. Her guarantee.
Of course you won’t be able to keep it for 2 months because you will want to eat it as it is so fragrant! Nin-koh can be cut into bite-size pieces, steamed and eaten with freshly grated coconut OR it can be sliced, dipped into beaten egg and pan-fried.
I’ve heard stories about making nin-koh. It is usually made well after midnight when everyone’s fast asleep because any uncalled for remark about the nin-koh and it would not set or turn out right. Kids usually are kept far away or out of sight when the nin-koh is about to be made.
Superstitious? You bet. Despite it being made out of everyday ingredients like glutinous rice flour, sugar, oil and water.
I’ve also tasted Filipino nin-koh or tnee koay which is a flat, white disc of a cake. When Nic’s friend gave it to us, I didn’t know what to do with it. Eventually we cooked it the same way as our regular nin-koh – dip in egg and pan-fry. It tasted absolutely like our own nin-koh, except that it was of a different colour!
3. Love letters or Kuih Kapit
It’s almost a must snack on love letters or kuih kapit during CNY. Everyone has a secret supplier who makes super crispy, super fragrant kuih kapit. I’ve actually made them before but like all delicious biscuits, it takes time!
The traditional way is to use charcoal fire to cook them. Charcoal retains an even heat throughout but it also means you get really warm as you sit and fold the soft kuih kapit slices fresh. You need to be fast enough or you will not fold them properly. Plus if you are ladling the batter over the kuih kapit mold, you need to have a good turn of the wrist or your kuih kapit will be too thick!
Nowadays, the kuih kapit is modified. As with all things Chinese, we love adding our creative touches to food. The modern kuih kapit is rolled instead of folded. Inside the roll you would find chicken or pork floss, a savoury and yummy contrast to the crispiness of the kuih kapit.
4. Dried Longan
I know this is rare but I used to love eating dried longan, the type served during CNY – the whole fruit, shell and all. There’s a kind of yellowish dye on the shell which stains my fingers golden. The shell is crisp and fragile and one can easily break it open to get at the dried longan flesh inside. A sweet, succulent longan!
5. Dried Barbecued Meat or Yuk Korn
Who can resist dried barbecued meat slices or yuk korn? It goes without saying that CNY isn’t CNY until you have your fair share of yuk korn. I can eat yuk korn on its own (horribly indulgent to say the least) or sandwiched between white bread. While I have no particular favourites, I usually buy Bee Cheng Hiang because it’s easily available in the malls.
6. Kuih Makmur
This is a melt in the mouth biscuit. They’re white balls of sweet, milky dough, the size of marbles and covered with powdered sugar. I have a fondness for kuih makmur because it’s so creamy and easy to eat (my brother-in-law shares the same love for this kuih). I can’t find this here so I usually get my supply when I go to Kuching. It’s something like the ghee balls made by Hindus for Deepavali. Kuih makmur is less rich but no less delicious!
7. Old Style Prosperity dishes
While we had an OK reunion dinner at City Bayview Hotel this year, I didn’t find my favourite prosperity dishes on the table. Dishes like hou see fatt choy (dried oysters with fungus) were missing. Luckily my aunt made a pot of it at home and I had that for lunch on the first day of CNY. The other traditional dish I missed was the too thor thng or pig stomach soup! This soup is peppery, a lovely warm accompaniment to the other dishes. It takes some sort of expertise to clean out the pig’s stomach too. (The soup contains pig stomach, button mushrooms, water chestnuts and lots of peppercorn.)
8. Vegetarian Luncheon Meat
If I am in Kuching for CNY, my mom-in-law observes a full day of vegetarian food on the 1st day of CNY. So this means there’s no meat. But there’s vegetarian luncheon meat which she buys from the market. She slices and fries them and they taste so damn close like the real thing! I know it’s made from mushroom and soya bean but it’s one of my favourite foods for CNY. It’s pleasure without guilt!
9. Fried crab filament snack
This is junk food. But essential for CNY. Great when you are playing card games or mah jong and want something to snack on which makes a great deal of crunching sound. Fried crab filament is a no brainer. Buy the crab filament (fake crab meat stick), unroll them and cut them up into 1 inch length. Deep fry and drain on paper towels. Store in air tight containers. Snack on them as you please. It’s bloody addictive, like ngar-ku chips. It’s damn heaty too. But tastes so good!
10. Mini Spring Rolls
You can learn more why this snack is madly addictive at CokeWorld Citizen’s blog (plus how you can order this snack all year round).
So what’s your favourite food during CNY? 😉