One of the meals I look forward to preparing each year is the dinner our family shares on the eve of Chinese New Year. I remember the frenzied research and rounds of rehearsal dinners I went through before I prepared my first reunion dinner four years ago. I must confess that I was crazily ambitious and aspired to incorporate traditional Shanghainese, Hokkien and Teochew dishes into my menu in order to honour my family’s various heritages. Then there was the attempt to cram in every auspicious ingredient I could get my hands on. Eight treasure duck? Done it. Lohan chai (Buddha’s vegetarian feast) with 18 ingredients? Attempted that. Shanghainese lion’s head? Yes, I’ve tried out the whole mix-the-minced-pork-in-only-one-direction technique. Trust me, that’s not the secret to those airy meatballs. Jiaozi (a kind of dumpling which is served at this time of the year because it looks like ancient Chinese money)? Let me know if you ever want a recipe for nouvelle foie gras jiaozi in double-boiled chicken consommé perfumed with Jasmine tea leaves. After all, a girl naturally hopes to impress her in-laws, no?
I guess, with age and some experience, one learns restraint. I’ve whittled what were once seven-course extravaganzas down to four this year (and since the fabulous J made dessert, I only really made three courses). It’s my shortest menu yet. I chose to revisit Thomas Keller’s “Macaroni and Cheese” (Butter-poached lobster with creamy lobster broth and mascarpone-enriched orzo) from The French Laundry Cookbook because I adore the depth of flavour you get from his magnificent lobster broth; and lobster, in any language, continues to be associated with luxury and indulgence. To temper the richness of the mac ‘n’ cheese, I paired Yoshii Ryuichi’s yuzu miso lamb chops with dashi-braised organic Japanese carrots, daikon and mizuna. It’s a bit of a stretch, but I figured that the yuzu would stand in for tangerines which are incredibly popular at this time of year because “jú” (tangerine in Mandarin) sounds very similar to “jí” (meaning auspicious or lucky).
But neither of these dishes were particularly traditional nor Chinese. To retain some element of tradition, I returned to a very simple, light and healthy dish: savoury custard. Made with rich, homemade chicken stock and covered with a reduction made from the same stock, it is a delicately elegant, yet powerfully flavourful canvas against which one may choose to showcase anything from steamed prawns to freshly picked crabmeat. We are very fortunate that a very generous, close family friend gives us pre-prepared shark’s fin and abalone as a gift every Chinese New Year. (Yes, I know some of you are tut-tutting. I don’t actively seek to eat shark’s fin, but I feel that if a living being has had its life taken from it for my dinner, then I should jolly well honour it with a dish worthy of its sacrifice.) I steamed the thick, whole fins in chicken stock with coriander, spring onions, a few slivers of young ginger and a splash of Chinese cooking wine. The abalone was thinly sliced and gently heated through with more hot chicken stock. Both the shark’s fin and abalone were placed on the custard and garnished with blanched bean sprouts. This was served with Chinese vinegar and ground white pepper. However, by changing the kind of stock (a Japanese dashi instead of chicken, for example) and the items you choose to place in or on the custard (mushrooms, minced pork, salted duck egg yolk), you’ll be able to create a host of dishes based upon this master recipe. It’s the culinary equivalent of a crisp white shirt. I hope you’ll find it as handy as I do!
Chinese-style chicken stock
(Makes a little less than 4 litres)
2 kampung (free range) chickens
5 stalks spring onions
5 stalks coriander
3-4 slices young ginger
5-6 medium dried scallops
3-4 slices Chinese ham
Chinese cooking wine to taste
Skin the chickens and chop each one into six pieces. Discard the skin. Slice the spring onions and coriander into 5-centimetre lengths. Place all the ingredients in a large stock pot. Cover with 4 litres of water and bring to a boil over a small fire. Simmer for 2 to 3 hours or until the stock tastes flavourful to you. Strain and discard the solids.
(Makes 6 small, shallow portions)
400 milliltres Chinese-style chicken stock
Light soy sauce to taste
Beat eggs with a pair of chopsticks taking care not to create too many bubbles. Combine with chicken stock and season with soy sauce. Strain through a fine sieve. I often strain it again as I pour it into individual dishes.
Divide equally between six shallow soup plates. Steam for 25 to 30 minutes. This really varies depending on how you steam them. I like placing them in my Miele steam oven set at 90 degree Celsius. When they are done, the custards should still be a little wobbly.
Chinese-style chicken stock reduction
I usually take the remaining stock and boil it until it reduces to a level of concentration that I find tasty and well-suited for the particular dish it is intended for. So I can’t really indicate how much reduction you will end up with. I like it best when it starts to develop a silky, almost gelatinous texture and deep, savoury flavour. You may wish to season it or add a little more Chinese cooking wine to taste.
To assemble, gently pour some reduction onto the surface of the custard (start from the side of the dish rather than the middle so that you don’t create tears on the surface of the custard) and garnish with ingredients of your choice.