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The Year of the Tiger

Chinese New Year came and went on without a fuss. I'd stressed out over getting the house cleaned in time. We didn't get it done by the New Year, but we got it done that same weekend together, which mattered a lot more. I'd worried over what to serve for CNY. Somehow, the usual 8-course family banquet just seemed ridiculous for two people. I didn't have nearly enough crockery in my house to serve even very small portions of an eight course banquet, and neither Seth nor myself believed that was the right way to go about it, in any case. Too much work, too much food. It'd be like Christmas, just with eight kinds of leftovers instead of turkey, stuffing and mash. I finally decided on a nice soup, a nice entree and a nice dessert, with an experimental fatt koh (Chinese cupcake) breakfast. Since CNY this year also coincided with Valentine's Day, I'd planned for a chocolate pudding. However, after visiting the supermarket, I realised I was doing myself a favour by getting frozen dumplings instead (couldn't find nian koh, New Year Cake, at Duc Loi). Seth liked 'em. I liked 'em. Chocolate pudding could wait for a day when I wasn't spending the entire day in the kitchen making up meals.

The fatt koh was a tragic failure. My batter gained sticky mass and rose thrice its size, but fell flat the moment the lid left the steamer. A consult with my mother gained the diagnosis that I should invest in either small Chinese teacups or aluminium muffin tins for better heat distribution, and actually heat up the containers in the steamer before pouring in the batter. Will need to try this again, possibly with a non-sweet potato recipe so the husband can help eat any unfortunate failures too.

I figured, after botching the fatt koh (I think the name implies "rising fortunes", but I could be wrong), I could not possibly botch the soup or the main. The main course was decided for me when I visited the local butcher. They were out of duck legs, and I didn't want to roast a whole duck, so I got tasty organic chicken legs instead. The chicken was firm to the touch, corn-fed yellow and surprisingly trim while also being meaty -- it tasted great baked with a salt and five spice rub.

The soup required the most work. I'd prepped a seafood stock for CNY a week before the cooking started, from a pile of leftover chicken bones, prawn shells, fish carcasses and frozen veggie trimmings. Seth swore it smelled like swamp when it came to boil. I swore I'd make it tasty. The butcher I went to (Mission Market Meat Department) had really darn fresh scallops and impressive unfrozen crabmeat, so I decided I'd make a crabmeat and scallop soup. Exploring mushrooms at the supermarket got me a large bag of enoki -- but though Duc Loi has an amazing range of mushrooms for your neighbourhood supermarket (nevermind a Mission supermarket), I wasn't able to see oyster mushrooms that day, or one of the less earthy, meaty mushroom types. What I did have at home were dried cloud ear fungus and bamboo fungus, the latter a relic I got for last year's CNY from 99 Ranch. It's taken me a year of experimentation with bamboo fungus to find a method of cooking with it that Seth would eat. Unfortunately, that was neither steamed with meat paste stuffing or stir fried and hot potted, but hey, I can deal with lots of bamboo fungus in soup.

So, fungii rehydrated, fresh veggies julienned and half an hour of careful boiling later, I scooped in large chunks of awesome Dunganess crab into the just boiled soup and poured the results onto prepared bowls with 8 fresh scallops each. It was glorious. We both had seconds. Our CNY dinner was celebrated with Internal Affairs II, the sequel to one of my favourite HK films of all time, and whose DVD I'd always wanted to share with Seth. I appreciated having spoken Cantonese resounding throughout the house on Chinese New Year. TV stations back home usually played some major HK blockbuster during the New Year as well over dinnertime -- wuxia films, or a modern action flick, or a comedy, or some mishmash of all three, as the movies I grew up on largely were. Chinese New Year in general is usually an odd time for me. It's largely the only cultural celebration I have relatively consistent good memories of, and possibly the only one I look forward to anymore. Aidilfitri (Eidl Fitr in other places) lost most of its religious symbolism many years ago, and, as much as I appreciate the cuisine of that season, there are simply too many religious trappings associated to that holiday these days for me to relish the time I could spend being together with people and sharing their celebration.

But Chinese New Year was quite different, at least up until I was in my early teens. We lived relatively close to my maternal Chinese grandparents during that time, and my mother would faithfully pack us along to her parents to celebrate every major Chinese festival with the obligatory reunion dinner. For the two major celebrations during the year, CNY and the Mid-Autumn Festival, my grandmother would carefully raise chickens she'd bought from the local wet market herself for at least a month beforehand, feeding it corn to give it that delightful corn-fed flavour and bright yellow fat (by far, the most awesome fat to render into rice for chicken rice). She would then slaughter the chickens on the festival's morning and use every part for the reunion dinner. Whole chickens would be either salt-baked or boiled into pak cham kai (steeped white chicken), blood collected and congealed with salt for jelly (I can't remember eating blood jelly, but Mom claims Grandma slipped them into the soup, where it would then dissolve), carcasses made into delicious clear soups with boiled chicken ovaries -- my ABSOLUTE FAVOURITE PART of the chicken. You cannot begin to imagine how awesome these tiny little unfinished egg yolks are. They're like tiny pearls of caviar hidden inside layer hens. I am almost willing to believe the prospect of having boiled chicken ovaries in soup was in large part why CNY ever got salvaged for me as a cultural event.

I would beg my mom to let me have some of the delicious chicken juice at the bottom of the chicken's serving plate once everyone was done to pour over my rice. That pure chicken essence was always so awesome right as the chicken was going a bit cold, and the juice naturally thickened. The women would sit around the dining table and converse, while I stuffed myself full of chicken items and pretended I did not understand they were talking about me or non-child subjects simultaneously in Cantonese and Hakka. (It can be said that I picked up my bad understanding of Chinese dialects primarily to figure out if people were talking about me.) The men would usually be in the living room, smoking and drinking beer and other alcoholic beverages. Sometimes, I went outside to play with my cousin's Tonka trucks in a form of playing house with Transformers-esque robots. There were princesses and royal families! But also robots! Transforming robots! (Note to self: must set Netflix to actually send us the next discs of Crest of the Stars and add Scrapped Princess, instead of long movies we never watch.)

Oooh. The cat just distracted me by sitting on my foot, just out of reach of the laptop, so that I may skritch her bum just above her tail and make her lick the air in a most amusing fashion. Will need to figure out if either the local meat markets or farmer's markets have chicken ovaries on sale. Other parts of the US -- Washington, according to one article -- has farmer's markets that carry them. We have so many South American and Asian cultures out here who must know of this chicken part in their cuisine that I can't believe no one carries them. Google of "chicken ovaries San Francisco" brought up one enthusiastic person who found it in her pho in LA, and an episode of House. Lots of medical articles. Sigh.

Crabmeat and scallop soup recipe follows!

Recipe note: Cloud ear fungus and bamboo fungus are largely textural ingredients in the soup. They can be replaced by fresh mushrooms -- whatever's local, tasty and adds a bit of bite.

Crab and scallop soup


Large soup pot about three-quarters filled with seafood stock
3 - 4 pieces cloud ear fungus (soaked overnight, hard tips removed and julienned; reserve liquid)
1 carrot (julienned)
1 handful enoki mushrooms (roughly chopped)
1 handful bamboo fungus (soaked overnight - roughly chopped - optional)
1 pinch fat choy/black moss (soaked overnight - optional)
1 thumb ginger (grated)
16 - 20 pieces very fresh scallops (if using large scallops, reduce portion by half)
3/4 cup crab meat
2 - 3 tsps cornstarch
2 tbsps cold water
1 egg (beaten)
1/2 stalk spring onion (sliced thin)


1. Bring stock plus liquid reserved from soaking cloud ear fungus to boil. Add carrots, enoki mushroom, bamboo pith fungus, fat choy and ginger.
2. Simmer on low heat for 15 - 20 minutes. Towards last 5 minutes of cooking time, add cloud ear fungus.
3. Mix cornstarch and cold water until starch is fully dissolved.
4. Bring soup back up to boil. Add cornstarch mixture. Stir gently until soup is thickened.
5. Drizzle in beaten egg while stirring gently to form "egg blossoms".
6. Add crab meat and spring onion. Turn off heat.
7. Divide scallops between soup bowls. Pour boiling hot soup on top. Serve immediately.


( 4 comments — Leave a comment )
Feb. 28th, 2010 09:24 am (UTC)
I'm still a little bitter you tried to serve my Kryptonite (sweet potato) on CNY, even in biscuit form. Shame shame! You're trying to kill me, and now you've made public blogworthy proof of such designs!

Re: Infernal Affairs II, probably a very good movie, in retrospect, I should have seen it before I saw Election II/Triad Election - as Election II is obviously a superior film in nearly every way (in my opinion), but is a movie that never would have been made if not for the popularity and style of Infernal Affairs II.
Feb. 28th, 2010 07:56 pm (UTC)
Aww, gimme some credit, dear. If I had meant to kill you with my cooking, this blog would be full of wondrous foods crafted from zucchini and squash. Zucchini salads and squash & cheese dinners.

I loved Election II for the same reasons you do. It's grittier, with much better fleshed-out characters. I dug how the film makers actually had elderly gangsters as consultants to get the history and rituals of triads right as part of the plot. One of the big differences I kept in mind regarding the Infernal Affairs trilogy and the Election films was that the former is primarily a cop drama, while the latter is purely a gangster flick. IA's style is more restrained, especially in the first movie due to the major gimmick it depends on in its plot. Election can afford to go over the top because its subject matter is only restrained at face value by the movie's authorities (ie. the cops don't have to win), and often does.

I also totally agree about how a movie like Election II wouldn't have been made without films like Infernal Affairs II as its precedent. Movies just seemed to get a lot grimmer around the time it came out in HK, in the late 90s/early 2000s, as though that became a trend. Naturally, I'm very fond of more than a few movies from this period -- even New Police Story starts out with a mesmerizing opening scene involving cop characters hung by gangsters from the rafters of a warehouse. Has made me wonder if cop/gangster movies from this period were part of a larger commentary about disgruntlement with mainland Chinese rule.
Feb. 28th, 2010 08:30 pm (UTC)
I am thinking about trying to make fatt koh. My mom's friend Virginia made some but it was much too sweet! I opted to eat the ones picked up from Chinatown instead.

And I love fat choy. OMG I love that stuff. My mom makes the soup with napa cabbage and sometimes with fried fish stomach.

I did not clean my house in time for CNY. (too much homework) I ended up cleaning after CNY (and I probably should have cleaned more). oh well.
Feb. 28th, 2010 08:49 pm (UTC)
My mom suggested I also add some baking soda to my recipe, to help make it even lighter. I have 12 frozen failed fatt koh in my freezer, waiting around to be had at tea in the coming month. I cut down the required sugar in my recipe by about a quarter -- I don't like very sweet foods either.

Total love for fat choy too. I love the soup with napa cabbage and fried fish stomach. Usually, I would add fish stomach to my CNY soup, but I used up the stuff I got last year, and didn't want to drive to the big Chinese place to get some more. All this while, I though it was a seaweed, but the wiki says it's actually a type of bacteria. It apparently has no nutritional value, and can potentially cause longterm nerve damage. Apparently, harvesting fat choy in China also contributes to longterm desertification there. This is slowly turning into my conundrum with eating fish, which I also love. :(

Since I get most of my work from Hong Kong, people were tearing me apart with last minute pre-CNY deadlines up to the day itself. I just had no luck with the cleaning, and I'm shocked I even got the shopping done in time. Cleaning is as cleaning does though. I think it's more important we got it done. :)
( 4 comments — Leave a comment )