A Dinner Party Menu to celebrate the Chinese New Year

In Sydney, Claire and Mike have just celebrated their first Australia Day as Australian citizens. In Beijing Shane, Shan and Dermot are packing their bags to fly to Urumqi to celebrate Chinese New Year with the Gao clan. The year turns once more, the Year of the Horse is upon us. Thursday 30th January is both New Year’s Eve and Claire’s birthday.
Here in Dublin we are deciding how best to celebrate both these events in the absence of our offspring. We will certainly join in the fun of the Dublin Chinese New Year Festival and I have enjoyed providing some of my favourite recipes for the last year for their Taste of China website. Watch that space for daily recipes from Eva Pau of Asia Market over the two weeks of the Festival. I look forward to trying them out.
Meanwhile Twitter friends and followers of the blog, including those with offspring studying in China, have been asking me for suggestions for recipes to serve at a dinner party to mark the occasion with friends. So here goes.
Tips for a Chinese dinner party

  • Food should be served on dishes for sharing – give every guest a bowl and chopsticks (or a plate and fork if you must!) and let them help themselves.
  • Typically there should be one dish for each person plus one or two to spare including rice. The concept of “starters”, “side” dishes or “plating up” food doesn’t really exist in China – each dish should be capable of serving 2 to 4 people and should be brought to the table as it is cooked to be passed around among guests.
  • For example for six people you could serve three meat and poultry dishes, a fish dish, two or three vegetables and a large bowl of steamed rice. Pay attention to colour and texture to ensure there is a good variety – that will also help ensure a balance of nutrients in the meal.
  • It’s a good idea to have two dishes that require slow-cooking, so that they can be prepared in advance, one dish that can be ready to be steamed in a few minutes and the remainder capable of being stir-fried quickly.
  • The trick with the stir-fried and steamed dishes is to have all your ingredients prepared in advance and lined up by recipe in the order in which you will use them in the dish. That way you can cook and serve them and still not miss out on any of the fun.

In China the dinner served on New Year’s Eve is regarded as the most important of the year. On the table you would expect to see plenty of pork, chicken and a whole fish. In Chinese the word for “fish” – yu – is similar to the word for plenty or surplus so it symbolises a year of wealth and plenty.

For the first of the Twelve Days of Shananigans Christmas, I prepared a buffet for Shan’s family as they arrived off a plane from China. It went down a treat with the weary travellers. I’ve included most of the recipes I used that night in the sample menu below with links to the recipes on the blog. I’ve also included a steamed fish dish but I have adapted it to western tastes by using fish fillets instead of the whole fish.
Some menu suggestions

  • Braised Pork Rib – a perennial favourite in our house that benefits from gentle cooking for an hour and a half. Don’t worry if you can’t get to an Asian Market to get Bai Jiu, use vodka!
Braised Pork Rib - photo by Solange Daini
Braised Pork Rib – photo by Solange Daini
  • Beer Duck – the bones in the duck add texture and flavour. This dish will never look pretty but it sure tastes good. It also takes an hour and a half to cook and can be kept warm in the oven, along with the pork, once cooked.
Beer Duck - photo by Solange Daini
Beer Duck – photo by Solange Daini
  •  Hunan Steamed Fish – get yourself a bamboo steamer, prepare your fish according to the recipe and it will cook in minutes when your guests arrive.
Hunan Steamed Fish - photo by Solange Daini
Hunan Steamed Fish – photo by Solange Daini
  • Gong Bao Chicken or if you prefer Crispy Chilli Beef. You can substitute chicken for the beef if you wish. Both of these recipes require cooking at the last minute but if you have all your ingredients prepared it won’t take long to get the dish to the table. Then wipe out your wok and quickly stir-fry a few vegetable dishes.
  • Baby corn and peppers – simply dice the pepper and corn into similar sized pieces (about 1 to 2 cms square), toss quickly in hot oil and season with salt and pepper.
Sweetcorn and peppers - photo by Solange
Sweetcorn and peppers – photo by Solange Daini
  • Broccoli with garlic – break the broccoli into florets, blanch or steam them for about 3 minutes at most so that they retain their bright green colour. Thinly slice a few cloves of garlic. Heat some oil in the wok, toss the garlic briefly being careful not to burn it, add the broccoli and stir fry until heated through. Add in a splash of water if you wish to help the broccoli become tender without over-cooking.
  • And don’t forget to have lots of steamed rice. You can use any leftovers for fried rice the next day.

There are lots more recipes on the blog that could be incorporated into a New Year’s Eve Banquet so just root around the site if the ones above are not to your taste.
And finally, a dessert – Steamed Milk Egg with Ginger  – Jiang zhi niu nai zheng dan
Desserts rarely feature in Chinese banquets but I’ve adapted the one pudding recipe I learned at Hutong Cuisine for this special meal of the year. I tried it out on my Italian friend Solange and her Argentinian husband Agustin yesterday and they liked it’s light delicate flavour and texture.

Steamed Ginger Pudding - photo by Solange Daini
Steamed Ginger Pudding – photo by Solange Daini


  • 250 g whole milk or a mix of milk and cream
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 large piece of ginger, peeled and smashed
  • 4 tbs sugar


  1. Weigh the milk/ cream into a saucepan and add the sugar. Add the ginger. Bring slowly to just on boiling point and leave to cool for 30 minutes or so while the flavours infuse.
  2. Beat the eggs. Strain the milk through a sieve and add to the eggs, mixing well.
  3. Pour into four to six small pudding bowls and steam for 8 minutes until lightly set.
  4. Serve in their bowls or tip them out onto a plate and garnish with fresh berries, dark chocolate with orange or crystallised ginger and a dusting of icing sugar.

 Xin Nian Hao – Happy Chinese New Year to you and your family wherever you all may be. 

Saying goodbye to the Gao O'Neills… for now

One step closer to running amok
One step closer to running amok

(written on 20th January, 2014)
I’m writing this through misty eyes while Dermot potters around finding the most dangerous thing in the room to play with and Shane and Shan try to whittle down their wedding photos to those to be included in their album. Their difficulty choosing photos echoes mine as I sift  the memories of the past five magical weeks.
Tomorrow it’s officially over. Tomorrow Shane, Shan and Dermot return to China to celebrate the Chinese New Year with Shan’s family in Urumqi, the first time the Gao clan will all be together for Spring Festival for many, many moons.
Tomorrow I will gather up the scattered toys around my house and return them to their rightful owners along with the borrowed travel cot. I will straighten out Claire’s room which has recently become First Auntie’s room, then Dermot’s and will soon become Jodie’s again as my niece returns to university this week and to lodging with us. I will put the last of 14 sets of bed clothes on to wash, make up the spare room bed and the house will return to normal or what used to be normal before Dermot infused it with his cheery presence. That’s tomorrow.
But for today I just want to live in the moment with us still under one roof and to absorb some of the memories of a time that will surely become legend in our family history.
Where to start? Shane, Shan and Dermot’s arrival at Dublin Airport on 15th December – a sleepy, lost-looking little boy “making strange” and bewildered after his long journey who quickly made our house his home. An evening in Duncannon on the 20th, quiet time for my Mum with her only great grand child and a splendid dinner for the six of us at Aldridge Lodge.
Taking a shine to Joanne at Aldridge Lodge
Taking a shine to Joanne at Aldridge Lodge

The arrival of Shan’s family on the day before Christmas Eve, our house suddenly overwhelmed on a stormy night, as the group unravelled out of a people carrier with noise and baggage and laughter, most of them meeting their newest family member for the first time, and sitting down immediately to home-cooked Chinese food before taking off again to make it to Duncannon before midnight.
Welcome to Ireland Gao clan
Welcome to Ireland Gao clan

The unexpected appearance of our daughter Claire and Mike later that same evening, bringing forward their flight from Manchester for fear of being caught by the gales on Christmas Eve – a third dash to the airport in a week. More smiles and tears of joyous welcome and the unexpected opportunity to sit and chat before joining the crowd in Duncannon the next day.
Christmas Eve, chaotic, wind sweeping cartons of drinking glasses out of our hands and shattering them to tiny pieces in a Wexford car park. Peking style duck and rack of lamb served  to 18 from the Big Green Egg alongside Claire’s signature meatballs, Claire and Mike getting used to the scale of our newly extended family.
A tiny Santa on Christmas morning melting all our hearts. The rare sight of 5 Christmas stockings lined up on the fireplace, my off-spring and their families under one roof for a few brief days. Christmas Mass in Star of the Sea, Claire emotional at returning to the Church in which she married and recalling the sad and happy events since her and Mike’s special day.
Exchanging gifts with the Gaos under the tree – their first ever celebration of Christmas – followed by a walk for them at Hook Head and Duncannon beach and, later, dinner with turkey cooked to moist perfection on the Big Green Egg. Blessed by a mild, calm day between the wild storms I didn’t even get wet in the cooking.
"Ooh I like this Christmas lark"
“Ooh I like this Christmas lark”

A right Shananigans of a Christmas
A right Shananigans of a Christmas

Christmas at the seaside
Christmas Day at Hook Head and Duncannon

Getting in the Christmas spirit
Getting in the Christmas spirit

A Stephen’s Day walk to The Local at Dunbrody and Mike’s first experience of the Wren Boys, a relaxed day followed by all the last minute wedding preparations and the fun of cooking 8 pizzas on the Big Green Egg – Second Auntie proving to be a dab hand at putting the pizzas together.
The 28th of December, Shan and Shane’s wedding day  and Dermot’s Christening Day in Wexford – ah what a day. From start to finish it was special and the sun even shone for us, only the second break in the wild weather over Christmas. Too special to slip into the middle of a blogpost I gave it one of its own.
Then back to Duncannon to prepare a barbecue for 30 including Shan & Shane’s friends who had travelled from Beijing, a task made considerably easier thanks to Eunice Power, who left me salads, confit duck noodles and homemade beef burgers after the wedding, and Shan’s bridesmaid Wei Wei who turned the left over noodles into a sizzling and spicy Chinese feast.
A frenetic, frazzled morning on Monday 30th, packing up Duncannon and rushing to get Claire and Mike back to Dublin Airport and onwards to Australia. Cue tears and sad goodbyes tinged with happiness at how good the two of them are together and the precious time they had with their new godson Dermot and with Shane and Shan. Returning home slightly nervous at the prospect of 14 of us including our Chinese in-laws under one roof in Shankill for a week but rescued from cooking duties that night by my friend Ann who had made a huge beef casserole to welcome our guests back from Duncannon.
A New Year’s Eve buffet with bling, dumplings made by a super-efficient Chinese production line and a final celebratory dinner at China Sichuan and Chinese tea ceremony at home rounded off Shan’s family’s visit and we saw them off two weeks ago, delighted with their Irish holiday.
Gao Feng shares the art of making pu'er tea
Gao Feng shares the art of making pu’er tea

Goodbye Gao clan
Goodbye Gao clan

Since then it has been quieter but a very precious time with Shane, Shan and Dermot. Time to get to know his moods and moments throughout the day, loosing my rookie Nai Nai status and getting confident minding him on my own, introducing him to the ducks and swings at Stephen’s Green, watching him grow in stature and confidence, acquire his first pair of shoes and move to standing and walking with one finger support. His first steps can’t be long away.
Jammin' with Dad
Jammin’ with Dad

"Ooh Granddad what big hands you have!"
“Ooh Granddad what big hands you have!”

Today, our last full day, I took Dermot off on his own for a Nai Nai adventure. On a beautiful sunny day we walked in Phoenix Park and I introduced him to Aras An Uacthtarain, a symbol of one half of his identity. We had lunch together in the Visitor Centre and we spoke about things that matter, him in baby talk, me in words he won’t remember.
Long after Dermot has been reabsorbed into his Chinese world, long after this house has been returned to a state of order as if the tide came in and washed away the evidence of his being here, long after the border of his tiny finger prints around the coffee table is no more, I will remember this day. I will hold it close to my heart like a little precious gem, as precious as Dermot is and always will be. In the words of my current favourite children’s book “I love you to the moon… and back.”
So that’s it. A job done. A plan fulfilled to the letter. A sense of achievement tinged with sadness that it’s all over and an ache at the prospect of missing watching Dermot grow over the coming months.
Meltdown moments during  the Christmas period (or what my friends call my “choppy choppy” moments) – five (but I’m not revealing them!). Precious memories – uncountable.
Safe journey home little family. I think it’s time to plan a trip to China.
A walk in the Phoenix Park
A walk in the Phoenix Park

Shan, Shane & Dermot's Special Day – 28th December 2013

Christmas is over. We’ve packed the last box of decorations into the attic. Claire and Mike have arrived back in Sydney where they are grappling with jet-lag and a welcome return to summer heat. Shan’s family are in an icy Beijing en route to Xinjiang Province for the Chinese New Year. Shane, Shan and Dermot will follow them there in a few weeks time.
It’s a time for getting the house back in order after playing host to 17 under one roof and for reminiscing on a memorable few weeks before taking on the challenges of a new year It’s a time for duvet days if an 11 month old grandson and a work schedule jostling for attention would allow.
Of all the special days of Shananigans Christmas, the 28th December – the day of Shan and Shane’s wedding and Dermot’s christening – stands out. For me that day was the culmination of over six months of planning with them long distance to create a unique celebration of Chinese and Irish traditions. As Shane pointed out in his speech, I even let them have their own way from time to time. Mind you he also thanked Shan for letting him have the fairytale wedding he always dreamed of…
We couldn’t have been luckier with the  group of people who worked so hard with us to make the day a success. They included our very special priest friend Fr. Aodhan Marken who conducted the service at Crossabeg Church, Margaret Caulfield and her parents at Slaney Manor, Ingrid at Slaney Flowers, my sister-in-law Ann Marie Corcoran who sang at the wedding and her brother Patrick Clancy who along with his band Some Like it Hot provided the music, my sister-in-law Colette McKenny who made the wedding cake, our friend Tiedong Yang who helped with interpretation for Shan’s family, my brother Jim and his wife Maria whose unofficial duties included chauffeur and Christian and Dearbhala from Brown Sugar who transformed a number of us women for the day.
I found two of the most important contributors to the success of the day through Twitter. Eunice Power was superb, not just her sublime food that catered for both Chinese and Irish tastes but her personal warmth and efficiency and her fabulous front of house service led by the unflappable Grace O’Callaghan. Paul Sherwood took the official photos and his relaxed, professional style made easy going of what can sometimes be the boring part of the wedding for the couple themselves.
Paul took over 300 photos capturing precious moments throughout the day. The photos below were taken by him except for the one of Shane waiting at the altar, the one of them cutting the cake and the two of Shan in her red dress later in the evening.
Paul took a better official photo of the cake cutting but I love the quirky one caught by a friend and included here. It is Chinese tradition for the bride to wear red during her wedding and Shan changed for their first dance which was to “One” by U2, the song to which she and Shane had their first kiss.
Shane’s best man was his close friend Oisin who he went to visit in China 7 years ago, a life-altering journey for both of them. Shan’s bridesmaid Wei Wei is Oisin’s wife. Her brother Gao Feng “gave her away”. Dermot’s godparents are our daughter Claire and her husband Mike. Lucky Dermot.
Copyright Paul Sherwood © 2013
Copyright Paul Sherwood © 2013
Copyright Paul Sherwood © 2013
Copyright Paul Sherwood © 2013
Copyright Paul Sherwood © 2013
Copyright Paul Sherwood © 2013
Copyright Paul Sherwood © 2013
Copyright Paul Sherwood © 2013
Copyright Paul Sherwood © 2013
Copyright Paul Sherwood © 2013
Copyright Paul Sherwood © 2013
Copyright Paul Sherwood © 2013
Copyright Paul Sherwood © 2013
Copyright Paul Sherwood © 2013
Copyright Paul Sherwood © 2013
Copyright Paul Sherwood © 2013
Copyright Paul Sherwood © 2013
Copyright Paul Sherwood © 2013
Copyright Paul Sherwood © 2013
Copyright Paul Sherwood © 2013
Copyright Paul Sherwood © 2013
Copyright Paul Sherwood © 2013
Copyright Paul Sherwood © 2013
Copyright Paul Sherwood © 2013
Copyright Paul Sherwood © 2013
2013-12-30 10.37.16
Frist Dance
One by U2
Copyright Paul Sherwood © 2013
I hope the photos give you a little glimpse of a very special day. I know I’m totally biased but wasn’t Shan a gorgeous bride and don’t they make a lovely couple, not to mention our much-loved grandson Dermot.
After the magic, normal service will resume shortly at Shananigans.


A Buffet with Bling and Chinese Dumplings – the perfect start to 2014

Sometimes life has a way of turning full circle.
Last New Year’s Day I remember remarking on the beautiful morning in Duncannon and the start of a “shiny new year”. Within three days we had lost Derry’s mother and within a few weeks his younger sister Deirdre. Both deaths were unexpected. Suddenly the new year didn’t seem so shiny any more. But you get through things and you get on with it and baby Dermot arrived on the 5th of February to brighten all our loves (that should have read “lives” but the slip seems somehow appropriate). And the year ended on a high note with a true Shananigans of a Christmas, followed by Shan and Shane’s wedding and Dermot’s Christening on 28th December.
I’ve so much to write. So many moments and emotions to absorb after the whirlwind of the last few weeks since Shane, Shan and Dermot arrived on 15th December – a bewildered small child plucked out of his familiar Beijing apartment and plunged into the confusing sights and sounds of an Irish Christmas who quickly made our home his own – followed a week later by nine of Shan’s Chinese family and my daughter and her husband from Australia.
But I’m going to start near the end, back in Shankill, after Claire and her husband Mike had been and gone, leaving behind the imprint of their infectious personalities, after the intensity of the Christmas celebrations.
Truth be told I’ve never liked New Year’s Eve much. I always feel as if I am clinging on for those last few hours to the dying year, to the memories of those loved and lost in the year gone by and with a sense of foreboding about what the coming year may hold. This year I was determined it would be different. It was the first time our Chinese in-laws had celebrated a western new year and it was our own unique Gathering to end a year of Gatherings. I wanted to see it out in style.
Robert Jacob provided my inspiration – a New Year’s Eve buffet with bling. I had attended his course at Donnybrook Fair Cookery School in December. I saw how he put it all together in three to four hours. I had blogged about the menu in my post on the Twelve Days of Shananigans Christmas and, despite being tired after a two weeks of non-stop entertaining, I was determined to deliver.
Well 8 hours of preparation later, including a minor pastry crisis, several phone calls to Robert and accepting his offer to make the gold-dusted Chocolate Log for me, I served  up the full buffet up to our enthusiastic guests including our close friends from across the road. Our Chinese in-laws loved the food and how it was presented. They described it as like a painting – that’s what happens when your teacher is a former fashion designer. There were many warm speeches during the meal marking the extraordinary two weeks we have shared together and suddenly it was nearly midnight.
Preparing and serving the meal left me little time to be maudlin but on the stroke of midnight our thoughts were with Derry’s Mum whom we had spoken to at that moment last year. During the conversation she had proposed 28th December to my Mum as the date for Shane and Shan’s wedding, saying that as the elders of the family they should get to decide these things. Well she did and it had felt good to honour her plan last week.
My thoughts were also with my own Dad. New Year’s Eve 1999, when every household in Ireland had been given a Millennium candle, was also our first in Duncannon and, as we lit that candle to mark the turning of the century, all of us present including my Mum and Dad, my brothers and our children, signed the little note that came with it. Every year since then I have lit that candle for a few minutes for all our loved ones including those that have passed away and those now living far from home. This year my new Chinese extended family and our friends all wrote on the card to mark what surely has been our most extraordinary year end of the century.
That New Year’s Eve meal was the second last culinary challenge of Shananigans Christmas. The last was to be on Thursday night when I planned to make dumplings for us all, mirroring the Chinese New Year tradition and also their association of dumplings with family members parting on a journey – a reminder of how family wrap around you wherever you are in the world.
I got as far as making my two favourite fillings – lamb with butternut squash and cumin and vegetarian which I had learned in Black Sesame Kitchen cookery school in Beijing – and a batch of homemade Chilli Oil as taught to me by Hutong Cuisine.  I was about to start the dumpling dough when my visitors tumbled into the house, windswept and rain-spattered from their sight-seeing and shopping trip to Dublin city centre, in a frenzy of discarded wet shoes and coats, shopping bags and retrieved slippers.
Within minutes my kitchen had been taken over and become a super-efficient Chinese production line. Clearly in charge Da Gu (first auntie) set about making her own pork and Chinese cabbage filling with added zing from ground star anise and cousin Jing Jing made an enormous batch of dough using every scrap of dumpling flour in the house. Xiao Gu (second auntie), Shan, her sister in law Shui Mei, cousin Wei Wei and little Xuan Xuan made the dumpling in relays – cutting out ropes of dough and rolling out the circular wrappers, the younger in-laws filling and folding them until every surface in the kitchen, every platter and cutting board I possess was covered with dumplings just as I always imagined a Chinese kitchen on New Year’s eve.
Even Gao Feng – Shan’s brother – was drafted in to cream garlic to go with the black vinegar and chilli oil condiments. I was redundant in my own kitchen and relegated to the happy role of observer. Dumplings made, it was time to cook them in batches, boiled and pot-sticker style, and platter after platter appeared at the dining table. It is amazing how many dumplings you can eat at one sitting without noticing.
It quickly became obvious that we had enough dumplings to feed a small army. And so, after a brief stint in the freezer, the dozens of left-overs travelled with us to Ardee yesterday evening where we marked the first anniversary of the passing of a very special lady, my mother-in-law Alice O’Neill.
Dumplings for remembrance and family and the ties that bind.
Below are some photos of  those two very special evenings in our home and the recipe for Da Gu’s pork and cabbage filling.
Happy New Year to you all and thank you for following my tales and learning experiences in the year gone by.
By the way for those of you who would like to learn more about Chinese cooking, my teacher turned friend Robert Jacob and I are collaborating in a Discover China Class at Donnybrook Fair Cookery School on the evening of 16th January at 7 pm. You can book places here. Shane, Shan and Shan’s bridesmaid Wei Wei who is a fabulous Chinese cook will join us for an evening of good food and conversation. I’m hoping that Marie McKenna, who has reproduced nearly every recipe on this blog, will be there too.

New Year's Eve Spread
New Year’s Eve spread

Just some of our New Year's Eve guests
Just some of our New Year’s Eve guests

Tian of crab and gas[acho
Tian of crab and gazpacho

Smoked haddock and gruyere quiche
Smoked haddock and gruyere quiche

Attempting to sit down to dinner
Attempting to sit down to dinner

A very glamourous production line
January 1st –  a cheerful production line led by Da Gu

First and Second Aunties make the filling
First and Second Aunties – Da Gu and Xiao Gu make the pork filling

Jing Jing kneads the dough
Jing Jing kneads the dough

Xiao Gu and Jing Jong - good team work
Xiao Gu and Jing Jing – good team work

Rolling out the wrappers
Rolling out the wrappers

Yes, that looks perfect
Yes, that looks perfect

Xuan Xuan wrapping dumplings
Xuan Xuan fills the dumplings

Pure concentration of a 6 year old
The pure concentration of a 6 year old Chinese cook

Cousin Wei Wei can wrap dumplings perfectly too
Cousin Wei Wei can wrap dumplings perfectly too

Dumplings on every surface
Dumplings on every surface

Every cook deserves her reward - the spicier "ma" the better in Xuan Xuan's case
Every cook deserves her reward – the spicier “ma” the better in Xuan Xuan’s case

Da Gu’s Pork and Cabbage Dumpling Filling
This is not a precise recipe. it is the way Da Gu has always made her filling and the trick is to get the right balance of pork, vegetables and seasoning and to use the warm oil to get the sloppy consistency of a thick batter.
Da Gu recommends using ground star anise with pork (she ground it in my pestle and mortar) and ground sichuan peppercorns with beef and lamb.

  • 500g minced pork
  • A thumb of ginger finely minced
  • 2 medium leeks, white part only, finely minced
  • 1 to 2 tbs of soy sauce
  • 1 tsp of ground star anise
  • One head of Chinese cabbage, finely chopped and squeezed very hard to remove excess liquid
  • About 100 ml of vegetable oil heated to moderate and allowed cool slightly.


  1. Mix the pork, ginger leek, soy sauce and star anise.
  2. In a separate blow add the hot oil to the cabbage.
  3. Mix this well with the meat mixture and season with salt to taste – only add the salt after the oil to avoid drawing more liquid from the cabbage.

PS. The next post will be photos Shan and Shane’s Wedding and Dermot’s Christening