The restaurants are full for the 15 days of Chinese New Year, you have run out of auspicious ingredients to whip up a meal for last-minute visitors and festive fatigue is starting to set in.
Enter ready-to-eat meals. At least four food and beverage companies have rolled out convenient packages that go beyond soup packets for a flavourful steamboat. Think proper dishes that can be fairly laborious to make, such as pencai, herbal chicken and braised sea cucumber with vegetables.
Simply order the items online or buy them at supermarkets. Defrost, heat up in the microwave or steam and plate the dishes with the flourish of extra garnish.
Noting the demand for quick eats during the festive period, Ms Jocelyn Chng, 51, chief executive of JR Group, which operates the vending machine chain of Chef-in-Box Vendcafe, decided to roll out Chinese New Year dishes this year.
She says: "We noticed an increase in customers heading to Vendcafe at Anchorvale during the first few days of Chinese New Year last year as some wanted a quick bite before or after their visiting. The range we have launched is perfect for small families who do not want to head out to restaurants."
The research and development (R&D) process to roll out Chinese New Year dishes is not always smoothsailing though.
House Of Seafood restaurant's chief executive Francis Ng, 45, tried to come up with vegetable-based ready meals, in addition to its staple of ready-to-eat crab items. "That did not work out as the vegetables turned very soggy, but our R&D on that will continue," he says.
While housewife Gillian Tan, 48, was initially not keen on offering ready-to-eat items for Chinese New Year, she now sees them as a suitable and hassle-free alternative. "I'd rather serve my guests food that is freshly cooked, but I'm the only one cooking for a gathering next Saturday and I don't think I can manage. I have tried House Of Seafood's crab items and the quality is pretty good. So I will buy the crab as an additional dish and try to cook the rest."
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What: If you prefer to dine at home, the restaurant group not only offers catering for Chinese New Year, but also ready-to-eat and ready-to-cook frozen meals.
Defrost the items before pouring out the contents to either steam or heat up in the microwave. Info: Order online at www.homefiesta.tunglok.com. Self-collection available at selected TungLok outlets and free delivery for orders of $80 and above.
GRANDMA-STYLE BRAISED PORK
What: Chunky pieces of braised pork belly (above) come in a delicious sauce made with ingredients such as red yeast rice, Hua Tiao wine, star anise, bay leaves and beer. The sauce is on the salty side, so if necessary, you can dilute it. It goes well simply drizzled over rice. After defrosting, either steam for 10 to 15 minutes or microwave on high heat for two to four minutes.
Price: $14.50, 350g, good for three
HALF HERBAL CHICKEN
What: Once poured out of the bag, the fragrance of the herbs hits you immediately. The light and flavourful herbal broth includes wolfberries, red dates, dang gui (angelica sinensis) and chuan xiong (rhizoma ligustici). The chicken (above) is tender and has plenty of juicy meat. After defrosting, either steam for 15 to 20 minutes or microwave on high heat for five to eight minutes.
Price: $10.70, 650g, good for two
FISH MAW SOUP
What: This version of fish maw soup (above) is a premium version of the canned ones at supermarkets - while remaining hassle-free. It includes pieces of fish maw, sliced mushroom and bamboo shoots in a thick soup. After defrosting, either steam for 15 to 20 minutes or microwave on high heat for four to six minutes. Serve hot and garnish with coriander. To add more flavour to the soup, stir in black vinegar and pepper to taste.
Price: $16, 500g, good for three
Taste Asia by Select Group
What: The chilled, halal-certified items are good for four people and require five to six minutes in the microwave. It is best to re-plate the dishes instead of microwaving them in their plastic containers. Where: Selected FairPrice, FairPrice Finest and Giant supermarkets Info: www.tasteasia.com.sg
EIGHT TREASURES VEGETABLE
What: For a vegetable-based dish, opt for Eight Treasures Vegetable (above), which has ingredients such as Chinese cabbage, chestnuts, carrots, mushrooms (shiitake, straw and button mushrooms), wolfberries and mock abalone. It is topped with a clump of black moss (fatt choy) - an auspicious ingredient. The sauce has a light flavour of chicken stock and is not overly salty.
Price: $18.80, 900g, good for four
CABBAGE ROLL WITH BLACK MOSS
What: Good as a side dish, the package comes with 12 neatly rolled cabbage rolls with prawn filling (above). The rolls are topped with wolfberries and specks of black moss - all sitting in a gravy. Similar to the Eight Treasures Vegetable, the light gravy is flavoured with chicken stock.
Price: $18.80, 800g, good for four
BRAISED SEA CUCUMBER
What: No need to fuss over preparing a sea cucumber dish. Here (above), you get fairly thick pieces of braised sea cucumber in oyster sauce, along with sweet peas, shiitake and button mushrooms, as well as tender carrots and cabbage. If you prefer a meat option, there is a Yam Duck Leg dish ($19.80, 900g, good for four) available, with a similar selection of vegetables and sauce.
Price: $22.80, 800g, good for four
LOTUS LEAF RICE
What: The rice comes neatly wrapped in a lotus leaf (above), so one can just microwave the rice in the lotus leaf parcel. Then, simply slice a cross-section in the leaf to unveil the rice. The rice is cooked well - not mushy - and the addition of dried shrimp makes the rice more tasty.
Other ingredients include chunky chicken pieces and sliced shiitake mushrooms. Add a dollop of sambal belacan or drizzle gravy from other dishes on the rice to add more flavour. The amount of rice can easily feed six people, although the packaging says that it feeds four.
Price: $22.80, 1kg, good for four
What: JR Group's Chef-in-Box frozen products should be defrosted before heating in the microwave for five to six minutes. Pierce the plastic cover of the microwavable container or open it slightly to release the steam before heating. The group also offers ready-to-eat meals under its Jia Yen brand, available at major supermarkets.
Where: Available until March 2 at all Chef-in-Box Vendcafe outlets (except JCube), including 320C Anchorvale Drive, 01-K1; 766 Pasir Ris Street 71, 01-K1; Lakeside and Ang Mo Kio MRT stations; or order online at www.chefinbox.sg
What: This ready-to-eat pencai (above) packs plenty of ingredients in what seems to be a small package. You get abalone, fresh prawns, fish maw, dried scallops, dried oysters, smoked duck, shiitake mushrooms and black moss. The ingredients sit on a bed of soft Chinese cabbage and there is also sliced lotus root. It is a good alternative for lone diners or small parties as most pencai are sold in large claypots for big groups.
Other Chinese New Year items include Emperor Chicken ($6.80), a whole chicken leg cooked in Chinese herbs; and Lotus Leaf Rice ($8), with sliced Chinese sausages and mushrooms on a layer of lotus leaf.
Price: $18, good for two
ORH NEE (Jia Yen)
What: Perfect as a dessert for Chinese New Year, the yam paste can be steamed in the vacuum packaging for 30 to 45 minutes or boiled in the packaging for 20 to 30 minutes. Another option is to pour the paste into a bowl, defrost for four minutes, then add half a cup of water and mix well to get a smooth paste. Then, heat on medium high in the microwave for two to four minutes.
If you prefer your orh nee thicker, add just half the amount of water first, then stir in small amounts until your desired thickness. The orh nee comes with whole ginkgo nuts as well. To serve, consider adding coconut cream or mashed pumpkin as garnish.
Price: $9, good for two to four
House Of Seafood
SALTED EGG CRAB
What: If seafood is a must-have for Chinese New Year, get the ready-to-eat crab (above) from House Of Seafood. The seafood restaurant offers three flavours - chilli, black pepper and salted egg - and you get one whole crab, with the shell cracked for convenient eating. Just defrost the crab, open the plastic seal and heat up for eight minutes in the microwave.
The crab is fresh and has plenty of meat, while the salted egg yolk gravy is thick and creamy.
Where: House Of Seafood outlets at The Punggol Settlement and Upper Serangoon Road, and its vending machines; or order online at http://houseofseafood.sg
PHOTOS: HOUSE OF SEAFOOD, JR GROUP, SELECT GROUP, TUNGLOK GROUP