Five Singapore cooks share with SundayLife! their heritage recipes, perfected over the years, for Chinese New Year. Among them: a soft, smooth radish cake; glutinous rice packed with premium ingredients; and stewed vegetables or chap chye with fa cai (black moss).
If you fancy labouring in the kitchen to feed loved ones, you could also try making melt-in-the-mouth kueh bangkit or roll up your sleeves to make special Peranakan-style popiah.
Who: Mrs Connie Phua, 49, store manager of a luxury handbag brand
A few weeks before Chinese New Year, Mrs Phua takes about 12 days of leave just to whip up festive goodies for her friends and family. She makes everything from pineapple tarts to love letters to peanut cookies and also melt-in-your-mouth kueh bangkit for family and friends.
She says: "I spent three years experimenting before I was satisfied with the result. It is very important to mix the tapioca flour, one scoop at a time. If you pour everything at one go, it will harden and you have to start all over again."
To speed up the process, the mother of three children aged 12 to 17 uses some nifty tools to make her kueh bangkit. Her husband Jason Phua, 52, is a nursery owner.
For example, she has a special cookie cutter from baking supply chain Phoon Huat which cuts four flower-shaped cookies at a go. She also uses a pair of small plastic tongs with jagged ends to pinch the kueh bangkit dough, which forms the traditional pattern on the cookie.
She makes about 50 jars of each type of snack every Chinese New Year.
On taking the time to churn out these festive goodies, the cheerful baker says: "When you know how to make them, you won't buy those sold outside. It's worth my hard work because people appreciate it."
1kg tapioca flour
10 to 12 long pandan leaves, cut into 12cm pieces
500g icing sugar
600ml fresh coconut milk (about three coconuts), no water added
3 long pandan leaves, rolled into a small bundle
8 egg yolks, from small eggs
1. In a wok, fry the tapioca flour with the pandan leaf pieces over a low flame until fragrant, for about 30 minutes. It is best to do this in advance and leave the flour to cool overnight in an airtight container for one to two days.
2. Preheat the oven to 150 deg C.
3. In a pot, boil 250g of icing sugar with the coconut milk and bundle of three pandan leaves. Remove from heat and leave to cool. Discard the pandan leaves.
4. With an electric mixer, beat the remaining 250g of icing sugar with the egg yolks on medium speed for about 10 minutes.
5. In a large bowl, mix the coconut mixture from step 3 with egg yolk mixture from step 4.
6. Sift the tapioca flour from step 1 into another large bowl. Discard the pandan leaf pieces.
7. With a soup ladle, add the sifted tapioca flour into the coconut and egg yolk mixture - one scoop at a time. Knead until you get a soft dough that does not stick to your hand. Cover the dough with a damp cloth to prevent the dough from drying out.
8. On a lightly floured surface, roll out small portions of the dough to about 1/2cm thick with a rolling pin.
9. Cut out the flower shapes (six petals) with a cookie cutter. Using a small pair of tongs that have a jagged edge, pinch the dough twice to form the kueh bangkit's pattern.
10. Place the cut kueh bangkit pieces on a baking tray lined with parchment paper. Leave about 1cm gap between each piece.
11. Bake the kueh bangkit for about 30 minutes, or until the tops turn light brown.
12. Leave the kueh bangkit to cool on a wire rack before removing from the tray to store into containers. The kueh bangkit may stick to the parchment paper, so be careful when removing them.
Makes 300 to 400 pieces
NONYA CHAP CHYE
Who: Madam Susan Tan, 53, a housewife
Chinese New Year for Madam Tan and her family is not complete without chap chye - cooked by her, of course.
She learnt the traditional Nonya dish of stewed mixed vegetables from her late Peranakan mother-in-law and has been cooking it for the past 30 years - as long as she has been married to Mr Stephen Low, 62, who runs a chemicals company. The couple have three children in their 20s.
Says Madam Tan: "The dish, which has different types of vegetables, represents togetherness and the coming together as a family."
The black moss in the auspicious dish, which is known as "fa cai" in Mandarin (which sounds similar to the term for "striking it rich"), also signifies prosperity.
Aside from this vegetable dish, other Peranakan delicacies that Madam Tan prepares for Chinese New Year include babi pongteh (braised pork with fermented soyabeans) and ayam buah keluak (chicken and black nut stew).
Rebecca Lynne Tan
8 large dried mushrooms
1 litre of water, or more if necessary
100g haebi or dried shrimp
10g dried black fungus or cloud ear fungus
100g black moss
10g dried golden lily buds
20g tung hoon or bean vermicelli
20g tau kee or sweet beancurd skin
5Tbs cooking oil, and more oil for deep-frying the tau kee
200g pork belly, sliced into thin strips
1Tbs garlic, finely chopped
21/2Tbs tau cheo or fermented soyabean paste
1kg cabbage, washed and cut roughly into pieces
100g jicama, peeled and cut into strips about 4cm long and 1cm thick
10g beancurd skin
1Tbs concentrated chicken stock
Salt to taste
Oyster sauce to taste
1. Wash the dried mushrooms and boil in a small pot with about 400ml of water for about five to 10 minutes, until they have softened. Drain but keep the liquid (mushroom water) for use later. Cut the mushrooms into strips. Set aside.
2. Meanwhile, soak the dried shrimp, black fungus, black moss, golden lily buds and tung hoon in separate bowls of water for about 10 minutes. Drain each item and set aside. Tie the lily buds into knots and trim the ends. Set aside.
3. Wipe the sheets of tau kee with a damp cloth, then cut them into 5cm squares. Deep-fry in hot oil until brown and crispy. Drain on paper towels and set aside.
4. Heat 5Tbs of oil in a large wok on medium heat. When the oil is hot, add the dried shrimp and fry until fragrant.
5. Add the strips of pork belly and continue to fry until cooked.
6. Add the garlic, then the tau cheo and fry for about one minute.
7. Next, put in the cabbage and jicama and stir. Add about 200ml of water. Cover and cook for about 10 to 15 minutes, stirring intermittently.
8. Add the mushroom water that you had set aside earlier, followed by the mushrooms, black fungus and golden lily buds. Stir. Add just enough water to submerge most of the ingredients.
9. Bring the liquid to a boil. Add more water if necessary. The vegetables should be cooked and soft, but not mushy.
10. When boiling, add the tau kee and black moss. Stir gently and simmer for about five minutes. Add the beancurd skin and tung hoon.
11. Add the concentrated chicken stock, salt and oyster sauce to taste.
12. Serve with a side of sambal belacan.
Serves 10 to 12 people if accompanied by other dishes
Who: Mrs Jennie Lim, 70, retired primary school teacher
What could have been a traditional glutinous rice recipe lost in time has been revived by Mrs Lim, who had to come up with her own version since her mother died in 1999 and never recorded the recipe.
To achieve the same flavours, she had to tweak the steps, from the soaking of the rice to the sauces used and time taken for steaming the dish. But she says it "can never compare" to her mum's original version.
Her recipe comes the closest, says Mrs Lim, and it features not only pork belly but also back bacon among more common ingredients such as mushrooms and dried prawns.
She says: "The bacon makes the rice fragrant and more flavourful. But you cannot use too much, or the rice will be very salty."
She also emphasises the importance of cooking the ingredients with the raw glutinous rice grains first, before steaming. "If the rice is steamed separately from the ingredients, it will not soak in the flavours and the dish will not be tasty," says the Teochew mother of two sons, a freelance writer and a director of communications at a hospital who are in their 40s. Her 81-year-old Peranakan- Hokkien husband is a retired secondary school teacher.
To ensure that the rice does not dry out when steaming, she has a handy tip: Use a spray bottle to spritz water on the rice so that the grains are moist, as opposed to soaking wet.
For Chinese New Year, Mrs Lim, the eldest of seven siblings, has a potluck reunion dinner where each sibling contributes a few home-cooked dishes.
She makes her dish for church gatherings and for family meals too.
She says: "I grew up eating white porridge with salted egg and kiam chye, so back then, glutinous rice was considered a special dish. Everyone thinks it's too much work, but it's not difficult to do, plus the ingredients are not expensive."
5Tbs cooking oil
200g shallots, thinly sliced
2 strips pork belly (about 100g), cut into thin slices
3 strips back bacon (about 100g), cut into thin slices
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
10 medium-sized shiitake mushrooms, soaked in water and sliced into thin strips
60g small dried prawns, soaked in water
600g glutinous rice, soaked over night or at least four hours, in enough water to cover the rice
1Tbs dark soy sauce
1Tbs light soy sauce
White pepper powder
1. Heat oil in wok and fry shallots for a few minutes until golden brown. Remove the shallots from the wok - leave the excess oil in the wok - and set aside.
2. Fry the pork belly in the remaining oil. Add the bacon and fry for a few minutes until fragrant.
3. Add the chopped garlic and fry for a few minutes until golden.
4. Add the mushrooms and dried prawns.
5. Drain about half the amount of water used to soak the glutinous rice. Pour the remaining water and rice into the wok to fry with the rest of the ingredients.
6. Stir in the dark and light soy sauce, as well as a pinch of pepper.
7. Once the ingredients are well mixed, transfer into a bamboo steamer or dish for steaming. Place the steamer in the wok to steam the rice for about 30 minutes.
8. About 10 minutes into the steaming process, rake through the rice with a fork. Sprinkle small amounts of water to the rice if it is too dry. Cover and continue to steam. Repeat this 10 minutes later to ensure that all the rice is cooked evenly.
9. Before serving the rice, season with white pepper powder and garnish with fried shallots. Serve hot with sweet soya sauce and sambal chilli.
Serves 6 to 8
Who: Mrs Cecilia Teo, 76, a housewife
Mrs Teo has been making her radish cake from scratch for a decade. It has become such a hit with her family and friends that she makes it all year round.
The 76-year-old widow says: "My family and I always enjoy eating radish cake at dim sum restaurants, so I decided to see if I could make it at home."
She has three children and five grandchildren aged between 13 and 26. Her late husband worked for an oil and gas company.
She created her own radish cake after reading recipe books and going through several rounds of trial and error. Instead of using just rice flour, she uses a combination of wheat starch and corn, rice and plain flours, which gives her radish cake its soft, smooth consistency.
For many families, especially those of Cantonese heritage, the radish cake is a must-have celebratory dish during Chinese New Year. It signifies prosperity and is commonly eaten for breakfast in the New Year as well as served to guests as a snack.
Rebecca Lynne Tan
1kg white radish
75g dried shrimp
40g wheat starch
80g corn flour
40g plain flour
150g rice flour
1.2l of water, divided into two equal portions of 600ml
200ml cooking oil
150g preserved Chinese sausage, sliced thinly or diced
1. Peel and shred the radish. Set aside.
2. Soak the dried shrimp in water for about 10 minutes, then drain and roughly chop into small pieces. Set aside.
3. In a large bowl or tub, combine the wheat starch, corn flour, plain flour and rice flour with 600ml of water. Mix until well combined and set aside.
4. Heat the oil in a wok or a large pan on high heat. When it is hot, add the dried shrimp and fry until it is fragrant. Add the preserved Chinese sausage and continue to fry for about a minute.
5. Add the remaining 600ml of water into the pan, followed by the shredded radish. Add salt and sugar, and mix gently. Bring to a boil.
6. Stir the flour and water mixture, then add it into the pan. Keep stirring the ingredients in the pan until the mixture begins to thicken and come together.
This should take about five minutes.
7. Once it has thickened, take the pan off the heat. Scoop the mixture into a tray that is 30cm by 20cm. Spread it evenly, then steam it for 40 minutes.
8. Once it has been steamed, leave it to cool and rest for at least five hours. It can also be stored in the refrigerator overnight. If storing in the fridge, cover with clingwrap or foil, or cut it and place into a plastic container.
9. To serve, cut into squares or rectangles, 1 to 1.5cm thick. Pan-fry in a hot non-stick pan on medium heat until slightly crisp on both sides. No extra oil is needed for frying.
10. Serve hot with sambal belacan or other desired sauces.
Makes one tray, which serves 10 to 15 people
EGG POPIAH SKIN AND POPIAH FILLING
Who: Ms Andrea Giam, 44, a housewife
Popiah and its accompanying special egg skin is a dish that Ms Giam fondly remembers from her growing-up years.
Her late maternal grandmother Elsie Tan would make the labour-intensive dish to celebrate festivities and special occasions such as birthdays - although not during Chinese New Year. Mrs Tan, a Peranakan housewife, died 10 years ago at the ripe old age of 93.
Ms Giam says: "The secret to my grandmother's popiah is crispy bits of pork lard."
Now, she has taken over that role and makes the skins and the popiah filling from scratch about twice or thrice a year, for birthdays or extended family gettogethers.
She has two sons, aged nine and 11, with her husband, Mr Conrad Lim, 49, who works in the finance industry.
She notes that many other Peranakan and Hokkien families eat popiah to usher in the Chinese New Year because the dish is festive and communal.
"The egg skin, however, is not as common," she says.
Rebecca Lynne Tan
FOR THE SKIN
2 cups of plain flour, sifted
1 cup tapioca flour, sifted
2tsp custard powder
3 cups of water
6 eggs, beaten
A pinch of salt
1. Mix the plain flour, tapioca flour and custard powder in a large bowl. Add the water gradually, stirring as you go along.
2. Add the eggs gradually, then the salt.
3. Leave the batter to rest for about an hour at room temperature. Do not worry that the batter looks watery - it should look pale yellow and have the consistency of creamy milk.
4. To make the skin, heat a non-stick 30cm round pan on medium-low heat. Using a soup ladle, add a spoonful of the batter into the pan and swirl it until the entire base on the pan is covered. The skin is cooked when you begin to see small bubbles. It should look like and have a similar texture to that of kueh dadar (green pandan pancakes that are filled with coconut) skin.
5. To cool the skin, flip it onto a plastic basket or colander with a rounded, dome-like base. The basket should not have legs or a stand on the bottom because these will change the shape of the skin.
You may need to stretch the skin out gently with your fingers.
6. When the skin is cool, remove and place onto a plate. Repeat the skin-making process until all the batter is used. Stack cooled skins on top of each other.
7. Be sure to stir the batter occasionally. You may also need to add more water as you go along, as the batter will begin to thicken after a while.
Makes about 30 skins. Do this ahead of the popiah party - in the morning if you are having it for lunch, or in the afternoon it you are having it for dinner.
FOR THE POPIAH
INGREDIENTS FOR FILLING
400g pork fat, cut into small cubes, fried until golden brown and crispy
Oil for frying
200g pork belly
4Tbs oil (rendered from frying the pork fat)
1Tbs minced garlic
3Tbs tau cheo or fermented soyabean paste, mashed
2kg jicama, peeled and shredded
One 300g can of winter bamboo shoots, drained and shredded
Light soya sauce, to taste
Salt, to taste
Sugar, to taste
2 pieces of tau kwa (firm beancurd)
INGREDIENTS FOR GARNISHING
To be served with the popiah filling:
5 large chillies, blended with the chilli padis
2 chilli padis, or more to taste, blended with the large chillies
1Tbs minced garlic
1 cucumber, peeled and julienned
1 sprig of coriander, washed, roughly chopped.
1 egg, fried into a thin omelette, then julienned
Shallots, thinly sliced, fried until golden brown
Roasted peanuts, ground
Sweet flour sauce
(Prepare this while the filling is simmering, according to this list)
1. Cut the pork fat into small cubes and fry in oil until golden brown and crispy. Save the oil for use later. Drain the cubes of lard on paper towels. Set aside.
2. Wash the prawns. Place them in a pot and cover them with just enough water so that all the prawns are submerged. Boil for about five minutes until the prawns are cooked. Remove the prawns and keep the stock for use later. Peel the prawns later.
3. Meanwhile, do the same for the pork belly. Place it in another pot, cover with just enough water so that the whole piece of pork is submerged. Boil for about five to 10 minutes until pork is cooked. Remove the pork and slice it into thin strips. Keep the stock for use later.
4. Heat 4Tbs of the lard oil in a large wok or pan on high heat. When the oil is hot, add the garlic and then the tau cheo, and fry until fragrant.
5. Add the jicama, then both the prawn and pork stocks. Stir and simmer for about 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. Then add the bamboo shoots. Season with light soya sauce, salt and sugar, to taste.
6. Cover and continue to let it simmer for about 1 hour.
7. While the filling is simmering, cut the tau kwa into small strips and fry until cooked and is a light golden brown in colour. Drain on paper towels and set aside.
8. After you have fried the tau kwa, peel the prawns that you had set aside earlier. Place the prawns into a bowl. Now, prepare all the other ingredients for garnishing as listed above. Place them in individual bowls. Also place the cubes of lard you had fried earlier into a bowl. You may mix the lard with the fried shallots if desired. Set all these aside, cover with cling wrap and refrigerate if not eating immediately.
9. Once the filling is almost done, add in the tau kwa and simmer for another 10 to 15 minutes. Heat up the filling when you are ready to serve the popiah.
10. To serve, place a large bowl of the hot popiah filling, as well as all the other bowls of garnishing that you had prepared earlier, on the dining table. Place the skins on the table too. Leave guests to make their own popiah. The smoother side of the skin should be on the inside when rolling the popiah.
Serves six to eight people
This story was first published in The Straits Times on Jan 26, 2014