Saturday, January 31, 2009

Chinese New Year's Eve

For the Chinese everywhere, Chinese New Year's Eve is the most important day of the year. On this day family members no matter how far and wide they are, will make it a point to return home to join the Reunion Dinner.

Like the Christmas Dinner, the Reunion Dinner used to be held exclusively at home. But in this modern busy world, more often then not it is had at a restaurant. Bookings have to be made months in advance, as not all restaurants are open on this night.

My mum used to cook a scrumptious and lavish meal on New Year's Eve and we all look forward to it for the whole year. Nowadays she finds it too tedious and tiring to cook such a big meal, so like thousands of other families we have ours in a restaurant.

It has become a tradition to have Yee Sang - or raw fish during Chinese New Year. Fish (Yee)  in Chinese sounds like "abundance", and Sang (raw) sounds like "rise". Put the two together and you have "The Rise of Abundance", which is the hope of most Chinese families for the new year.

The dish consists of strips of raw fish (can be any type - most commonly salmon nowadays), shredded vegetables like carrots and turnip, dried fruits and crunchy crackers tossed in a sweet and sour sauce. It is quite delicious and great as an appetizer. 

Shark's Fin Soup is another common dish served during CNY. Nowadays it is more "soup" then "shark's fin", which is just as well as less sharks are sacrificed for this dish. There are even restaurants which add artificial shark's fin to the mix, and you would be hard-pressed to tell the difference as shark's fin by itself doesn't have much taste. I am hoping that they can perfect the artificial version so we don't need to kill the poor sharks just for the fins.

Next came the glutinous rice in lotus leaf. There were bits of Chinese sausages, dried shrimps and diced chicken in the rice, topped with deepfried shallots. Quite tasty, but very filling.

This was a pig knuckle stewed in light soy sauce, served with soft steamed buns. 

Steamed white pomfret in a sweet soy sauce. As "yee" means abundance as explained earlier, to have fish every year - "nian nian yu yee", means to have an abundance year after year.

An interesting dish - stuffed sea cucumber in a winter melon "bowl", covered in a carrot netting. The minced meat stuffing was a bit too "meaty", but the winter melon was good - soaking up all the delicious taste of the sauce.

Prawns cooked in a sweet tomato sauce.

Another symbolic dish - Chinese white cabbage with dried oysters. Dried oysters - "ho si" in Chinese, sounds like "good event". So to bring lots of good things for the year you must eat lots of dried oysters. They are quite delicious, but not to everyone's taste. The oyster's taste is amplified through the dyring process.

As you can see, eating during Chinese New Year is not just for the taste. Eating the right food with the right name and meaning will bring fortune, prosperity and happiness for the new year. If only it were that easy !

May you all have a Happy, Prosperous, Peaceful and Healthy New Year !

Friday, January 30, 2009

Chinese New Year Decorations

Chinese New Year has become as commercialized as Christimas, if not more ! From a traditional custom where everything was homemade, nowadays people buy most of what they need for the celebrations, including all the snacks and decorations. 

Traditionally, it is a must to do a Spring clean of the house before CNY. After the Spring cleaning, the house is decorated to create a new year mood. As this is Year of the Ox, decorations related to the ox are very popular.

The two most popular colours for the Chinese are Red and Gold. Red symbolizes happiness, peace and harmony. Gold symbolizes wealth and prosperity. Put the two together and you have everything that most people would ever want. That is why red and gold are used liberally in decorations during CNY.

I think entire villages in China are dedicated to producing different types of new year decorations. These are shipped all over the World, including Kuching. They are really beautiful and irresistable.

Cute ox-shaped decorations abound this year.

Different types of lanterns.

Paper decorations are the most common. They are cheap yet attractive.

Money Gods are ever popular, especially during this economically uncertain times.

Dragons are considered by the Chinese to be auspicious animals. These are really cute.

Many decorations are chosen for their auspicious sounding names. Pineapples are especially popular as the name in some Chinese dialects - "Ong Lai", sounds like "Luck Comes".

Mini pumpkins are very popular in the last few years. Pumpkins symbolizes wealth and abundance - due to their plump shape and golden colour.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Chinese New Year Goodies - Part II

Kek Lapis - layered cakes are another Malay influence. These have become so popular that they are synonymous with Chinese New Year. The typical cake has between 10 to 15 layers. The layers are baked individually, so it is a long and tedious process. There are many flavours to choose from - traditional which is cinnamon scented, prune, cheese, mint, yam, orange, etc. 

Kek Lapis have been taken to another level in terms of presentation in these rolls. The cakes have been cut and reassembled to form these intricate rolls. 

Mandarin oranges are another must-have for CNY. They symbolize peace and harmony.

Crunchy snacks.

Fish and prawn crackers. 

Kueh Sepit Gulung - a rolled snack similar to love letters. These are flavoured with cononut milk. 

Roasted and rolled cuttlefish. These are very popular during CNY and are eaten with a sweet chili sauce.

Chinese New Year Goodies - Part I

Like the Malays during Hari Raya, the Chinese also have their Open House during Chinese New Year. Friends and relatives visit each other during the 15 days CNY celebrations to offer blessings and good wishes for the year. The hosts will serve a large variety of CNY goodies to the guests. 

There are many different types of CNY goodies nowadays, especially in Malaysia where the multi-cultural influence means that besides traditional Chinese goodies - Malay, Indian and other sweet treats are also served. 

You can't get away from Nian Kao - CNY cake. This is usually not eaten as it is, but is sliced and deepfried with a batter, or just pan-fried. They are really sweet and sticky.

Another must-have for CNY - sweet preserved fruits. Each item has a different auspicious meaning - some will bring peace and harmony, others health, and some - prosperity.

Cookies are more of a Malay influence. There are hundreds of varieties. 

Another CNY favourite - Bak Kua, dried sweet pork or chicken slices. These have been vacuum packed for longer storage.

Kuching - Chinese New Year Bazaar

Like Hari Raya for the Malays and Muslims, Chinese New Year is the biggest festive occassion for the Chinese in Malaysia. Weeks before the New Year, families would start their preparations by cleaning the house and doing the shopping for CNY goodies and things to brighten up the house. CNY bazaars will spring up everywhere to cater to the shoppers.

For as long as I can remember, Kenyalang Park has been one of the most popular areas for CNY shopping. It is a large residential suburb which is near the Kuching town centre - in fact one of the first planned suburbs in Kuching. The commercial area also boasts the first pedestrian malls in Kuching, hence the popularity for shoppers as stalls are set up in the malls. 

This year, probably due to the bleak economic climate, there are not as many stalls, and the crowd was also not as heavy as in previous years.

There are endless varieties of CNY goodies on display. Making up your mind is not easy !

Flowers both fake and real are available to decorate the house.

Last minute shopping for new clothes.

A lovely lass selling "Nian Kao". Nian Kao or Chinese New Year cake is ubiquitous for CNY. "Nian" in Chinese means year, and "Kao" means high, so having lots of Nian Kao will ensure that you become more successful year after year. Also, this sticky cake is offered to the Kitchen God so that his mouth will be too full and filled with sticky cake to give a negative report when he return to heaven.

A little girl selling all kinds of sweet preserved fruits. Sweet things are served during Chinese New Year and each particular item has a symbolic meaning. I wouldn't go into the details here but you can Google "Sweet Things for Chinese New Year" to find out more.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Eating in Kuala Lumpur - Dinner at Latest Recipe

KL hotels are all trying to outdo each other in their buffet dinner offerings, and Latest Recipe at Le Meridien Hotel is no exception. As the main food outlet of the hotel, it is open from 6.00 a.m. to 11.00 p.m. serving breakfast, lunch and dinner buffet. The last time I wanted to try out the restaurant, I was turned away as it was fully booked. It was that popular !

This time, the restaurant was not that busy even though it was a Saturday night. The restaurant is tastefully decorated in a mixture of classical and contemporary style. On one side are the buffet stations featuring different types of cuisine. There are Indian, Malay, Chinese, Japanese and Western sections. 

I've heard raves about Latest Recipe, but was frankly a bit disappointed as many of the dishes did not look so great, especially at the Chinese and Malay sections. The dessert section was also a bit lacklustre. I decided to start off with my perennial favourite - the fresh seafood section with prawns, mussels and oysters. 

Chinese section with noodle soups and dim sum.

The dessert section.

An impressive chocolate fountain. I usually avoid it.

On the whole, I found the pasta section to be the best. You get a choice of different types of pasta, freshly cooked in any way you like. I chose the squid ink fettucine cooked in garlic, beef salami, chili and olive oil. It was really good ! 

Next I ordered a tortellini cooked in a creamy cheese sauce with seafood. This was also very good, but feankly I was a bit too full at this point.

Latest Recipe - though quite good, can't match some of the best buffets in town. Go for the pasta and Indian dishes and you should be quite happy.