Sunday, January 29, 2012

Foodbuzz 24 x 24--A Familiar New Year's Dinner

People are often surprised when they learn my family celebrates Lunar New Year. Bearded, ruddy complexioned and of Anglo-Irish descent, I don't exactly look Asian.  Yet for the past ten years, I've been hosting a family celebration of the Lunar New Year.  Usually done the first weekend after the official New Year's date, this year's celebration happened to fall on the day of this month's Foodbuzz 24 x 24.

The first New Year's celebration that I remember was in Malaysia in 1966.  Our family was living there for a year and we were invited to Cameron Highlands by the Oui family from Ipoh.  Peggy had lived with us as a foreign exchange student several years before, and she and her family were very welcoming to us when we went to Malaysia.  Although I'm sure we must have had some wonderful food, all that I really remember of that first New Year's is the firecrackers.  I think we bought something like 10,000 firecrackers and were lighting off strings of a hundred at a time. 

The first New Year's Tjing and I celebrated together was on Pulau Galang, a refugee camp in Indonesia where we were both working.  That was a few months after I first met her, a good many years before we got together and married.  In 1994, a few months after we got married, we moved to Vietnam for a year, arriving three days before Tet.  Saigon was just starting its economic boom after years of austerity and crowds filled the streets buying flowers and foods for the celebration.  The Ngo family, who we had met that first day in Saigon and who shared their house with us during our time in Saigon, invited us to share the Tet celebration with them.

 In 1998, facing collapse, Suharto's regime incited race riots against Chinese.  Chinese women were targeted for rape by mobs in Jakarta and elsewhere.  A few months later several of Tjing's cousins, who had been living in Jakarta at that time, came to the United States where they were eventually granted asylum in January 2001.  Since that time Tjing and I have been hosting the annual Lunar New Year's dinner.

We look on the dinner as a second Thanksgiving, an excuse for family to get together to celebrate our good fortune and eat some good food.  I think we had maybe ten guests at the initial dinner.  As families have a way of growing,  the celebration has expanded to include the new members.  Last night we had 17, including three small children.

Although Tjing insists we serve certain dishes (noodles and fish) others come and go depending on what I feel like cooking.  We've had all Chinese dishes some years, all Vietnamese others.  Not bound by family tradition, I can decide how to celebrate the year.  This year we had 14 dishes and the dinner lasted about 3 hours at the table.  Unfortunately, as I was busy getting dishes to the table, I forgot to get shots of the spareribs, tofu, or mushrooms.

The night's menu, some with links to recipes:

Lor Bak--pork and water chestnuts wrapped in bean curd skin and deep fried
 Ngo Hiang--pork, shrimp, taro, and water chestnuts, wrapped in bean curd skin, steamed and then deep fried
Barbecued chicken wings--wings marinated in a hoisin marinade, then grilled
Tea-smoked chicken
 Red cooked spareribs
Braised stuffed tofu
Salt and pepper shrimp

Yu choy with fried shallots and oyster sauce

Beggar's chicken
E-fu mie with beef and mushrooms
Steamed fish 
Jello oranges

The lor bak is a dish I imagine we may have had at that first celebration in Cameron Highlands in 1966, popular as it is in Malaysia.  Ngo hiang was a dish other UN volunteers and I used to order when we had downtime from Bidong, where neither pork nor beer was allowed.  In fact, we used to call it Joe Young (which it sounds similar to) as he was the program coordinator for UNHCR.  Similar to lor bak, ngo hiang also contain shrimp and are steamed before being fried.  The chicken wings are something I order every time I'm in Singapore.  The pea shoot and shrimp rolls are another favorite.  Tea-smoked chicken has been included on most of the menus these past ten years, a good make ahead dish.  The same goes with the red cooked spareribs and the stuffed tofu.  Although I think some in the family prefer their shrimp peeled and headless, the salt and pepper shrimp are one of my favorites.  The imperial salad and the greens with oyster sauce can be made ahead of time and assembled at the last minute.  I made the beggar's chicken several years ago with a clay crust, but found the salt dough crust I used this time to actually work better.  This can be baked several hours before the guests arrive and it remains warm inside the baked crust.  Ia, our 5-(and a half)-year-old niece enjoyed the honor of cracking the crust.  E-fu noodles are an easy, last minute dish to pull together, as is the steamed fish.  Of course, steamed rice was served with the meal.

Tea-smoked Chicken

1 whole chicken, 3 to 4 pounds
3 inches of dried orange peel (available in an Asian market)
3 TBS Szechuan pepper salt (heat 2 TBS Szechuan peppercorns and 4 TBS kosher salt in a skillet over medium heat until fragrant. Cool and grind to a fine powder. Store the extra in a small jar.)

2 to 3 green onions cut into 2-inch lengths
4 slices ginger

1/4 cup fragrant tea leaves
1/4 cup uncooked rice
1/4 cup brown sugar
1 cinnamon stick, broken into pieces
2 to 3 star anise, broken into pieces

In a coffee or spice grinder, grind the dried orange peel and Szechuan pepper salt.  Rub this over the chicken and marinate in the refrigerator overnight.

Set up a steamer.  Place the green onions and ginger into the cavity of the chicken.  Place the chicken on a plate and steam for about 30 minutes.  Juices should show only the faintest pink.  Pour off the juices (they are wonderful simmered with fried tofu) and reserve.  

Line a wok with aluminum foil.  Also line the lid and the tray you are going to place the chicken on.  This saves a great deal of clean up.  Place the tea, rice, sugar, and spices on the bottom of the foil lined wok.  Place a steamer rack or whatever you're using over the rice mixture and place the chicken directly on the rack.  Cover tightly with the lid.  Heat the wok on high until the rice mixture begins to smoke.  Smoke for 15 minutes, then turn off heat and let rest at least five minutes before serving (you can wait several hours).  Brush the smoked chicken lightly with sesame oil if you like.
printable recipe

4 to 5 cups flour
3 cups kosher salt
+/- 1 1/2 cups water (enough to make a stiff dough)

1 whole chicken, 3 to 4 pounds
2 TBS oyster sauce
1 TBS light soy sauce
3 TBS Shaoxing wine
1/2 tsp five spice powder

1 cup roasted chestnuts (you can buy roasted chestnuts in vacuumed packed bags in Asian markets)
2 lop cheong (Chinese sausage)
1 cup 1/2-inch cubes of taro, steamed until tender and cooled
5 dried shitake mushrooms, soaked in warm water until soft

lotus leaves (or banana leaves, or parchment paper)
parchment paper (or aluminum foil)
butcher's string

Mix together the oyster sauce, soy sauce, rice wine and five spice powder.  Marinate the chicken overnight in this mixture.

Stuff the chicken with the chestnuts, sausage, taro and mushrooms.  Use toothpicks to skewer the cavity shut.

Mix the flour and salt together to make a stiff dough.  Roll out to a thickness of about 1/4 inch.

Soak the lotus leaves, if using, in warm water for 15 minutes until softened.  Wrap the stuffed chicken in two layers of lotus leaves, covering it as completely as possible.  Tie this up into a bundle.  Wrap the lotus leaf bundle with parchment paper, making sure it is entirely wrapped.  Place the parchment wrapped bundle on the salt dough and seal completely.  You need to make sure there are no openings where steam might escape.

Bake the chicken in a pre-heated 400º oven for 1 1/2 hours.  Wait at least half an hour before serving.  The chicken will stay warm in the unopened crust for several hours.

To serve, break open the top of the crust with a hammer.  Then pull or cut away the remaining crust with shears or strong hands.

The jello oranges were made earlier in the day by Tjing.  Oranges are halved, their flesh scooped out, and jello made with the juice from the oranges.  The jello is poured into the hollowed out halves and allowed to set.  Once set, they can be sliced into sections. 


  1. Great post! We started a tradition 6 years ago of celebrating Chinese New Year's and love it. So much fun to explore other cultures. Your meal looks delicous and I love the orange jello slices!

  2. What a feast! That beggar's chicken looks awesome. That's a recipe that's been on my list for a while.

    WishiA belated Happy New Year!

  3. Christy,
    Thanks. This has really become like a second Thanksgiving for us. While the menu has some mainstays, I do try to come up with some new twists each year.

    The beggar's chicken was actually quite easy,a good dish for company because it can be ready before your guests arrive and stays very warm in the crust for at least an hour. My niece's daughter got a kick out of breaking the crust with the hammer.
    Chuc mung nam moi to you too. So good to see you're posting again.


If you have any questions you would like me to answer, please e-mail me. Otherwise, please check back on the post where you commented for any updates.