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In contrast to the conscious uncoupling of Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin…
…this article is an unconscious coupling of all things sticky rice, from rolls and triangles to cakes and dumplings.
My list of best-loved cottage-industry products at the cashier’s counter of Korean shops is, I realised, an unconscious collection of things mainly made using sticky rice (a.k.a. glutinous rice or sweet rice).
With this simple ingredient, Koreans prepare a profusion of products to suit every palate. They come:
~ in every shape and colour
~ as sweet or savoury items
~ as snacks, mains and desserts.
Let’s check out the checkout counter of a typical mom-and-pop Korean grocery shop in Sydney to see what sticks.
Korean Discovery #1: Triangular Kimbap
Korean sushi is called kimbap (or gimbap).
Kim = seaweed. Bap = rice. Kim bap can be cylindrical or triangular.
I’m partial to the triangular ones because of their clever packaging.
Follow the red numbered arrows for the special unwrapping technique, so you end up with the intact seaweed properly encasing the rice.
Why all this palaver with the packaging? It’s to prevent the seaweed from touching the rice and getting soggy. Because:
Crunchy seaweed + Soft rice + Salty filling = ♥♥ Joy ♥♥
Triangular kimbap costs around A$2.50 at my local. There are spicy and non-spicy versions, like tuna, bulgogi and kimchi. And kimchi+bulgogi.
Clever people wanting to make their own triangular kimbap can buy the mould from Daiso or some Asian household or grocery shops:
In Korea, kimbap is available everywhere. I think it qualifies as fast food in Korea’s convenience stores like 7-Eleven and Family Mart; it’s as ubiquitous as the dehydrated sausage rolls skulking in Sydney’s 7-Elevens.
Before you get the impression that everything in Korean convenience stores is wholesome, here’s a digression. Do you know why many such stores sport a free hot water dispenser? Here’s a clue:
The hot water dispenser is a considerate touch, so that customers can:
~ stroll in,
~ buy some high-sodium cup noodles,
~ just add water,
~ then slurp while perched on a bolted-down stool in the store.
In 5 minutes flat. En route to work or uni.
The Korean convenience store is nothing if not convenient.
Korean Discovery #2: Japchae
Sydney’s Korean grocery stores don’t have free hot water dispensers. But that’s OK, because you can still get ready-to-eat noodles: japchae.
The cashier often shares counter space with takeaway boxes of japchae, delivered by small catering businesses. These slippery sweet potato noodles are fragrant from having been tossed in soy sauce, sesame oil, cooked veggies and (sometimes) bulgogi.
These are instant noodles too, because you can eat them at room temperature especially if you picked it up from the cashier’s counter (and not a fridge).
Japchae is commonly eaten at room temperature. A customary food at Korean parties, there’s usually a big platter of japchae on the party table, and guests just help themselves throughout the day.
But wait, there’s more. Like many foods, japchae is even cheaper home-made, so here is a Cheat’s guide to making japchae.
Korean Discovery #3: Sticky rice cakes
Variously labelled ddeok, dduk, ttuk or tteok, these cylindrical rice cakes are as versatile as Kim Jong-un’s shaved-sides-and-puffed-top hairstyle is…er…unique. (Or maybe not so unique anymore, seeing as all North Korean male university students must now get the same haircut: see the BBC’s report on the North Korean leader’s fashion decree.)
Freshly made ddeok comes on styrofoam trays, tightly cling-wrapped to preserve their softness. You might even encounter a version containing a little brown rice:
Exactly how versatile is the ddeok? Let me count the ways.
Ddeok type 1: Non-spicy
Add it to a braise with a sweet, non-spicy, soy sauce marinade. This is said to have originated in the ancient Korean imperial court, to feed little royalings who were too young to tolerate spicy food.
Below: Rice cakes with soy sauce, chicken and vegetables
Ddeok commonly manifests as the infamously spicy ddeokbokki, with a fiery gochujang chili paste. For authenticity, eat it with a skewer, like Koreans do at supper.
Below: The burn of red-hot ddeokbokki is sometimes tempered with melted cheese.
Because, apart from being a punchy main course at dinner, ddeokbokki also functions as the Korean equivalent of a 3 am post-pub kebab or hot dog.
Ddeok type 3: Sweet
Okay, this isn’t a traditional dish as such. I kinda just made it up – albeit still using traditional ingredients.
Because sometimes, a fresh, soft rice cake may want to be treated more gently than being slammed and slathered with explosive chili sauce.
So, here are my steamed rice cakes rolled in crushed black sesame, toasted white sesame, and sugar:
If you can’t find freshly made ddeok, use the vacuum sealed version that appear even in some Chinese grocery stores. Texturally, they are harder than the fresh version. They look like this:
Korean Discovery #4: Traditional sticky rice desserts
I always zero in on the array of sweet steamed rice cakes at the Korean cashier’s counter. For the best picks, go mid-morning (which is usually just after delivery time). The popular ones are sold out by the afternoon.
Here are 3 types commonly seen in Sydney.
Rice cake type 1: Dumplings
Sticky rice flour is used to make the pastry. The filling is commonly sweetened bean paste or a mixture of sesame seeds and sugar.
Half-moon shaped dumplings are called songpyeon, a seasonal specialty for the Mid-autumn Festival.
One of my favourite Korean desserts is yaksik (pronounced yaahk-shik).
Yak = Medicine. Sik = Food.
The literal translation is “medicinal food”. After I explain, this seemingly strange name will make perfect sense to you.
But truly traditional Chinese and Korean desserts (and food, in general) are often made with health benefits in mind, reflecting the philosophy of food as medicine.
For example, the Chinese have all manner of “sweet soups” (tong soei in Cantonese) that are almost like tonics, containing nutrient-rich ingredients like:
– gingko nuts,
– lotus seeds,
– apricot kernels and
More exotic ingredients include sparrow’s nest and hasma. Hasma is – sit tight , readers – tissue near the fallopian tubes of snow frogs. Both are transparent and have an uncontroversial taste, akin to unsweetened jelly.
Okaaay. Getting back to yaksik. Its name derives from health-giving and (to some readers’ relief) relatively familiar ingredients like cinnamon, jujubes, pine nuts, seeds and sesame oil.
This subtly sweet dessert is a delightful study in textures: chewy from sticky rice and crunchy from nuts and seeds.
Rice cake type 3: Steamed cakes
Uncooked glutinous rice grains are ground into flour, then used to make various steamed cakes.
Below: Steamed sticky rice cakes with pumpkin and sweet beans.
Below: These steamed rice cakes are slightly sour. They taste similar to the pastel-coloured Chinese fatt-koh often used for praying. The lilac coloured one was contains flour made from black sticky rice.
No, you won’t find them at the Korean grocery cashier’s counter; this were at a specialty stall at Seoul’s vast Gwangjang Market.
Nifty (inedible) Korean discoveries
I can’t talk about a Korean grocery store without mentioning these handy products, even though:
~ they’re on the shelf and not the cashier’s counter, and
~ they’re not edible.
Nifty Discovery #1: A “hippo odour eater” for your fridge
Industrial-grade to combat that pervasive kimchi smell:
These are a boon for preventing water splashing into the gloves and the dreaded internal squelch.
Here, you compare:
A Cautionary Tale
It’s really only in places with a significant Korean population that you’ll find the edible delights at the Korean shop’s cashier’s counter. Sydney is one such place, as are various cities in California.
But not all cities are similar. Case in point:
A dear friend who lives in Singapore (let’s call her “SW”) enthusiastically raced to the only Korean grocery in Singapore that she knows, in search of fresh Korean treats. Multi-racial as my country of origin is, Koreans nevertheless comprise less than 0.5% of the Singapore national population.
But this is what SW found there (in her words):
[The] cashier counter of this Korean supermarket is surrounded by…aghast…Korean instant noodles. No hand-made, seasonal, preservative-free, cottage industry, secret family heirloom recipe-produced dainty foodstuffs.
However, while in that shop, SW did sniff out a jar of sweet fruity tea which provided some comfort. I am also very fond of this.
At this point, I shall consciously uncouple the topic of beverages from this article. There is such a variety of intriguing Asian drinks that it’s a topic for another day’s talk show.
A Final Tip
Cashier Counter Discoveries exist in many small Asian grocery shops, not just the Chinese, Vietnamese and Korean shops that I’ve profiled in this 3-part series.
Some examples for you to hunt down:
~ Look out for home-made roti canai, spicy fish parcels, curry-filled roti rolls
~ Keep your eyes peeled for grilled cylinders or cones of sticky rice with dried shrimp wrapped in banana leaf, and other street food
~ See if you can spy banana lumpia – a diabolical deep-fried spring roll encasing bananas, caramel and – secret surprise – jackfruit
~ Spot the beef rendang in convenient one-serve boxes – more on beef rendang in this write-up Making Makan: The Rendang Diaries).
Even the chef who rejected the Michelin star team uses them. There, see the little brown pile atop the fish fillet?
It has been used in Southeast Asian cooking for a long time, but people elsewhere have discovered its myriad uses too. I’m talking about freshly fried shallots and where to find them.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. So, to backtrack…
Last week, in Feasting in the Know…
…I shared a little secret in How to get your hands on the best Chinese food: to find exciting, authentic, seasonal foods in a mom-and-pop Asian food store, you don’t always have to rummage through endless jam-packed aisles like this…
…because you can find some fresh and delightful items out front…including these toothsome treasures at the cashier’s counter of Chinese grocery stores:
This week, let’s go shopping at the cashier counters of Vietnamese food shops.
Vietnamese Discovery #1: Fried shallots (fresh!)
These sliced shallots have been freshly deep-fried by a local person, then supplied to selected Vietnamese grocery stores (eg. in Cabramatta, $5 or $6 per box).
If you see it, buy it!
That’s my advice, unless you enjoy slicing onions by the dozen with stinging eyes, then standing patiently before a wok of smoking oil, like so:
But, on special occasions, I do actually make these at home, because:
- Making my own means I get not just the fried shallots but also the ambrosial shallot oil.
- Just like whistling, freshly fried shallots and shallot oil can make most things better (well, savoury dishes, anyway).
- They are indispensable to dishes I make on special occasions, eg. Chinese New Year lucky fish salad and the ever-popular Thai minced chicken salad.
- I can slice shallots till the cows come home, yet shed nary a tear. Here’s the secret in 1 minute (and how to make fried shallots in your kitchen):
If you prefer buying to frying, please learn to identify the fresh local stuff. I steer clear of the more easily available imported fried shallots.
Like President Obama and President Putin, they are vastly different despite having the same label.
Identify freshly fried shallots like this: any Vietnamese shop that stocks them will:
- display them at the cashier’s counter (never buried in a shelf at the back of the shop); and
- have them in takeaway boxes (never in bottles or plastic packets with “imported” on the label).
Away from the cashier’s counter, nestled among the hoi polloi on the shelves, are sealed plastic packets or bottles also labelled “Fried shallots” or “Fried onions”.
I shun them.
They emit an inevitable slight whiff of stale oil. I’d rather omit fried shallots from my dish than use these.
But many eateries use the imported stuff. When I encounter a rare eatery that uses the fresh stuff, I am especially impressed.
Can I name a savoury dish that won’t benefit from a sprinkle of fried shallots or a splash of shallot oil? Hah. I struggle.
Fried shallots improve an endless list of dishes – veggie, meat, steamed fish, tofu, braises, soups, stir-fries, noodles, congee, rice rolls and more.
When I toss steamed broccoli with shallot oil, pepper and salt, my daughter will sniff out that “crunchy onion smell” at 10 paces and swoon. Cue tasty vegetarian (even vegan!), gluten-free food.
Fried shallots aren’t uniquely Vietnamese, as they’re ubiquitous in Singaporean and Malaysian households too. But in Sydney at least, your chances of scoring the fresh stuff are highest in Vietnamese grocery shops.
Vietnamese Discovery #2: Fried tofu chips (also fresh!)
Tofu? More-ish? No way, right?
Well, M.O.T.H. (Man of the House) had these laid out, ready to fry with vegetables. But before he had finished processing the greens, we had scoffed half the packet of tofu chips.
Pictured below is the tofu chip’s big sister: fried soft tofu (bigger piece, bigger pack).
They’re great stir-fried with green vegetables or added to noodles, soups or braised meats. My fuss-free way to eat them? Straight from the pack, dipped in oyster sauce.
Vietnamese-style fried tofu has a fragrant browned skin and a soft, creamy interior.
Don’t confuse it with Chinese style tofu puffs. Chinese-style tofu puffs (pictured below) are drier and spongy inside, best for soaking up flavoursome broths and sauces (eg in laksa and soups).
I am very fond of the Như Quỳnh brand with its distinctive yellow and purple label. They’re located in southwestern Sydney’s Yagoona. Numerous times a week, they deliver just-made stock to shops in Flemington, Cabramatta and Bankstown.
Don’t be alarmed to find it on the cashier’s counter instead of in the fridge. That’s because they are delivered fresh (but do keep them in the fridge when you get home).
Another tip: visit Vietnamese grocery shops in the morning and you might also find warm bottles of freshly made soy milk – the kind that contains just water, soy milk and sugar. Not like the soy milk in Western supermarkets which I realised, to my horror, contains added oil (why?!).
Vietnamese Discovery #3: Sweet, sticky cakes
Steamed cakes, rice paper rolls and one-serve meals are often found on the cashier’s counter of many Vietnamese food shops.
Among my favourites is yet another version of the sticky rice cake (an obsession well-documented in last week’s post). You’ll find them in clingwrapped styrofoam trays or takeaway boxes.
The shiny, taut clingwrap on the soft cake is an inviting look – I just want to poke it! Some remind me of steamed cakes called nonya kueh (kuih) I grew up eating in Singapore.
They are sweet, soft and sticky, made with glutinous rice flour, sugar and often coconut milk. They come in a wide range of shapes and colours, though many taste the same.
Still, I am irrationally fond of the layered cakes. I get a crazy kick out of peeling off each layer to eat separately:
Here’s a warning if you are a homesick Singaporean or Malaysian. Vietnamese cakes usually don’t contain any fragrant pandan (screwpine) extract, so Vietnamese cakes won’t cut the mustard if you’re craving kueh.
For your nonya kueh fix, go to Alice’s Makan instead.
Coming up next time…canny catches in a Korean grocery shop.
In this 3-part series:
(a) discover what exciting, authentic, seasonal, traditional foods (all for around $3! or maybe $6) you can get in:
- a Chinese grocery shop;
- a Vietnamese grocery shop; and
- a Korean grocery shop; and
(b) get the insider’s tip on where to find those goodies…without getting lost in the shop’s nether regions.
**What’s with the dinky executive summary, I hear you ask. Well, this handy tool is back in my consciousness, being ubiquitous in the corporate world which I’ve recent re-entered (hence the recent hiatus in writing). I like summaries. They sharpen the focus – even in a non-corporate, gluttony-induced piece of writing.
“What you seek from afar is in front of your eyes.”
That’s the translation of the Chinese idiom 远在天边, 近在眼前 (yuǎn zài tiān biān, jìn zài yǎn qián).
Here’s an insider’s tip to sourcing super-authentic, freshly made food. It’s right under your nose. No need to fossick around the aisles and reach behind the dried mussels and chrysanthemum flowers.
Little mom-and-pop Asian supermarkets can seem positively labyrinthine to many people, what with their shelves and freezers crammed with mysterious items in every shape and hue. But in Australia, at least, you need go no further than the cashier’s counter near the entrance.
Nine times out of ten, you’ll see laid out on the counter all manner of goodies in big plastic tubs, takeaway boxes and cling-wrapped styrofoam trays.
Why do these items lurk around the cashier’s counter? There’s a logical reason.
They’re usually made with traditional methods and few (if any) preservatives, so they’re delivered fresh every few days (if not every morning), probably still warm from the production line at:
~ someone’s cottage industry at home, or
~ a specialised small business.
As a result, they must be sold and eaten a.s.a.p. Hence the high visibility and valuable real estate at the cashier’s counter.
For those of you who like trying new foods, here’s the icing on the cake. The cashier’s counter is also where you’re most likely to discover specialty goodies only available at certain times, when a festival is being celebrated.
What follows is a list of things you could discover at cashier counters, in:
~ Chinese grocery stores,
~ Vietnamese grocery stores, and
~ Korean grocery stores.
Chinese Discovery #1: Green rice dumplings with sweet red bean paste
Me (at Chinese grocery shop): Is the red bean paste home-made?
Chinese youth with dyed blond hair: Huh, I suppose it’s home-made, since the maker didn’t buy the prepared paste we stock!
Aha, just as I suspected! You see, the red bean paste in my green dumpling most definitely tasted home-made. I was taken by its rustic texture and subtle sweetness.
That’s miles apart from the mass-produced canned red bean paste that boasts uniform consistency, cloying sweetness and a shade of red that’s strangely deeper than the red of the azuki bean.
For the first time in my life, I encountered these jade-coloured golfball-sized dumplings at my local Chinese grocery store last weekend.
The Mandarin name 青团 qing tuan, translates to “green dumplings”. I laughed out loud at the unembellished name; it wasn’t the typical Chinese way of naming things. I’m more used to Chinese euphemisms like calling chicken feet “phoenix claws” (makes it a bit tough to read Chinese menus unless one is in the know).
Did I buy it? Did I indeed.
Resistance is futile when I meet:
(a) a freshly made snack (call it a “seasonal special” and I’ll buy two); and
(b) a sticky-rice-anything.
This green dumpling was both (a) and (b). So of course I bought it. How many did I buy? Read on and see.
What is special about this dumpling?
SPECIAL BIT #1: A FESTIVAL FOOD
~ Green dumplings are a must-have for people in Shanghai during the Qing Ming Festival (tomb sweeping festival). They are such a big deal in Shanghai that CNN Travel even did a green dumpling food tour in Shanghai.
~ The Qing Ming Festival started in China some 2,500 years ago. This year, it is on 5 April, marked by 2 public holidays in China. It is a day to pay respects to ancestors and deceased family members.
~ Traditionally, during the Qing Ming Festival, Chinese people visit the graves to pray, tidy up around the tombstone, and make offerings.
~ Growing up in Singapore, I remember my father and brother heading for the graveyard at the crack of dawn to avoid the graveyard rush hour. That was a male duty, so my mother and I retained our beauty sleep!
SPECIAL BIT #2: AVAILABLE FOR A LIMITED TIME ONLY!
~ According to the genial shopkeeper (she always has time for me when I quiz her on her counter specials), the lady who makes the green dumplings doesn’t make them at any other time of the year.
~ That was enough to make me return to the shop for me. I, ahem, ended up eating 3 balls in as many days.
SPECIAL BIT #3: NAUGHTY BITS
It’s not often I see a dumpling the same colour as the Green Goblin or the Incredible Hulk.
Traditionally, the green exterior comprises wormwood or brome grass juice, mixed with glutinous rice flour. I love its sticky softness, and how it feels when being chewed up with the red bean paste.
See how it sticks to the plate (like the bottom of a snail – ooh, yum):
Random facts that make the dumpling seem edgy:
~ Wormwood is an ingredient in that highly alcoholic, possibly psychoactive sprit: absinthe.
~ Brome grass is a herbicide-resistant weed that South Australian grain growers loathe. I guess they haven’t found it useful in making green dumplings.
Chinese Discovery #2: Pyramid-shaped sticky rice dumplings
(Told you I can’t resist a sticky-rice-anything.)
Keep your eyes peeled for these beauties in the next couple of months. Bamboo leaves encase sticky rice which encases braised fatty pork with mushrooms, chestnuts and maybe beans and dried mussels.
Although many Chinese shops have them all year round, a whole lot more appear in May, as the Dragon Boat Festival approaches (2 June this year). The Chinese have been eating sticky rice dumplings for over 2,300 years.
To find out more about these palatable pyramids, read Dumplings and Dragons.
Chinese Discovery #3: Chinese New Year sticky rice cake
(The next item won’t have sticky rice, promise!)
This cake is sweet and sticky for a reason. Smear a little bit where the lips appear on the household’s picture of the Kitchen God, and he will:
~ either disclose only sweet things about this household, in his annual report to the Almighty One,
~ or find his lips stuck together so that he can’t report anything (bad) to the Almighty One.
This Chinese New Year festive food is called nian gao 年糕:
~ nian means “year” but is also a homophone for “sticky”
~ gao means “cake”.
Some Chinese shops sell them all year round, not just during Chinese New Year.
Below: Nian gao (the round brown one) is often found at the counter, tightly encased in cling wrap to keep it soft.
Sandwich it between sliced taro, dip in an egg and flour batter and fry, like so:
Fried dough sticks are a common breakfast food among the Chinese community worldwide.
Nothing like a bit of deep fried goodness to start your day, eh? Many people like dunking them into black coffee (punchier than dunking a Marie biscuit, wouldn’t you say) – that’s what I call a heart-starter and heart-stopper, all rolled into one.
My favourite dough sticks come – sans packaging – in one of those big white plastic boxes you might use to store winter clothes under your bed. Surely the lack of wrapping is an indication of freshness? You grab your desired number and put them in bags supplied by the grocery store.
Fried dough sticks have been around for about 900 years. They always come as a pair, loosely stuck together. That’s because they were invented by an enterprising, patriotic baker to signify the frying of a certain pair of traitors in the ancient imperial court. Yes, Chinese history is full of cooks with political agenda.
If you pay attention, you’ll see fried dough sticks popping up everywhere, for instance:
- as a garnish on congee at Cantonese restaurants
- wrapped in rice noodle sheets (zha liang) at dim sum restaurants
- tossed through a crunchy, fruity salad with pungent, sweet prawn paste (rojak) at Singaporean/Malaysian restaurants
- served with pork rib tea (bak kut teh) at Singaporean/Malaysian restaurants (below).
Confusingly, in some places, this is called “carrot cake”, because it’s made with daikon radish called “white carrot” in Chinese. It often appears in rectangular takeaway boxes on the cashier’s counter.
Grated radish is mixed with (non-sticky) rice flour, water and bits of dried shrimp and lup cheong (Chinese waxed sausage). The mixture is cooked in a pot, with a stirring process that is more laborious than for risotto. Then, it is steamed and, if desired, cut into pieces and fried.
Chinese Discovery #6: Seaweed salad
Seaweed salad appears in rectangular takeaway boxes. The iodine-rich, low-calorie seaweed is dressed and ready to eat.
The seaweed has some crunch, and comes coated in a salty, garlicky, sesame seedy dressing with sesame oil and chili bits.
To stretch your dollar even more, toss in julienned cucumber. The flavours and textures are complementary, and the cucumber helps because the seaweed salad by itself is often too salty.
Now, I can’t guarantee that you’ll find any of these things when you next walk into a Chinese grocery shop. Each shop has relationships with different caterers and producers. But do have a squiz at the counter, quiz the cashier, and have fun exploring.
Look out for Part 2 of this blog post, where we uncover similar treasures in Vietnamese and Korean food stores.
PS: Apropos of nothing, guess who has been described as a woman with a serious addiction to Asian food and the off-the-beaten-track eateries where you can get the very best of it? Find out more in this article that appeared in online magazine Thalo: Food safaris: Celebrity chefs, move aside
Thanks to the multi-talented, super-slashie pharmacist/cook/comedian Steve for writing about the K-food kimchi competition (see Steve’s blog post below, with vivid pictures). I could devour any of those dishes for breakfast…yes, even the doubly pungent sambal kimchi squid!
As befits a champion, the winner David Ralph has gone on to open his own Korean restaurant in Sydney (as if his plate wasn’t already full, being the owner and operator of chocolatier Kakawa).
Kudos to David for receiving – so early in the life of his Kim Restaurant – a hearty stamp of approval from knowledgeable food writer Terry Durack in the Sydney Morning Herald:
When Mr Durack says the “worst bit” is the lack of wet weather seating at the restaurant, you know the food is stunning.
For another perspective on the competition, and more inspiration on how to zing up your food with kimchi, have a look at Korean cooking contest: 1 kimchi recipe, 5 ways.
This contest was open to non-Korean background Australians.
Sixteen cooks and would be cooks, chefs and would be chefs came together for a chance to chop, fry, bake and stir their way to the land that PSY (almost) forgot – Korea.
The contest revolved around the distinctive Korean ingredient Kimchi and featured a table laid out with some of the various versions of this pickled delight (and yes – you may have thought – like I once did – there was only a single type of Kimchi).
Alas, there are many – “Fresh”, “Aged”, “Ponytail” (which contains no cabbage whatsoever) – the list goes on – Korean cuisine really is endlessly surprising!
Belated congratulations to all the contestants – it was my first time in one of these reality TV cooking contests (Korean TV…
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Celebrating Chinese New Year with food and lucky money
Today is Chinese New Year’s Eve. Many Chinese families will be congregating tonight for the traditional reunion banquet to welcome the Year of the Horse.
Below: Too much food is a must at reunion dinners. This signifies abundance for the rest of the year.
As a child, after a 3-generational reunion dinner, my father would take my grandfather to the Goddess of Mercy temple to pray for a good year ahead.
There was a system:
– The $10 notes would be in red envelopes with, say, pictures of lanterns.
– Meanwhile, the $20 notes would be in red packets of a different design, say, with pictures of fish.
(My 4th Uncle always uses red packets bearing his Chinese surname written in gold. Classy, huh?)
And to make doubly sure there was no mix-up, my mum would bundle the differently denominated red packets in labelled, white envelopes.
Yes, when it comes to all things financial, my mother is nothing if not systematic.
I bet she’s doing that on this very day too. I’m just too many thousands of miles away to give her a hand… **sniff**
Why the different denominations? Well, they’re a bit like Christmas presents: you naturally give something more expensive to someone closer to you (eg your niece).
As a married adult, you’re obliged to give lucky money to any child you meet even if you don’t know them well (though that obviously excludes strangers you pass on the street).
For example, we used to congregate at my grandparents’ house with the families of my mum’s numerous siblings, to pay our respects to my grandparents. My grandfather’s own friends, with children in tow, would also be there.
It was the done thing for my parents to give red packets to those children even though the kids probably had no idea who my parents were. Being in the same house provided a sufficent nexus to trigger the red packet obligation.
Fa Cai Yu Sheng salad 发财鱼生
Have you spied groups of chopstick-wielding people messily tossing a rainbow of veggies, laughing raucously and reciting Chinese sayings around the Chinese New Year season?
This salad is crucial to every Chinese New Year celebration in Singapore and Malaysia. Like having turkey (if you’re American) or prawns (if you’re Australian) at Christmas.
Yu Sheng is the salad equivalent of Cate Blanchett – drop-dead stunning on the outside and just as lovely on the inside. And eating this auspicious dish could bring the diner closer to achieving Cate’s level of riches – maybe someday I’ll buy a waterfront investment property in a high-class suburb for my kids too, heh heh.
As a bonus, Yu Sheng is healthy, being:
- low fat
- high fibre
- low carb
- high omega-3. Especially when you use generous batons of salmon sashimi, instead of the customary gossamer-thin slivers of white-fleshed fish.
Bonding through Yu Sheng
Carving a turkey is a solitary pursuit. In contrast, feasting on Yu Sheng provides a unique bonding experience.
Before tucking in, fellow diners lift their chopsticks and toss the Yu Sheng together. At this point, a feaster in the know utters poetic and auspicious Chinese sayings for luck and wealth, represented by certain ingredients.
Indeed, “Yu Sheng” is a homophone for the words abundance and rising in Chinese. The tossing action represents rising.
“Exactly what is rising?” you rightly ask. Well, it’s whatever you want to rise or increase this year, be it your marks, your luck, or the value of your share portfolio / investment property / bank balance.
Just what is Yu Sheng?
It is a colourful, crisp, sweet and tangy salad. It contains the freshest sliced raw fish, shredded vegetables, aromatic pickles, crunchy toppings, and a tangy plum dressing.
It’s a must-have for Chinese New Year in Singapore and Malaysia. Countless restaurants there serve this festive dish. Consequently, very few people living there make it at home.
Not many Sydney restaurants serve this labour-intensive dish. Those that do, charge handsomely for the privilege.
Necessity is the mother of… etc etc. Had I been living in Singapore or Malaysia, I wouldn’t be making Yu Sheng, and M.O.T.H. (Man Of The House) wouldn’t be cooking char kway teow.
I love Yu Sheng but I’m too miserly to pay Sydney prices for it. Out of desperation and love for the dish, I reverse-engineered the best restaurant versions I’d eaten (thanks to my parents and my 6th Uncle) and cherry-picked from various recipes.
I am heartened to say this version has the approval of my family in Singapore. Yup, that’s the discerning folks who’ve been eating Yu Sheng every year for over 30 years.
Yu Sheng recipe with secret short-cut toppings
Serves 8 to 10 people as a starter.
Degree of difficulty:
Quite high. 2 reasons:
- You’ll need to hunt down the 20-odd ingredients. You will find the more exotic ingredients in a good Asian grocery shop, eg in Sydney’s Cabramatta or Flemington shopping village (not to be confused with the Sydney Markets at Flemington).
- It’s also time-consuming to process lots of vegetables and make the shallot oil.
The good news:
- You can prepare everything (except the fish) the day before.
- You needn’t deep-fry wonton skins. At the very least, this recipe contains short cuts for crunchy toppings.
Omit the fish. That’s it. You’ll still end up with a beautiful dish of complex flavours and contrasting textures.
Fish-free, meaty option:
Not a fan of raw fish? Whatever you do, don’t substitute with cooked fish, smoked salmon or canned tuna!!
Use roast duck (in bite-sized, boneless pieces) – it is a perfect match for the flavours in this salad.
Below: Roast duck salad (capsicum as pictured is OK in a ducky salad, but not a fishy salad).
Ingredients: The Dressing
Plum sauce, 4 tbsp
Lime juice, 2 to 3 tbsp
¼ tsp salt
½ tsp five-spice powder
½ tsp white pepper
Kaffir lime leaves, 1 heaped tsp. Pulverise the leaves in a grinder or finely chop by hand.
Shallot oil, 3 tbsp** (If making shallot oil is too much of a palaver, substitute with 1 tbsp Korean sesame oil and 2 tbsp neutral oil. But it won’t taste the same.)
Ingredients: The Fibre
Below: Fresh whole yam bean; yam bean cut into matchsticks.
Yam bean (a.k.a. jicama or bangkuang), 1 cup, peeled and cut into matchsticks. This is seasonal. If you can’t find it, just use more carrots and cucumbers. Some recipes use grated daikon, but I find certain varieties too peppery. Yam beans are sweet and more subtle.
Grated carrots, 1 cup
Cucumber with seeds removed and sliced into matchsticks, 1 cup
Pickled leeks, sliced, ½ cup
Candied winter melon, roughly chopped, ½ cup
Pickled ginger, 1 tsp, finely chopped
Fresh young ginger, 1 tsp, finely chopped
Sacs of pomelo or ruby grapefruit, ½ cup. Here’s a video on how to peel a pomelo like an expert:
Below (from left): Candied walnuts, candied winter melon and (in jar and in dish) pickled leeks.
Ingredients: The Protein
Salmon sashimi 300g, sliced
Ingredients: The Toppings
Freshly roasted peanuts, 2 tbsp, crushed
Toasted sesame seeds, 1 tbsp, crushed (get them already toasted, from Korean grocers)
Candied walnuts, 2 tbsp, broken into pieces (Secret-Shortcut #1: This isn’t a traditional ingredient, but it adds a beautiful sweetness and crunch.)
Grainwaves in original flavour, 2 handfuls, broken into pieces (Secret-Shortcut #2: Believe me, the flavour goes surprisingly well with the salad. I’ve tested LOTS of snacks and found these most suitable. They also stay crunchy for longer than deep-fried wonton skins. And I don’t need to deep-fry them! Note to people living outside Australia: Grainwaves are a wavy wholemeal chip found in the snacks aisle of most supermarkets. If you can’t find it, you might have to deep-fry wonton skins.)
1. Mix ingredients for The Dressing in a bowl. Taste it. Adjust if necessary to get a balance of salty (salt), sweet (plum sauce or sugar) and sour (lime juice) elements. Pour the dressing into a jug and set aside.
2. Arrange ingredients for The Fibre in sections on a round platter, leaving a circular empty space in the middle.
3. Arrange the salmon in the space in the middle.
4. Decorate with all ingredients (except Grainwaves) for The Toppings.
5. Once everyone is ready to eat, pour the dressing over the salad (you might not need all the dressing; you don’t want it too soggy). Scatter the Grainwaves on top.
6. Then get everyone to dig in with their (clean) chopsticks to toss the salad. Designate someone to call out auspicious Chinese sayings like:
~ Good fortune and good luck to everyone every year!
~ Bring on the riches and jewels!
~ May your floor be covered with gold!
~ May you rise ever higher!
~ The hardship has ended and let the sweet life begin!
7. Serve immediately.
- Peel, then thinly slice, 5 shallots (the miniature red or golden-brown onions), wearing goggles if you don’t want to cry.
- Heat 1 cup of neutral oil in a wok on medium heat. Deep-fry the shallots.
- When the shallots turn pale gold, turn off heat, remove them from oil and place on paper towels to drain. They will continue to deepen in colour. Store cooled shallots in an air-tight jar for another use.
- When the shallot oil is cool enough to handle, pour into a glass jar and keep in a darkened place for up to 2 weeks.
Uses for shallot oil:
- Toss steamed broccoli with shallot oil and soy sauce.
- Lift the flavour of clear broths by drizzling a teaspoon of shallot oil just before serving.
- For a refreshing and simple salad, toss roughly cut cucumber with shallot oil, soy sauce, black vinegar and grated ginger.
- As an aromatic garnish for congee or chicken noodle soup.
- My favourite? Mix steamed rice with a drizzle of shallot oil, soy sauce and white pepper. Comfort food plus plus.
Fantasy: Neil Perry merrily sends out festive food from your kitchen. You mingle graciously with a serene smile, leaving in your wake charmed guests and the barest hint of eau de Cartier.
Reality: Everyone savours an incredible feast that the host made from scratch after slogging for 5 days. By 25 December, all the host wants for Christmas is a Bex, a lie-down, and something to neutralise that eau de turkey.
So, in the name of emancipating all home-kitchen slaves, this Christmas food safari article will show you how to assemble a fuss-free feast with the best offerings from Strathfield’s providores.
For the complete article, see A Christmas food safari in Strathfield that I wrote for The Strathfield Scene. (After clicking on the link, magnify your screen to make the words more readable.)
Have a wonderful festive season, and a year of good health, success and happiness!
What I don’t like about office Christmas parties is looking for a job the next day.
Desperation is the mother of invention.
It happened in the evening, after attending another of Heather Jeong’s convivial, highly educational and useful Korean cooking classes at the Korean Cultural Office.
The star of this lesson was Korean imperial cuisine. I was hooked by the “imperial” bit.
Confession: I have an unhealthy interest in royalty, thanks to a Singaporean childhood of watching Hongkong period dramas of exquisitely dressed princesses when I was 7, culminating in sitting through Charles and Diana’s televised royal wedding with my mum when I was 9.
Those jewels! Those gowns! Oh!
Back to the kitchen. We learnt to make tang pyung chae, a savoury bean jelly tossed in a non-spicy dressing with beef and fried vegetables. It is a refined dish, designed to cleanse the royal palate in between punchier courses.
- Soy sauce + Korean sesame oil = The way to my stomach and heart.
- I have a soft spot for firm jelly in savoury dishes. Search me, I don’t know where I got that from…didn’t grow up eating it.
- Throw in toasted Korean seaweed that packs an umami punch, and you get a dish that is my undoing.
To cut a long story short, I polished off my cooking class handiwork at dinner, and was desperate for more.
But it was too late to go shopping. So I made do with what I had in the kitchen, and created something that was inspired by Heather’s savoury bean jelly dish.
That warranted a sassier dressing. I used Korean chili powder together with stronger-tasting Chinese black vinegar, both of which weren’t in the savoury bean jelly.
Konnyaku is a rubbery vegetarian jelly used in savoury Japanese cooking like stews.
It is nothing if not versatile; in a traditional restaurant in Kyoto, I even had it as a vegetarian sashimi, complete with soy sauce and wasabi.
In Sydney, I buy konnyaku from Asian supermarkets, in a little 250g block that looks like this.
It is made from the konjac potato (with charming aliases of devil’s tongue and voodoo lily) that looks like this.
Konnyaku is apparently a favourite slimming food of Japanese women. With water as its main component, it has very few calories: 18 cal/100g for the one I used, with other brands being as low as 7 cal/100g. Its other major component is glucomannan, a fibre that expands in the stomach to make you feel full. Slimming effect or no, the key attraction for me remains the taste…or rather, the texture.
The Japanese nicknamed konnyaku “Broom of the Stomach”, because it cleans out one’s small intestines. Okay, enough of that.
Konnyaku is as tasteless as Ford’s unauthorised advertisement. Or so many websites would have you believe.
They are right about the taste. But nobody seems to mention the slight whiff.
The speckled brown konnyaku I like to use has a subtle fishy smell. So, before I cut it, I always give it a good rinse and rub. (You can be quite rough when handling it, because it’s a tough little cookie…er, jelly.)
In a large piece, konnyaku is rubbery and unwieldy in the mouth. A bit like chewing a child’s eraser.
So far, so appetising, right? But don’t change channels yet, I know a great way to eat konnyaku.
A tender spot for textures
Regular readers will know I have a penchant for different textures.
One remarkable thing about the salad below is the way the texture of bouncy konnyaku noodles echoes that of the springy shiitake mushrooms. I. Love. It.
Slim ribbons of konnyaku are so slippery that you can make a new sport of slurping at speed. Try it, it’s fun! Konnyaku noodles slide in faster than any spaghetti strand could dream of doing.
Another wonderful thing about using konnyaku strips in a salad is precisely their slippery texture. This means they won’t clump together, unlike proper boiled noodles.
My Korean-Japanese fusion salad (vegetarian)
Serves 4 as a starter. (See Tip #1 below.)
- 1 clove garlic, chopped
- ½ tsp grated ginger
- 1 dessertspoon Chinese black vinegar (pictured right)
- 1 dessertspoon soy sauce (start with this small amount, as seaweed garnish is also salty)
- 1 dessertspoon Korean sesame oil (don’t use Chinese sesame oil for this – its flavour is too sharp)
- 1 tsp Korean chili powder
- 1 tsp sugar
- 2 eggs
- 6 green onions – green parts cut into lengths and separated from white parts thinly sliced on an angle
- 1 small cucumber – seeds removed, julienned
- 6 dried shiitake mushrooms – soaked in hot water for 20 minutes, stems removed and julienned
- 1 medium carrot – grated or julienned
- 250g block of konnyaku – washed and cut into thin, 5cm long ribbons
- 1 small packet (4g) of Korean seasoned seaweed, shredded
2 tsp toasted sesame seeds
1. Combine dressing ingredients in a small bowl. Stir to dissolve the sugar. Set aside the dressing to allow the garlic to mellow, while you prepare the other ingredients.
2. Beat eggs. Make an omelette in a non-stick frying pan. Set aside on a plate to cool. Cut into fine 4cm strips.
3. In the same frying pan, add a little oil and fry each of these separately in turn until softened:
- with a pinch of salt – the white parts of the green onions, then the green sections
- with a pinch of salt – cucumbers (see Tip #2 below)
- with a splash of soy sauce – mushrooms. Add a tablespoon of water if they get too dry.
4. Arrange omelette strips, vegetables, konnyaku, half the sesame seeds and half the seaweed on a dish like so:
6. Taste. Add more soy sauce, vinegar, chili powder, sugar or sesame oil if you want it (respectively) saltier, more sour, hotter, sweeter or more fragrant.
7. Pile everything back onto the dish. Garnish with the remaining sesame seeds and seaweed like so:
TIP #1: Double the amounts above and set aside a portion of tossed salad in the fridge. This tastes better the next day, when the konnyaku has absorbed flavours from the dressing. Serve slightly warm.
TIP #2: You might think it’s odd to cook cucumbers. But this removes some of the moisture, preventing liquid from leaching out of the cucumbers to dilute the flavours. Cooking the cucumbers is important particularly if you intend to enjoy the salad the next day as per Tip #1.