Saturday, 1 March 2008

Yu Sheng and Chinese new year's eve dinner

Chinese new year is over (and we're back to watching our waistlines again) but I still have photos from the festivities which would be a shame not to share. New year's eve dinner is just about the biggest and most important family occasion in the annual calendar. It is also called 'reunion dinner' as it is a time for all family members to come together for a sit-down meal and everyone would make the effort to come home, even if they had to travel across the country (or oceans and continents, in some cases).

There are many traditional foods for new year's eve and each country or region have their own traditions. Steamboat or hotpot is a popular new year's eve meal. The table would be groaning under the weight of platters of seafood, poultry and vegetables and everyone would take what they like and cook them in a big pot of boiling stock in the middle of the table. That was what my mum made when my then-boyfriend visited us for Chinese new year for the first time. Making dumplings (饺子) is another new year tradition especially in northern parts of China. The whole family would gather in the kitchen to make the dumpling wrappers, the filling (usually combinations of minced pork, cabbage, leek, chives, mushrooms etc.) and cook the dumplings.

Over the past few years, some families in Singapore have started to have their new year's eve dinner in restaurants instead of at home. Although the special home-cooked meal has a sacred place in most people's hearts, the time and effort taken in preparing such a large meal could be too much for some and many restaurants offer a wide variety of set meals to cater to a range of budgets. This year, we went to a Thai-Chinese restaurant for our Chinese new year's eve dinner. It was banquet style, meaning it was a 8 or 9 course dinner. These are most commonly found during special occasions such as wedding dinners and birthdays of senior family members (e.g. 60th or 70th birthday celebrations).

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The first course is always an appetiser, sometimes called a 'cold dish' (冷盘). A very popular Chinese new year dish in Singapore is called Yu Sheng (鱼生). It is a raw fish salad that is traditionally eaten during the 7th day of the new year but has become ubiquitous throughout the full 15 days (and eve of). Raw slices of mackeral or salmon are served with finely shredded carrots, chilli, daikon (white radish), orange peel, jellyfish, red pickled ginger, toasted sesame seeds, roasted peanuts and ingredients, along with a special sauce using plum sauce, rice vinegar and sesame oil.

Families and friends would gather around the table and, on cue, proceed to toss the salad into the air with chopsticks while saying good wishes to mark the start of an auspicious new year.

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Yu Sheng literally means 'raw fish' but since 'fish' (鱼) sounds the same as the word for 'abundance' (余), Yu Sheng comes to symbolise an increase in abundance and prosperity. It is also rather tasty and the citrusy flavour does whet one's appetite for the rest of dinner.

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The next course was chicken (my brother took a piece before I could take a photo!). In traditional Chinese dining, the entire chicken is laid out on a platter, including the head and the feet, to indicate 有头有尾 (heads and tails), to symbolise good beginnings and good endings. The same logic applies to almost every dish such as fish, duck, prawns and crab; all served whole. Personally, I think the flavours are much better although they take some skill and practice to eat properly. Foreigners are often daunted by the sight of a whole chicken or fish on the table!
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Then there was a fish course. See what I mean about serving an entire fish? This fish was prepared Thai-style - deep fried and then drizzled with a tamarind and chilli sauce.
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Cantonese style pork fillet.
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The vegatable course came wrapped in a large tofu sheet like a parcel. The mixed vegatables (broccoli, baby sweetcorn, carrots, mange tout etc.) and assorted mushrooms were stirfried in oyster sauce and then wrapped in tofu skin and steamed for a short while to cook the tofu and stew the contents. A beautiful dish.
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Cereal prawns, a classic Singapore dish. It was made with cereal oats, butter, milk, curry leaves and chilli padi (bird's eye chillies). The rich taste of the butter, crunchiness of the oats and fragrance of the curry leaves made it worth getting through all that shell! Speaking of which, I still never quite gotten over having only shelled (and often, cooked!) prawns in the UK supermarkets. Finding raw unshelled prawns is almost as challenging as finding spinach with stalks/stems.
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The penultimate course is usually a rice or noodle dish. We had Thai pineapple rice, which most of us did not finish (unsurprisingly!). The last course was a desserts course, a sweet dessert of cold almond tofu and sea coconut. By then, I was too overwhelmed by the eating to even remember to take photos! Suffice to say, we spent the rest of the evening collapsed in front of the television, watching the new year countdown programme to usher in the year of the Rat (even if we felt more like pigs at that point).

9 comments:

mycookinghut said...

Your CNY's eve dinner was fantastic!!! I am waiting for to go back to Malaysia now for my holidays........and to enjoy all the yummy food :)

missbliss said...

The veggies look particularly delicious! MMmmmmm! (Though I'm imagining them in filo pastry hehe)

Little Corner of Mine said...

Hahaha...your brother took a big piece of the chicken! Thanks for sharing the meal you had, enjoy salivating on the pictures.

Kevin said...

That is a lot of great looking food!

Nilmandra said...

My Cooking Hut: I know the feeling, bet you can't wait to be back!

Miss Bliss: Ooh filo pastry, now that's an interesting take!

Little Corner: Haha yeah... It was only the second course then, I guess he was hungry!

Kevin: Indeed, I think the emphasis is on "a lot" haha...

Little Old Liz said...

You photos look insanely tasty. One question: the flowers placed on the food, are they real flora, or edible candies?

Indigo said...

I love the idea of people travelling across countries for a 'reunion dinner' - I would travel across countries to get AWAY from my family half the time =P.

Everything looks fantastic (though I stared at the chicken picture for an embarassingly long time then shrieked when I realised I was looking at its actual head. Ssdkfnsj, I have to admit it creeps me out a bit X__X). But I'd love to try the Yu Sheng, and the amazing tofu parcel of vegetables!

Nilmandra said...

Little Old Liz: The flowers are made of wafer biscuits so they are edible. I remember nibbling on them when I was a kid. But they taste rather like cardboard to be honest!

Indigo: Well, it's rather like Christmas. You go home whether or not you really want to spend 24/7 with your family :) Having gone out for dinner with many non-Chinese friends, I sympathise with your reaction about the chicken head LOL.

tigerfish said...

I always like those veggies in Yusheng and not the raw fish! :O

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