The first time housewife Lesley Ma tasted sweet mushrooms, a favourite of her husband's family, she was bewildered.
The eyebrow-raising dish comprised mushrooms braised in a gravy made from dark soya sauce, sugar and a pinch of salt.
The 49-year-old recalls the meal more than 20 years ago: "I was sceptical as mushrooms are always found in savoury, not sweet, dishes. It took me a few years before I could get used to the taste of the dish."
Despite her doubts, she had to learn to cook the Chinese New Year dish for her husband's family. The couple lived with them in Kuala Lumpur for 10 years in the mid1990s.
The dish was the brainchild of her husband's grandfather, who enjoyed experimenting when cooking. It dates back to World War II, when the family could only afford shiitake mushrooms at Chinese New Year. He gave the dish a festive spin by adding the auspicious black moss and sweetened the braise to symbolise sweet tidings.
12 dried shiitake mushrooms
70g black moss
2 Tbs sunflower oil
3 Tbs thick dark soya sauce (Angel or Po Po brand, available in supermarkets)
1/8 tsp salt
21/2 Tbs sugar
2 tsp potato starch
3 to 4 tsp water
150g broccoli, cut into about 15 florets
1. The night before, soak the dried shiitake mushrooms in a bowl of tap water for at least six hours at room temperature.
2. On the day of cooking, soak the black moss in another bowl of cold water for 30 minutes. Drain and squeeze excess water from the black moss and set aside. Squeeze water from the soaked mushrooms. Set aside.
3. In a saucepan set over medium heat, heat the sunflower oil for one to two minutes. Add the mushrooms and fry for five to seven minutes, until they turn slightly brown and fragrant.
4. Add 900ml water and bring the mixture to a boil. Add dark soya sauce, salt and sugar (below). Stir the contents with a spatula and cover the saucepan with a lid. Turn down heat to low and let the mixture simmer for an hour.
6. Add the soaked black moss into the saucepan and continue to simmer the contents for another 30 to 45 minutes, until the mushrooms are soft and the sauce has thickened. If the sauce is not thick enough, mix 2 tsp of potato starch with 3 to 4 tsp of water and add the mixture into the saucepan. Stir the contents for a minute until the sauce thickens. Turn off the heat. 7. Bring a small pot of water to boil, blanch the chopped broccoli for two to three minutes. Drain.
8. Place the cooked broccoli in the centre of a plate, use a pair of chopsticks to arrange the braised mushrooms and black moss on top of the broccoli, and pour the sauce over. Serve with rice.
To bring out the sweetness of the dish, Mrs Ma uses Malaysian brands of dark soya sauce such as Angel and Po Po, available in supermarkets here. She prefers these sauces to local ones as the Malaysian sauces boast a caramel-like sweetness and are thicker and less salty.
Over the years, she has grown to enjoy the dish and continues the tradition of whipping up sweet mushrooms for Chinese New Year feasts for family and friends.
To make the dish "more palatable", she halves the amount of sugar that goes into the braise and adds broccoli to balance the sweetness of the mushrooms. "This dish is always a conversation-starter during house parties," she says. "Initially, my friends thought that it was a weird dish, but they like it so much now that they take leftovers home."
During Chinese New Year, her kitchen transforms into a bustling hive of activity as she hosts about six festive feasts during the twoweek celebrations. Her signature dishes include luo han zhai, or Buddha's Delight, a mixed vegetable dish; mushroom, chicken and fish maw soup; and rice with waxed duck and Chinese sausage.
She learnt these dishes during her time in Malaysia, when she had to cook for four generations of the family on weekends.
Her house party menu is not complete without dishes such as kong bak pau (braised pork buns), kueh pie tee and pig trotters in vinegar.
"My friends always wrangle invites and they expect the same comfort dishes every year," she says. "It gets rather boring for my family as we have to eat the same meal six times."
She is married to a 51-year-old information technology consultant and they have two sons, aged 18 and 19, who are polytechnic students.
Besides hosting house parties, she is also a catering powerhouse.
Every year, she makes up to 150 jars of almond sugee and nut crunch cookies that are loaded with macadamia and cashew nuts, and steams at least 100 blocks of radish cake. She distributes these goodies to family and friends. She also assembles yusheng sets, buying 14 condiments such as pickled ginger and orange peel in bulk.
Preparation begins in earnest six weeks before Chinese New Year, when she makes 5kg of chilli sauce in huge jars and buys meat and seafood in bulk.
Pointing to her two-door refrigerator and chest freezer, both of which are filled with food, she jokes: "My kitchen already looks like World War III most of the time. It gets worse during Chinese New Year and we need to get styrofoam boxes to store extra ingredients."
Besides cooking for family five days a week, Mrs Ma is also a part-time cooking instructor at cooking studio Food Playground, a social enterprise with classes facilitated by stay-at-home mums and senior citizens.
Over the past 31/2 years, she has been teaching her well-loved recipes such as chicken rice and Sichuan dumplings with chilli oil.
While she gets satisfaction from cooking elaborate communal meals, she shares her recipes only with a few friends who are willing to cook from scratch. She makes her own hae bee hiam (dried shrimp sambal) and rempah (spice paste) for beef rendang.
"I can be a real diva when it comes to cooking," she says. "I do not want to waste time on those who use pre-mixes or try to shorten recipes as the dish will not taste the same. Taking kitchen shortcuts is a sacrilege."