Growing up, television presenter and author Suzie Lee was extremely fortunate in that her parents carried on the customs and traditions of Hong Kong in their family home in Northern Ireland.
"Holidays are essential to Chinese culture, and Chinese family gatherings centred around feasts and festivals were just another reason to eat and be together," she says.
Ring in Chinese New Year with crescent moon-shaped dumplings (to be eaten during the last hour of the old year and the first hour of the new) and indulge in a fish dish to encourage prosperity, as well as dishes Lee's family always served for the celebration.
- Simply Chinese Feasts, by Suzie Lee. Hardie Grant Books. $45.
Crispy sea bream
Fish is a really auspicious food group and a whole fish is a must at banquets and special occasions. Mum used to make this, and I loved it: crunchy, salty, sweet fish skin against the tender fish meat - it was just delicious.
- 500g fresh sea bream or other white whole fish, descaled, gutted and trimmed
- 1 heaped tbsp cornflour
- 2 tbsp vegetable oil
- 20g fresh ginger root, peeled and sliced into fine rounds
- 2 tbsp Shaoxing wine
- 1 tbsp sugar
- 3 tbsp boiling water
- 1 1/2 tbsp light soy sauce
- 1/4 tbsp white pepper
1. Ask your fishmonger to descale, gut and trim the fish, then clean by rinsing with water (you can sometimes buy the whole fish already prepared and cleaned at the supermarket). Dry the fish well with some paper towels to stop the oil spitting when frying. Dust the whole fish with the cornflour on both sides and set aside.
2. To make the sauce, dissolve the sugar in the water in a bowl, add the light soy sauce and pepper and mix together.
3. To cook the fish, heat the vegetable oil in a wok or large frying pan over a high heat. Add the ginger slices and fry for a couple of minutes until the ginger browns slightly at the edges. Remove the ginger and set aside.
4. Place the fish in the wok/pan and fry for five minutes (press down with a fish slice so the whole side is seared), then flip and repeat on the other side for a further five minutes. If the fish is starting to burn, lower the heat to medium and allow to cook for a couple of minutes longer on each side. You want the skin to have a lovely, golden, crunchy appearance.
5. Return the ginger slices to the pan/wok (you may need another tablespoon or so of oil to stop the fish sticking at this stage). Then drizzle the Shaoxing wine around the edges (not directly over the fish) and cook for about one minute.
6. Pour the prepared sauce around the fish, not directly over it. Allow the sauce to bubble and start to caramelise, then cook the fish for a couple of minutes on one side before flipping over and cooking on the other side. This will coat the fish in a sticky sauce. (If the sauce starts to burn, then add a splash of water.)
7. Slice into the fish to check it is fully cooked - the flesh should flake away from the bones. If not, cook for another couple of minutes. Plate up, ready for your feast.
If there is any leftover fish, remove from the bone and use to bulk up a fried rice dish.
Place the fish bones in a pot of water and boil down to make a stock.
White cut chicken
A whole chicken symbolises happiness, prosperity and family togetherness. It is therefore not to be left off a Chinese New Year menu. This is a variation on the Hainanese chicken recipe from my Simply Chinese cookbook, but the chicken is steamed instead of poached. A very simple but tasty recipe.
- 1 whole chicken (approx. 1.3 kg)
- 2 tsp fine sea salt
- 2 tbsp sesame oil
Chicken cavity paste:
- 1 1/2 large garlic cloves
- 40g (about 4) spring onions, nely sliced
- 40g fresh ginger root, peeled
- 1 tbsp sea salt
Ginger and spring onion sauce:
- 15g fresh ginger root, peeled and grated
- 30g spring onions, nely chopped
- 1/2 tsp sea salt
- 2 tbsp vegetable oil
1. To prepare the chicken, scrub the skin with one teaspoon of fine sea salt and add one teaspoon to the cavity. Rinse the chicken inside and out under the tap, being careful not to splash the water about too much (make sure you wash and sanitise your sink thoroughly afterwards).
2. To make the cavity paste, place the garlic, spring onion and ginger on a cutting board and chop vigorously until you have a paste. Add the sea salt to the paste and then rub this mixture into the cavity of the chicken. This gives so much flavour to the chicken from the inside out. You can also use a mortar and pestle or a food processor to blitz the paste ingredients.
3. Bring some water in the cooking pot of a steamer to a boil, then place the chicken in a heatproof dish and lower into the steamer - be careful not to scald yourself here (I usually wear rubber gloves to do this).
4. Now steam the chicken with the lid on over a high heat for 25 minutes. Do not lift off the lid. Top up the steamer with more water if necessary. Lower to a medium heat. Steam for another 25 minutes, then turn off the heat. Leave the chicken in the steamer with the lid on and allow to cool for at least 10 minutes.
5. Lift the chicken from the steamer and drain any liquid that has collected in the cavity into the dish it was sitting in.
6. Brush the chicken with the sesame oil all over the skin. Chop the chicken into chunks when cooled and assemble on a large plate.
7. To make the ginger and spring onion sauce, mix the ginger, spring onion and salt in a small heatproof bowl (you can speed things up by blitzing the ginger in a food processor and then add the spring onion at the end).
8. Bring the two tablespoons of vegetable oil to smoking point in a small cooking pot. You will see the surface of the oil rippling when it reaches smoking point - test the temperature with the end of a wooden spoon. Immediately pour this boiling oil over the ginger and spring onion in the bowl.
9. Serve the steamed chicken with the ginger and spring onion sauce.
If you do not have a large enough steamer, use a large soup pot with a lid. Fill the pot with a couple of inches of water, then place a small heatproof bowl upside down on the bottom. Then balance a large plate or bowl on top to steam the chicken.
The liquid that collects in the dish the chicken is steamed in is delicious, so I sometimes use this as a base for a broth or stock, or even pour it over rice.
In my Simply Chinese cookbook I included a recipe for "pot stickers", which are crispy, pan-fried dumplings. Boiling/poaching is one of the most popular methods for cooking dumplings, and these are called shui gaau. Traditionally, they are grilled with pork and chive or pork and cabbage, but I use beef and cabbage here, as I think it gives a really meaty flavour (you can also use Quorn mince). My children are addicted to dumplings and they would eat them every day if I made them. Since these dumplings are boiled, they are quicker to make than the pot stickers.
- 1 litre water
- 200g plain flour
- 100ml boiling water
- 1/4 tsp salt
- 1/2 tbsp vegetable oil
- cornflour, for dusting
- 1 tbsp vegetable oil
- 1 tbsp finely chopped fresh ginger root (peeled)
- 1 tsp finely chopped garlic
- 150g napa cabbage, finely sliced
- 1 tbsp light soy sauce
- 1 tsp Shaoxing wine
- 1/2 tsp white pepper
- 1 tbsp cornflour
- 1/2 tsp chicken stock powder
- 1 tsp sesame oil
- 200g minced beef
1. To make the dough, mix the flour with the boiling water and salt in a bowl until you have a rough dough that is soft to the touch but not sticky. (I wear clean rubber gloves.) (You can use a stand mixer with a dough hook or a bowl and hand-held electric whisk with dough hook attachments if you do not want to get your hands sticky, but be careful as the dough will be hot to combine).
2. Add the oil and work it into the dough, then leave to rest in a bowl covered with a damp dish towel or a plate for 15 minutes.
3. Now knead the dough by hand for 10 minutes or keep using a mixer and knead for five minutes. Knead until the dough is smooth - it may take another couple of minutes or more.
4. Cut the dough into 20 pieces and shape into flat, circular wrappers, approximately 10cm in diameter. You can also use a rolling pin to roll out the dough and 10cm cookie cutters to cut out perfect circles. Dust the wrappers with some cornflour, so they do not stick to each other.
5. To make the filling, heat the vegetable oil in a wok or large frying pan, then fry off the ginger and garlic for a couple of minutes. Add the napa cabbage, soy sauce and Shaoxing wine, and fry over a low heat for five minutes. Then mix in the remainder of the ingredients - the white pepper, cornflour, chicken stock powder, sesame oil and minced beef.
6. To make the dumplings, take a dough wrapper and add one small teaspoon of filling to the middle, then dampen the edges with some water lightly using your finger. Fold the wrapper in half to form a semi-circle. Then pull the ends of the semi-circle together so they meet and overlap slightly. Press together to join - you should now have a dumpling that looks like a tortellini.
7. Bring the one litre water to the boil in a large cooking pot with one teaspoon of salt.
8. Once the water is at a roaring boil, add half the dumplings and allow them to sink to the bottom of the pot. Bring to the boil again and allow to boil for another couple of minutes until the dumplings start floating on the surface of the water. Remove the dumplings with a slotted spoon or spider. Then repeat the process for the rest of the dumplings.
9. Serve the dumplings with some black vinegar and soy sauce, just soy sauce or smothered in chilli oil - now my go-to!
Freeze the uncooked dumplings straightaway on a baking tray, then pop into a freezer bag once frozen so they don't stick together. To cook from frozen, add a couple more minutes' boiling time.
Fermented bean curd green beans
Fermented bean curd is a really popular Chinese cooking ingredient. It is the closest thing the Chinese have to cheese. It comes in two forms - white fermented or red fermented (the red version uses red rice yeast, which gives a more intense flavour and colouring). I have focused on red fermented bean curd, which is used in a lot of meat dishes, for this book. This recipe is usually made with an Asian vegetable called "morning glory", but this isn't always easy to get hold of if you don't have access to an Asian supermarket. However, if you have bought a jar of fermented bean curd, then make this dish with vegetables you can buy locally.
- 250g green beans, topped and tailed
- vegetable oil, for frying
- 3 cubes fermented red bean curd, mashed with 2 teaspoons of liquid from the jar
- 1 heaped tbsp nely chopped garlic, (about 1 large clove)
- 1 red chilli, sliced (optional)
- pinch sugar
- 1 tsp sesame oil
- salt and white pepper
1. Add the green beans with four tablespoons of water to a wok or large frying pan, put on the lid and bring to a boil for two to three minutes (the beans will steam). Remove the beans and set aside.
2. Dry the wok/pan and add one teaspoon of vegetable oil, then fry off the mashed bean curd with the garlic and chilli (if using) and a pinch each of sugar and pepper for a couple of minutes until you can smell the aromas being released.
3. Return the green beans to the wok/pan, then toss to coat in the sauce. Season with salt and pepper to taste, then drizzle over the sesame oil to serve.