Darina Allen: recipes for Chinese New Year

Are you ready for another celebration? Chinese New Year is coming up.

According to the Chinese 12-year annual zodiac cycle, February 16, marks the beginning of the Year of the Dog and the start of the Spring Festival and the holiday season when the hardworking Chinese can take seven days off work to celebrate and feast with their families.

Chinatowns all over the world burst into a riot of colour, spectacular festivities, dragon parades, street parties and lion dances.

There will be bell ringing and fire crackers and red envelopes stuffed with lucky money to give to the children.

Last year, I visited China for the first time so I’m more excited than ever about Chinese New Year and am planning a little Chinese feast to celebrate.

My first visit was not as you might expect to Shanghai or Beijing but to Chengdu in the Sichuan province to attend the International Slow Food Conference in the UNESCO capital of gastronomy.

There were many fascinating elements to the trip, the city of Chengdu welcomed the Slow Food delegates from all over the world wholeheartedly with wonderful entertainment, opera, theatre, music and superb Chinese food for which the Sichuan province is justly famous.

So let’s gather some friends to celebrate the end of the Year of The Rooster and the beginning of the Year of The Dog.

Spring rolls are the obvious choice, universally loved, and easy to make. They are traditionally eaten during the Spring Festival hence the name. Spring rolls are considered to be lucky because when fried they resemble gold bars.

Each food is symbolic in some way, long noodles served in various ways symbolise longevity. Citrus fruit is traditionally eaten for Chinese New Year because it too is considered to be lucky.

Chinese food is influenced by two major philosophies: Confucianism and Taoism. Devotees of Confucius cut food into small bite sized pieces. Followers of Taoism focus more on foods that promote health, longevity and healing.

There are eight culinary traditions. Cooking styles, ingredients and flavours differ from region to region. The most prominent are Szechuan, Cantonese, Hunan, Shandong, Jiangsu, Anhui and Zhuang.

A typical Chinese meal will have a carbohydrate or starch — rice, noodles or steamed buns and accompanying stir fries or dishes of vegetables, fish, meat or tofu and lots of fresh vegetables.

Each dish focuses on creating a balance between appearance, aroma and flavour. Sauces, seasonings and fermented products are an important part of the whole and of course beautiful teas to sip.

Here are a few of my favourite Chinese recipes to make at home. On my last trip I discovered green as well as red Sichuan peppercorns. I was familiar with the latter before but oh my goodness what a difference freshness makes. 

Sichuan peppers are fascinating to cook with, bite into one and it will temporarily numb your mouth in an intriguing way. It is one of the five spices in five spices powder along with cinnamon, cloves, fennel and star anise.

Ken Hom’s Spring Rolls with Sweet and Sour Dipping Sauce

Makes 15-18

Spring Rolls are one of the best-known Chinese snacks. They are not difficult to make and are a perfect starter for any meal. They should be crisp, light and delicate. Spring roll skins can be obtained fresh or frozen from Chinese grocers.

1 packet of spring roll skins, thawed if necessary

1 egg, beaten

1.2 litres (2 pints) groundnut oil for deep-frying

Filling

100g (3½oz) raw prawns shelled, de-veined and minced or finely chopped

100g (3½oz) minced fatty pork

1½ tbsp groundnut oil

2 tbsp coarsely chopped garlic

1 tbsp finely chopped fresh root ginger

1½ tbsp light soy sauce

1 tbsp rice wine or dry sherry

3 tbsp finely chopped spring onions

1 tsp salt

½ tsp freshly ground black pepper

225g (8oz) Chinese leaves (Peking cabbage), finely shredded

25g (1oz) dried Chinese black mushrooms, soaked, stems removed and finely shredded

Marinade

1 tsp light soy sauce

1 tsp rice wine or dry sherry

1 tsp sesame oil

½ tsp salt

½ tsp freshly ground black pepper

Sweet and Sour Sauce

150ml (5fl oz) water

2 tbsp sugar

3 tbsp Chinese white rice vinegar or cider vinegar

3 tbsp tomato paste or tomato ketchup

1 tsp salt

¼ tsp freshly ground white pepper

1 tsp cornflour, blended with 2 teaspoons water

To Serve

1 quantity of sweet and sour dipping sauce (see recipe)

First make the dipping sauce.

In a small saucepan, combine all the ingredients for the sweet and sour sauce except the cornflour mixture. Bring to the boil, stir in the cornflour mixture and cook for 1 minute. Remove from the heat and leave to cool.

For the filling:

Combine the prawns and pork with all the marinade ingredients in a small bowl.

Heat a wok over a high heat. Add the 1½ tablespoons of groundnut oil and, when it is very hot and slightly smoking, add the garlic and ginger and stir-fry for 20 seconds.

Add all the rest of the filling ingredients, including the prawn and meat mixture and stir-fry for 5 minutes.

Place the mixture in a colander to drain and allow it to cool thoroughly. Place 3-4 tablespoons of the filling near the end of each spring roll skin, then fold in the sides and roll up tightly. Seal the open end by brushing a small amount of beaten egg along the edge, then pressing together gently. You should have a roll about 10cm (4 inch) long, a little like an oversized cigar.

Rinse out the wok and reheat it over a high heat, then add the oil for deep-frying. When the oil is hot and slightly smoking, gently drop in as many spring rolls as will fit easily in one layer.

Fry the spring rolls until golden brown and cooked through, about four minutes. Adjust the heat as necessary.

Remove with a slotted spoon, drain on a wire rack then on kitchen paper. Cook the remaining spring rolls in the same way.

Serve at once, hot and crispy with the sweet and sour sauce for dipping.

Fuchsia Dunlop’s Fish Fragrant Aubergines

Serves 2 as a main dish or 4 as part of a Chinese meal

600 g aubergines

Salt

Cooking oil

for deep-frying (400ml will do if you are using a round-bottomed wok)

1½ tablespoons Sichuanese chilli bean paste, or Sichuan pickled chilli paste, or a mixture of the two

1 tablespoon ginger, finely chopped

1 tablespoons garlic, finely chopped

150 ml stock

2 teaspoons caster sugar

¾ teaspoon potato flour, mixed with 1 tablespoon cold water

2 teaspoons Chinkiang vinegar

4 tablespoons spring onion greens, finely sliced

Cut the aubergines lengthways into three thick slices, then cut these into evenly sized batons. Sprinkle them with salt, mix well and leave in a colander for at least 30 minutes to drain.

In a wok, heat the oil for deep-frying to 180C. Add the aubergines in batches and deep-fry for three to four minutes until slightly golden on the outside and soft and buttery within.

Remove and drain on kitchen paper.

Drain off the deep-frying oil, rinse the wok if necessary, then return it to a medium flame.

When the wok is hot again, add three tablespoons of oil. Add the chilli bean paste and stir fry until the oil is red and fragrant, then add the ginger and garlic and continue to stir fry until you can smell their aromas. Take care not to burn these seasonings; remove the wok from the heat for a few seconds if necessary to control the temperature (you want a gentle, coaxing sizzle, not a scorching heat).

Add the stock and sugar and mix well. Season with salt to taste if necessary.

Add the fried aubergines to the sauce and let them simmer gently for a minute or so to absorb some of the flavours.

Then stir the potato flour mixture, pour it over the aubergines and stir in gently to thicken the sauce. Add the vinegar and spring onions and stir a few times, then serve.

Chicken and Mushroom Noodle Soup

Serves 6

So comforting and delicious. Who doesn’t love slurping noodles?

6-8 tbsp Iceberg lettuce, shredded

1.2 litres (2 pints) homemade chicken broth

2.5cm (1 inch) piece of fresh ginger, sliced

1 organic chicken breast

2 tbsp chopped scallions, green and white parts

110g/4 ozs mushrooms, thinly sliced

salt and freshly ground pepper

110g 4 ozs egg noodles

1.1 litres/ 2 pints water

salt

2-4 tbsp soy sauce, I use Kikkoman

1 green chilli, thinly sliced

4 tbsp coriander

Bring the stock slowly to the boil with the sliced ginger. Dry fry the sliced mushrooms on a very hot pan, season with salt and freshly ground pepper. Keep aside. Bring the water to the boil, add salt and cook the noodles for 5-6 minutes, they should be al dente. Slice the chicken breast into very thin shreds at an angle, season with salt and freshly ground black pepper.

Strain the chicken broth. When ready to serve add the chicken, bring the broth to the boil, add mushrooms, scallions and noodles and allow to heat through. Add soy sauce and seasoning to taste. Divide into six bowls and serve garnished with flat parsley.

Buttered Cabbage with Sichuan Peppercorns

Serves 4-6

The flavour of this quickly cooked cabbage has been a revelation for many and has converted numerous determined cabbage haters back to Ireland’s national vegetable.

450g (1lb) fresh Savoy cabbage

25g (1oz) butter or more if you like

1 teaspoon of highly crushed Sichuan peppercorns to taste

salt and freshly ground pepper

a knob of butter

Remove the tough outer leaves and divide the cabbage into four. Cut out the stalks and then cut each section into fine shreds across the grain.

Put 2 or 3 tablespoons of water into a wide saucepan with the butter and a pinch of salt. Bring to the boil, add the cabbage and toss constantly over a high heat, then cover for a few minutes.

Toss again and add some more salt, freshly ground pepper and the knob of butter.

Serve immediately.

Hot tips

A new discovery

I was so excited to discover the most delicious Syrian flatbread is being made by Mohamed Ghnaimi at Alsham Bakery in Cork – it’s absolutely authentic and the perfect accompaniment to hummus, moutabal or to wrap around olives or juicy roast lamb and tahini. info@alshambakery.ie or phone 085-1753796

Reduce plastic

China’s recent decision to no longer accept any more waste plastic from the West has kick-started a long overdue campaign to reduce the use of unnecessary plastic in all our lives, we can all play our part by being more conscious and at least eliminate single use plastic from our houses. Request/demand a choice of unwrapped products in the supermarket.

Chinese produce

Mr Bells stall in the English Market sells a wide variety of ethnic ingredients as does www.mrbellsfood.com

Asia Market on Drury Street, Dublin is an Aladdin’s cave of exotic ingredients – www.asiamarket.ie


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