Tuesday, February 08, 2011

My Favourite Chinese New Year Snacks

Chinese New Year is always about feasting and snacking.

It's that one time of the year when you can really tell yourself, "I'll exercise more when CNY is over!" It's hard to resist traditional snacks and biscuits especially when you only get to eat them once a year.

I wrote a post about my favourite snacks for Chinese New Year once but I think the list needs updating.

Biscuits are in big demand in Penang during this time of the year because many women do not have time to make their own cookies or biscuits (how Americanized we've become - we used to call them biscuits but now they're cookies!).

Chinese New Year cookie business is a lucrative business for many homemakers who are good at baking. I am not big on making cookies so I usually order from my aunt (who makes such scrumptious pineapple tarts) and my neighbour. I get cookies from my sister too - she makes good stuff!

The most sought after cookies and traditional-style biscuits are the ones we associate with Chinese New Year.

KUIH KAPIT

It's unthinkable to not have kuih kapit (love letters) in your home during this time of the year. They're paper-thin, crispy and melt in the mouth. The right kuih kapit is flavoursome - made with eggs, flour, sugar and coconut cream.

When I was a child, we used to have kuih kapit making sessions in my Grandma's home. It would be a whole day affair - we'd start early in the morning and work till evening. It was hot work. We'd sit in a row with specific duties.

The main cook's job was to pour the batter into kuih kapit moulds and quickly put them on the charcoal-lined pits (like BBQ pits). The main person doing this has to be quick and nimble; the batter cooked fast. When the batter was almost done, the expert would peel it off the mould. The person sitting next to her would fold the circle into half, and fold the half into a quarter. As the batter would be hot, it takes a pair of seasoned fingers to do this work without the batter hardening first! Cooled kuih kapit would be stored in airtight Milo tins.

The Thai people have put an innovative twist into the ordinary kuih kapit (which is really a Nyonya biscuit). In Hadyai, you can buy kuih kapit with pork floss. The pork floss makes for chewy and savoury accompaniment to the crunchy and mildly sweet kuih kapit. The combination of flavours is excellent and this makes it an unstoppable snack!

JAM TARTS

Pineapple jam tarts are another favourite. A jam tart is usually a rich, buttery pastry with a dollop of homemade pineapple jam on top. The cookie pastry must be of a melt-in-the-mouth texture and the jam mustn't be too sweet or it gets too cloying after one too many jam tarts.

Again, I've made these tarts before when I was young. I used to help my mom grate fresh pineapple for the jam-making. That's the most tedious and time-consuming task. Mom would remove all the juice from the grated pineapple before she cooked the pineapple mush in a pot. The upside is, I got to drink lots of fresh pineapple juice!The downside is, I had to stand at the stove, stirring the jam so that it wouldn't stick to the bottom of the pot. Now that was backbreaking work indeed.

In the 1980s, a pineapple tart was one which looked like a flower with the jam as its centre. Nowadays, a pineapple tart was a roll of pastry with the jam inserted inside this roll. The secret to the pastry is using the best butter you can find. My aunt makes the yummiest and largest-looking jam tarts ever. She makes each tart by hand so you can imagine how much time she takes to make these Chinese New Year must-have.

Besides their tastiness factor, Chinese folks love pineapple tarts for their symbolism. The pineapple is called "wong lai" (Cantonese) or "ong lai" (Hokkien) depending on what dialect you speak. No matter what dialect you use, it sounds like "luck is arriving". So it is imperative to have jam tarts during Chinese New  Year because we Chinese are big on abundance, luck, prosperity and wealth.

To be continued in the next post......






Sunday, February 06, 2011

Peonies, Pussywillows and Limes

Hello everyone!

It's the 4th day of the Chinese Lunar Year and the festivities haven't really ended yet - after all we have 15 days for the Chinese New Year. Of course, festivities do taper off after the 9th day especially in Penang.

Penang Hokkiens celebrate with a thanksgiving prayer session on the eve of the 8th day of Chinese New Year - it is what we Cantonese call the Hokkien Chinese New Year. It is a big deal in Penang as the Chinese majority here are Hokkiens so the markets get busy again when the 8th day rolls around. Shops run by Hokkiens will again close on this special day as the families gather to offer food and prayers.

I've been taking it easy this Chinese New Year - this year, Nic and I celebrated Chinese New Year here in Penang. It's been fun decorating our apartment with red - not that we don't have enough red in the house (our feature wall is unmistakably red).

We bought a bunch of pussy willow stalks from a wholesale florist supplier on Anson Road just last week. I've always been intrigued by these little 'furry' flowers. They are a symbol of spring arriving. Of course Chinese New Year is also known as the Spring Festival but that only seems to be true if you live in China where snow melts and spring arrives with flowers budding and flowering.

In smouldering warm Malaysia, spring is in the mind. So one of those ways to remind ourselves about spring is to ensure we have fresh pussy willow blossoms in the home. We chose the original pussy willow stalks - which will open into white catkins. Catkins are really soft and furry to the touch. The guy who sold us the pussy willows said that we could hasten the opening of the catkins by pinching the covering of the catkins.

Our 6 foot long pussy willow stalks are immersed in water to encourage more catkins to open up. They don't have any distinct fragrance though.

The next flower which is very closely tied to the Chinese New Year is the peony flower. However we didn't and probably couldn't get fresh ones even if we tried. The next best thing was to get fake ones from a home decor shop. I found magenta peonies to match our magenta throw pillows.

Lime trees with lime fruits are also much in demand during Chinese New Year. I chuckled to myself when I saw a Caucasian couple buying two potted lime trees from Jusco just last month. The limes were ripe and golden. The Chinese love these lime trees for their abundance and prosperous connotations. But the other problem is, with lime trees, they only look good for a brief time before the fruits fall. Apparently the nurseries pump a lot of fertilizers into these plants prior to selling them. This ensures a hearty flowering and fruiting session just before Chinese New Year.

The idea of growth and prosperity and flowers means that you will see Chinese homes bedecked in all types of plants and flowers, especially any shrub or plant with happy symbolism. And if we cannot get the real thing (as in peonies and such), we have no qualms using fakes either.

As Valentine's Day also falls inside the 15 days of Chinese New Year, it also brings more good business for flower shops, flower suppliers and florists. The price of roses become astronomical too. I've personally never quite fancied the commercialisation of the day of love (and since I've been married for 9 years already so I think  I am so beyond that). It's not that I don't like romance - I do but romance without the tackiness of corny-looking cotton pink bears with hearts!

Lotus root soup! Yummy!


Anyway, I took a break from the kitchen this Chinese New Year and did not make any soups whatsoever. I do have some lotus root in my fridge though. This is again a symbolism for us Cantonese. Lotus root sounds like "abundance" in Chinese so it is a MUST to have it somewhere in the house during Chinese New Year. I plan on making some lotus root soup really soon. (Here's a vegetarian version of the lotus root soup too.)