With less than two weeks to Chinese New Year, there is still time to think about what festive dishes to whip up to usher in the Year of the Rooster. Four celebrities share the recipes and stories behind their family favourites
For television host-actor Ben Yeo, bonding with his family over reunion dinner starts not at the dining table, but in the kitchen.
One of his fondest childhood memories of Chinese New Year is helping his mother prepare the ingredients for shark's fin soup with chicken, crab meat and mushrooms, one of his family's reunion dinner classics.
He and his three siblings were in charge of shredding boiled chicken meat and peeling crab meat from shells, while his mother cooked other festive dishes, such as braised sea cucumber and mushrooms, steamed fish and stir-fried leeks.
Yeo, 38, says: "It was very tedious work, but it was fun, like playing with play dough."
After years of observing his mother make the shark's fin soup, the culinary arts graduate from hospitality institute Shatec came up with his own version when he started his own family seven years ago. He has two sons, aged eight and five, with his wife, Ms Claudia Cheong, 38, who helps run Big Big Heart, a domestic abuse shelter started by Yeo.
He also runs Western restaurant Tenderfresh Classic, which has four outlets including in Our Tampines Hub and Cheong Chin Nam Road.
His soup recipe omits shark's fin for conservation reasons and also because he says "it doesn't add much taste".
Another modification is replacing tang hoon (glass noodles) with Japanese vermicelli. "Unlike tang hoon, Japanese vermicelli does not become too soggy when cooked and has a firmer and more chewy bite, like that of konnyaku (Japanese jelly)," he says.
He also adds enoki mushrooms as they are a family favourite.
To reduce preparation time, he uses frozen crab leg meat, but insists on shredding chicken meat by hand instead of slicing it.
"Hand-shredded meat is finer and doesn't fall apart easily. And the meat is more tender," he says. "It reminds me of my childhood."
He wants his children to learn how to prepare this dish. "They are old enough to start helping out in the kitchen and this also gives them a sense of what their grandmother used to cook."
Besides the soup, Yeo, who hosts Little Life Hacks, an info-education series on Channel 8 on Sundays at 10am, also prepares a steamboat meal for his family with ingredients such as abalone, fish and sliced pork belly.
Other than feeding his family, another Chinese New Year tradition he observes is to buy them a new set of clothes "from head to toe, from inside to outside".
He says: "The practice helps to spice up Chinese New Year or else it will become just another holiday."
BEN YEO'S CHICKEN, CRAB AND MUSHROOM SOUP
250g chicken breast, skin removed
1.8 to 2 litres water
100g Japanese vermicelli, soaked in water
400g store-bought crab leg meat
50g corn starch
50ml hot water
2 litres store-bought chicken stock
200g enoki mushrooms, chop off roots and discard 10 pieces fresh shiitake mushrooms, stem removed and julienned
3 pieces black fungus, soaked in hot water and julienned
Egg whites from three eggs, beaten
White pepper and vinegar to taste
1. In a pot set over high heat, add chicken breast and 800ml to 1 litre water, or enough to cover the meat. Cook for 15 to 20 minutes until the water comes to a boil.
2. Drain and rinse chicken with tap water to bring meat to room temperature.
3. Use hands to shred meat into thin strands. Set aside.
4. In a bowl, soak Japanese vermicelli for 10 to 15 minutes in water before cutting them into three equal parts with a pair of scissors. Set aside.
5. In a clean pot set over high heat, add crab leg meat and about 500ml of water. Cook for 10 to 15 minutes. Drain and set aside.
6. Dissolve 50g corn starch in 50ml of hot water. Set aside.
7. In a clean pot set over high meat, add 2 litres of chicken stock and 500ml of water. Bring the mixture to a boil.
8. Add enoki mushrooms, shiitake mushrooms, cooked crab leg meat, shredded chicken and black fungus into the mixture at high heat. Mix contents well.
9. While stirring the soup in the pot, pour corn starch solution gradually to thicken it. To check the consistency, take a scoop of the soup and watch how it flows back into the pot. It should not be too thin or starchy. Let it cook for five minutes till the mixture bubbles.
10. While stirring the soup, pour in egg white gradually from a bowl and let it cook for one to two minutes.
11. Turn heat off, scoop soup into a bowl and add white pepper and vinegar to taste.
Serves 10 to 12
Noodle soup to kick off new year
For more than 30 years, actress Constance Song's first meal on the first day of Chinese New Year is homecooked mee sua soup.
She eats a version of the thin wheat noodle dish at an aunt's house, where 15 to 20 relatives gather for a feast.
The noodles are served in a pork rib stock brewed overnight and topped with ingredients such as fishball, abalone and black moss (fa cai).
This is the taste of childhood for the svelte 41-year-old, who is currently seen on Channel 5's drama series, Tanglin.
She says: "Although mee sua is soggy and doesn't have an al dente texture, I need to eat it to celebrate Chinese New Year every year. It is a family tradition."
The dish, which is also a symbol of longevity and good fortune in Chinese culture, is also eaten on birthdays.
Over the years, she has perfected her own version. Her soup is a chicken stock spiked with hua diao jiu (Chinese rice wine) and topped with seaweed, peanuts, fried ginger slices, omelette slices and chicken.
"It is the only dish that I've learnt to cook from my mother two years ago, so that I can enjoy it whenever I crave it," she says.
Song, who is starring in home-grown composer Dick Lee's upcoming film, Wonder Boy, opening in August, does not cook often and generally steps into the kitchen only for her "lover, son and therapist", a four- year-old male golden retriever, Murphy. She whips up dishes such as steamed vegetables with beef for it.
It is evident that the two share a tight bond, with the dog prancing excitedly around Song's two-storey terrace house in Upper Thomson Road during this interview.
For this Chinese New Year, Song, who owns Spanish- Japanese restaurant Bam! in Tras Street, plans to whip up a noodle soup dish for Murphy that is inspired by mee sua. The dish comprises chicken and gluten-free bee hoon in a vegetable stock.
"Since Murphy is a part of our family, it should follow what we eat and our traditions too," she quips.
Her other food highlights during the festive period are a steamboat reunion dinner with her family - with must-have ingredients of fiery mala stock, beef and fish - and pineapple tarts, which remind her of pineapple jam biscuits, a favourite childhood snack.
CONSTANCE SONG’S MEE SUA SOUP
400g chicken fillet, skin removed and cut into 5 by 3cm slices 5 tsp light soya sauce 2 tsp sesame oil
1 tsp sugar
Salt and white pepper to taste
61/2 Tbs of sesame oil
400g ginger, shredded
4 eggs, beaten
10 to 20g ginger, sliced thinly
500ml store-bought chicken stock
350ml hua diao jiu (Chinese rice wine)
550g mee sua (seven bundles), soaked for two minutes before rinsing with water
25g dried seaweed
1. In a mixing bowl, marinate chicken slices with 4 tsp light soya sauce, 2 tsp sesame oil, sugar, salt and white pepper. Set it aside for 30 minutes.
2. In a wok set over medium heat, add 4 Tbs sesame oil and fry shredded ginger till golden brown. Set aside.
3. In another mixing bowl, stir 1 tsp light soya sauce into four beaten eggs. Mix well and set aside.
4. In a clean wok set over medium heat, add 1 Tbs sesame oil, pour egg mixture in gradually till it fills the pan. After two minutes, use a spatula to fold the egg into half and let it cook for two minutes. Flip the omelette to the side and let it cook for another two minutes, till it is slightly brown. Slice the omelette into thin slices. Set aside.
5. In a pan set over high heat, add
11/2 Tbs sesame oil, chicken and sliced ginger, and fry the chicken for three to four minutes.
6. With chicken slices still in the wok, pour in chicken stock and let the meat cook in the mixture till it comes to a boil.
7. Add hua diao jiu and water and stir continuously.
8. Add mee sua and cook for two to three minutes in the stock. Turn heat off. Use a pair of tongs to transfer mee sua into a serving bowl.
9. Divide mee sua and chicken into four bowls. Garnish each bowl with strips of fried omelette, fried shredded ginger and seaweed.
Vegetarian take on grandma's dish
Growing up, actor Nick Shen fondly remembers observing his late grandmother cook lunch while doing his homework after school.
Her speciality was steamed fish in Teochew style, that is, with ginger, salted vegetables and pickled plums.
These memories have inspired him to come up with a vegetarian version of the classic Teochew dish of steamed pomfret.
The dish features slabs of tofu (beancurd) that are arranged in the shape of a pomfret. They are laid out on a bed of dried seaweed that mimics the scaly texture and taste of the fish skin. Covering the body is a blanket of chewy oyster mushrooms, pickled plums, salted vegetables and strips of Chinese mushrooms, ginger and red chillies.
Instead of lard, fried soya bean crumbs are added for crunch.
One of the first few times that Shen cooked vegetarian "pomfret" was for a family dinner on the first day of Chinese New Year two years ago for 12 people.
The five-course vegetarian meal included dishes such as curry with mock chicken meat and potatoes, broccoli with mushrooms and his "signature dish", lotus root soup with radish and corn.
The 40-year-old recalls: "It was pressurising as it was my first time cooking for so many people. I spent the whole day in the kitchen chopping and cooking.
"It is my way of showing sincerity through the effort that I put into cooking."
The actor eats vegetarian food most of the time as it is "healthier and environmentally friendly".
A self-confessed perfectionist, the founder of events company Tok Tok Chiang fussed a fair deal over the dish's intricate decorations - from cutting cherry tomatoes into the shape of rabbits to crafting flowers from shredded carrots and Japanese cucumbers - during this interview.
One reunion dinner that he starkly remembers was the year after his mother died from cancer 10 years ago.
"She used to take charge of the festivities by cooking her specialities such as ngoh hiang and baking cashew and almond cookies," he says.
"It felt so different without her and I particularly missed her that night."
These days, the bachelor continues the tradition of decorating the family's five-room flat in Bukit Panjang. He is also busy during the Chinese New Year season as he is hired for God of Fortune appearances and Chinese opera performances in companies and schools.
Shen, who is starring in a Channel 8 drama as a police officer in March and Zi Char, a telemovie on E City (StarHub TV Channel 111 and 825) in August, has also been decorating the corridor of his flat with his neighbours for the past four years.
He says: "It always puts me in a festive mood."
NICK SHEN'S VEGETARIAN 'POMFRET'
25g dried seaweed (two sheets)
2 blocks rectangular tofu (600g each)
2 tomatoes, sliced
100g dried Chinese mushrooms, soaked for 30 minutes
150g oyster mushrooms
2 to 3 pieces Shantou pickled plums (squashed)
200g salted vegetables
6 red dates
6 roasted almonds
20g ginger, sliced
2 Tbs sesame oil
2 Tbs light soya sauce
6 Tbs vegetable oil
3 Tbs store-bought soya bean crumbs
White pepper to taste
3 red chillies, thinly sliced
10g coriander to garnish
1. Line a large plate with two sheets of dried seaweed.
2. Slice tofu blocks into half horizontally. 3. Slice two of the four slabs of tofu into half and then diagonally to get eight triangles of equal size. Set aside.
4. On the seaweed, arrange two remaining tofu rectangles next to each other to form the "fish body". Stack two tofu triangles at the front as the "fishhead".
5. Place one tofu triangle on each side of the "body". Place another tofu triangle to form the "tail". The remaining tofu will not be needed.
6. At each side of the "body", tuck sliced tomatoes and two dried Chinese mushrooms.
7. Cut 1/4 of a piece of dried mushroom and use scissors to cut out a circle. Use the edge of a knife to make a slight depression on the "head" of the fish and place the cut-out in it for the "eye".
8. Cover the "body" with oyster mushrooms, pickled plums, salted vegetables, strips of the remaining dried mushrooms, red dates, almonds and 10g of ginger slices.
9. Drizzle 1 Tbs of sesame oil and 1 Tbs of light soya sauce over the fish.
10. In a wok set over medium heat, bring some water to a boil and steam the "pomfret" for 10 minutes. 11. In a pan set over medium heat, add 2 Tbs of vegetable oil and fry the remaining 10g of sliced ginger till slightly brown for about three minutes. Set aside on kitchen towel.
12. In the same pan, add 4 Tbs of vegetable oil and fry soya bean crumbs for three minutes. Set aside on kitchen towel.
13. After the "pomfret" is steamed, drizzle 1 Tbs of light soya sauce and 1 Tbs of sesame oil on it. Add white pepper to taste. 14. Garnish with slices of fried ginger, red chilli and coriander.
Long before it became trendy for restaurants to use laksa gravy as a steamboat stock, theatre director- actress Selena Tan, 45, has been tucking into laksa steamboat during Chinese New Year.
For 30 years, laksa steamboat has been a staple in the family's reunion dinner and open house, during which 80 to 100 relatives and friends drop by throughout the day.
The star of the laksa steamboat is the tongue-tingling stock that is concocted with a blend of laksa rempah (spice mix) and prawn broth.
More than 20 kinds of ingredients are cooked in the soup, including yong tau foo, steamed chicken wings and tau pok (fried beancurd).
The steamboat is not complete without thick white bee hoon, cockles and a dollop of homemade fiery sambal.
Laksa steamboat is the brainchild of Tan's mother, Daisy, 66, who runs the Peranakan restaurant, Daisy's Dream Kitchen, in West Coast Road, with her son, Roy, 37.
Tan, founder and artistic director of theatre company Dream Academy, says: "We like eating all sorts of ingredients that can soak up the thick and lemak (rich in Malay) laksa gravy. My siblings and I ate a lot of such rempah-based dishes as my mum grew up in a Malay-Peranakan kampung."
While she would not reveal the recipe for the homemade laksa rempah, she says it is a blend of seven ingredients, including blue ginger, lemongrass and candlenut.
As a healthier alternative, she uses evaporated milk instead of coconut milk and she says the laksa "tastes just as nice".
She also squeezes lime juice into the laksa to inject some tanginess into the stock.
As part of their Chinese New Year tradition, her family of 30 gather for a reunion dinner comprising seven to eight main courses that "are enough to feed an army".
The dishes include pen cai (treasure pot filled with seafood), ngoh hiang (five-spice prawn roll), roast duck, chicken rice and fish maw soup - all whipped up by her mother and Roy.
Tan, who will be directing a new musical set in a school called Detention Katong at Esplanade Theatre from Feb 17 to March 5, recalls that the festive food line-up these days pales in comparison with the "astronomical" amount of food they had when she was growing up.
Tan is married to John Pok, 48, who helps run Dream Academy. They have a two-year-old son.
As for one of her favourite Chinese New Year Eve memories, she says: "We'd eat, watch television, go comatose and hop into the car to Chinatown at 11pm to rub shoulders with other shoppers and buy goodies at last-minute discounts to get into the festive mood."
SELENA TAN'S LAKSA STEAMBOAT
Shells from 20 prawns 1.5 litres water
160ml vegetable oil
500g store-bought laksa rempah (spice paste)
2 stalks lemongrass, remove white portions and crush
400ml evaporated milk
5 Tbs light soya sauce
10 pieces tau pok (fried beancurd)
100g finely chopped laksa leaves and sambal to garnish
1. In a big pot set over high heat, add shells from 20 prawns into 1.5 litres of water. Bring the mixture to a boil, then turn the heat to low and simmer for about 30 minutes. It should be reduced to about 1.2 litres. Drain and set aside. Discard the prawn shells.
2. In a wok set over high heat, add 100ml vegetable oil and laksa rempah and fry for a minute. Turn down heat to medium and continuously stir the mixture for about 45 minutes. Set aside.
3. In a pot set over high heat, add 60ml vegetable oil and rempah. Use a spatula to flatten the rempah around the pot. Once the rempah sizzles, turn heat down to medium, add crushed lemongrass stalks and mix well with rempah for two to three minutes. 4. Pour prawn stock prepared earlier into the pot. Turn heat to high and bring mixture to a boil. Stir the mixture occasionally.
5. Pour in evaporated milk gradually while stirring the mixture in the pot.
6. Stir 5 Tbs of light soya sauce into the mixture.
7. Add tau pok into the pot and cook for five to 10 minutes.
8. Use the laksa stock as a steamboat base. Add ingredients of your choice, such as yong tau foo, prawns and cockles.
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