My daughter Claire sent me a random morning thought from Sydney earlier this week. It read “Most people’s first word of the year is ‘happy'” – a cheerful notion evoking images of clinking glasses and reminding me of our celebration of the arrival of 2015 in Australia and, more recently, of Shane, Shan and Dermot’s first Chinese New Year in Ireland.
On those rare occasions when I’m in Australia at the start of a New Year I have my own special way of marking it. I head to the Royal Botanic Gardens before I return home to find the “I wish” statue. There can hardly be a more beautifully located botanic gardens on this earth, perched as they are over Sydney Harbour and providing a still place, a peaceful escape from the noise and searing summer heat of the city and a breathing lung at its heart. The simple sculpture I go in search of is by Czechoslovakian artist Arthur Fleischman and has been in the gardens since 1946 where it marks the site of the first Wishing Tree.
The first time I stumbled on my wishing girl was on a visit to Sydney in 1999. That was long before I had a daughter living in Australia or a son in China and I doubted I would have an opportunity to return to Australia in my life time. But something about the simple sense of yearning the statue conveyed struck me like a powerful memory of the future and I tried to capture it in a tiny photo that has sat ever since on my window ledge in Duncannon.
Since then, as my children’s lives took their own twists and turns, my wishing girl has become a symbol for me of the conflicted emotions of longing for home and missing those we leave behind in an adopted country. I’ve returned to Sydney several times and each time I seek her out, touch her cool stone and pause in the still shade that surround her to reflect on what is important in my life right then. This January my prayers were many and heartfelt… that Claire will have a safe delivery of a healthy baby in April and enjoy the happiness of motherhood… that Shane, Shan and Dermot will settle into their new life in Ireland despite missing the family and friends they leave behind in China… and for well-being for other friends and family important to me.
Fast-forward to early March and Claire’s baby is due just seven weeks from today. The waiting, wishing and hoping have become an urgent knot in the pit of my stomach. At the same time I’m adapting to the joy of having SS&D living just down the road and the ordinary, extraordinary pleasures of grand-parenting. It’s time to start writing the blog more regularly and to capture the moods and moments of a special time.
One of my best memories of our Christmas/ New Year trip to Australia is of ringing in 2015 at Culburra Beach on the South Coast of New South Wales while celebrating our son-in-law Mike’s birthday which falls on new Year’s Eve. We had decamped down there to two beach houses overlooking the ocean where dolphins cavort in the evening sun – our house was called “Sea La Vie” while Shane, Shan, her MaMa and Dermot were down the road in “Time to Unwind”. Various friends of Claire and Mike, couples with young children, had taken other apartments nearby and the combined New Year and birthday celebrations were held on our deck.
For a once in a lifetime opportunity to spend a New Year’s Eve with all of us together including Shan’s MaMa, it seemed fitting to import some Chinese new year traditions into our celebrations. So Shan and MaMa took charge and put together a Chinese inspired barbecue which featured platters of Chinese pot-sticker dumplings, lamb chuan’r kebabs flavoured with cumin and chilli and Yunnan style, barbecued whole barramundi fish. The boys manned the barbecues in true Aussie style.
Dumplings symbolise good luck, fortune and family togetherness. They are served as the first meal of the New Year and before members of a family depart on a journey to remind them that family wraps itself around you wherever you are. This time MaMa made up two kinds of filling – traditional pork and cabbage and beef with carrot. – She, Shan and Shane wrapped the dumplings at their house and brought them along in tray loads for me to cook pot-sticker style just before serving. You will find lots of similar dumpling recipes on the blog starting with the link here.
MaMa’s delicious lamb kebabs combined the excellent flavour of Australian lamb with the the spices of her home town in Urumqi – the diced lamb was marinated in onion and tomato and scattered with cumin and chilli before serving. We will try them out on the Big Green Egg soon.
My contribution to proceedings was to make the desserts. The birthday cake, a special request from Mike, was a chocolate cheese cake. I used this recipe by Nigella Lawson and also made a back up Chocolate Ripple Cheesecake from a Mary Berry recipe and a large summer berry pavlova.
But it was Shan’s barbecued fish which was the highlight of the meal. As Shan says:
“Having a whole fish at the Chinese New Year’s Eve or New Year’s Day is very important. It has an auspicious meaning that sharing a whole fish with one’s family will bring luck and fortune to the whole family for the coming new year. This is because Chinese word for fish ‘yu‘ has the same pronunciation as the word ‘abundance’. It is important to have the whole fish including the head and tail which means a good year from start to end. Superstition really but it is so common that people don’t even think about it, it is just a ‘must have’ dish for new year or any big family reunion events.” Another part of the tradition is that the whole fish is never turned over on the plate once served because of the negative association with the turning over of a fishing boat and flipped fortunes.
Shan calls her fish recipe Yunnan Xiang Mao Kao Yu. Yunnan is a province in the very South West of China which shares a border with Burma,Vietnam and Laos, hence you see lemon grass, a common ingredient in South East Asian countries in this dish. Xiang Mao is the Chinese word for lemongrass, Kao means barbecue or grill, Yu is fish.
Now that spring is in the air here in Ireland and it’s time to dust off your barbecue or Big Green Egg, I thought you might like to experiment with Shan’s recipe. It doesn’t have detailed measurements for its ingredients. Chinese cooks don’t work that way so Shan has written down below the principles of what she did and the rough amounts of ingredients she used. Feel free to play around with it until you get the balance of flavours that suits your preference and liking for chilli heat.
Belated happy Chinese New Year from myself and Shan – xin nian kuai le – 新年快乐 Shan’s Yunnan Barbecued Lemongrass Fish – Yunnan Xiangmao2 Kao Yu – 云南香茅烤鱼 Serves 3 – 4 as part pf a multi-course meal
A whole sea fish with a body length of 25 to 30 cm (body length excludes head and tail), gutted and scales removed but leave the head and tail intact – you can ask your fish monger to do this bit for you.
For the stuffing
3 sticks of lemon grass
2 packets of coriander
1 big chunk of ginger (3 thumb fingers size)
4 spring onions
½ of a bulb of garlic
2 green chillies (depending on the spiciness of the chilli and your personal preference, use less or more)
The above measurements are indicative, the aim is that you have enough mix to stuff the whole fish, in its body and slits on both sides. For cooking
2 banana leaves large enough to wrap the whole fish neatly, preferably in two layers.
Wash the fish clean then cut slits at 3 cm intervals on both sides – this is for stuffing the seasoning mix into slits so the whole fish body absorbs the flavour, if you are testing with a small thin bodied fish, then this procedure is not necessary.
Peel away the tough outer layer of the lemon grass, trim your spring onions and peel your garlic. Then finely chop all the stuffing ingredients and mix in a bowl, add salt. You will have to taste the mix, the flavour you are aiming for is robust, wild flavour dominated by coriander, lemon grass, garlic and ginger, spiciness is personal preference. And it should tastes almost a bit too salty.
Stuff the mix inside of the fish’s body and into the slits on both side of its body; you want the stuffing to pack the fish well. Wrap tightly with banana leave and tie up the parcel with thin slice of lemon grass (preferred) or cotton thread.
Leave the fish to marinate for 20 mins; flip it when after 10 minutes so pressure from its weight will marinate both sides evenly.
Cooking and serving
Heat your barbecue or Big Green Egg to high on direct heat.
Put your fish on the open fire grill for about 5 mins on each side, depending on the heat of your barbecue. The indicator for ‘done’ is that the fish’s body has collapsed on both sides hence looking much more flatter than before and the banana leaves are burnt but still protecting the fish.
Serve it on a platter and allow your guests to unwrap the fish and help themselves, oohing and aahing as the perfume of the stuffing escapes from the package.
Fresh water fish can also be used in this recipe but it usually has a muddy taste and more bones. In Australia we used Barramundi fish. A whole salmon could also be used.
Shan would suggest making the mix slightly less salty if you are using sea fish, as they tend to taste a tiny bit saltier the fresh water fish. Add black pepper into the mix if you are a pepper lover!
It’s the Year of the Horse , the Wood Horse to be precise. According to China Sichuan it will be a time of fast victories and unexpected adventure, a great year for travel when energy is high and productivity is rewarded, a year when decisive action brings victory. You have to act fast in a Horse year but be careful not to gallop. My daughter in law Shan is a “Horse”. This will be an auspicious year for her, she will wear something red every day to bring good luck.
This year I was more conscious than ever of the importance of the Spring Festival to Chinese people wherever they are in the world. On January 30th, New Year’s Eve, Shane, Shan and Dermot were back in China, enjoying dumplings with the Gao clan in Urumqi in Xinjiang Province. Claire was celebrating her birthday in Sydney and eating jiaozi at Din Tai Fung. I was preparing dumplings in Dublin Business School. Three continents – one world.
I was feeling the absence of my off-spring on the other side of the world on the day when all Chinese people, wherever they are, mark the importance of family. A random email from Anne who lectures in marketing at Dublin Business School had diverted me from melancholy thoughts. Would I make dumplings for her class of 2o students who are volunteering for the Dublin Chinese New Year Festival, she wondered, as the college wanted to mark the Spring Festival.
Now I love making dumplings but I’m still only learning and wasn’t confident about my ability to do a live demonstration. So I asked my friend Wei Wei to help. Wei Wei lives here in Ireland with her Irish husband Oisin. She was Shan’s bridesmaid at their wedding in December. She has her own blog Wei Wei’s Chinese Kitchen and has been cooking since she was a young girl in Tianjin.
We got together in my house the night before and prepared some jiaozi and fillings. I loved working alongside her and hearing her stories of growing up in China and how her family celebrate the New Year. Last year she had spent the holiday with them and, like me, she was missing her family. You can read her blog post about Chinese New Year here. Wei Wei is a natural, intuitive cook and I learned a lot just from watching her work.
At 11:00 on New Year’s Eve morning we set up our pop-up stall in the Common Room in Dublin Business School in Castle House in Dublin. In a weird coincidence, this was the same open-plan space where I had my first desk as a very young civil servant in the Office of the Revenue Commissioners back in the early 1970s. The memories came flooding back. How strangely the years turn.
It was Fresher’s Week and the group of marketing students quickly morphed into a much larger crowd of hungry young people who caught the aroma of jiaozi cooking. Our little stall was overrun. Mao Restaurant supplied platters of spring rolls and other appetisers to keep the hunger at bay. Some of the students rolled up their sleeves and set to helping us meet the demand. The Chinese girls among them proved to be a dab hand with the cleaver but we also had help from Vietnamese, Irish and other students willing to learn how to roll out and fill the dumpling wrappers.
My photographer friend Solange Daini was on hand to capture the atmosphere. A small selection of her photos is below – click on them to see the full image.
By 3 pm Wei Wei and I had prepared hundreds of dumplings, boiled, pan-fried and pot-sticker style. We used five fillings in all. Wei Wei had prepared her special “Three Treasures” filling of egg, prawns and Chinese chives and another of beef, carrot and onion. I made Shan’s First Auntie’s recipe – Da Gu’s ‘ pork, Chinese cabbage and star anise – as well as my two favourite Black Sesame Kitchen Fillings – vegetarian tofu, carrot, shitake and lamb with cumin and Sichuan pepper. You will find another of Wei Wei’s dumpling recipes here as well as her special dipping sauce.
Our last customer was one of the lecturers who had heard rumours filtering through the college of strange goings on in the students Common Room… and free food.
We were tired at the end of the day but I felt a real sense of satisfaction at being part of a global Chinese celebration of family, friendship and good food. It was a fitting way to enter the Year of the Horse.
Thank you Wei Wei, Solange, Anne and the students of Dublin Business School.
The Spring Festival continues for two weeks and you will find recipes every day on the Taste of China section of the Dublin Chinese New Year Festival website. Chun jie kuai le – happy Spring Festival. Ma dao chong dong – wishing you success in the Year of the Horse.
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!
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.
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.
Gong Bao Chickenor if you prefer Crispy Chilli Beef. You can substitutechicken 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.
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.
250 g whole milk or a mix of milk and cream
1 large piece of ginger, peeled and smashed
4 tbs sugar
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.
Beat the eggs. Strain the milk through a sieve and add to the eggs, mixing well.
Pour into four to six small pudding bowls and steam for 8 minutes until lightly set.
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.
I hope wherever you are in the world you have been enjoying celebrating the Chinese New Year and the Spring Festival or Chun Jie.
When I attended the launch of the Year of the Dragon in Meeting House Square, Dublin last February, I had no idea how important the year was going to become for me or that by the end of it we would have our own little Flying Dragon grandson in Beijing – Teng Teng is his pet name in Mandarin to symbolise the movement of the flying dragon but his full name is Dermot Gao O’Neill.
So this year we celebrated the new year in style by attending the Chinese New Year Banquet in the Round Room of the Mansion House, sponsored by Etihad Airways and hosted with good humour by the Lord Mayor of Dublin, Naoise Ó’Muirí. It was great fun in a special and historic setting.
We had a full Spring Festival Chinese Style Banquet, using the best of Irish seafood, beef and other produce and then we were treated to a fusion of intercultural entertainment ranging from Chinese opera to a special performance of Riverdance which has taken China by storm.
Meanwhile I’ve been busy for the last week, over on www.cny.ie publishing a recipe each day to encourage a wider audience to explore the delicious and positive aspects of Chinese food. We have been featuring recipes from Chinese restaurants around Dublin and fusion dishes that show how Chinese cooking techniques influence the menu in some of our best Irish restaurants. I’ve also included some home-style recipes from Shan and her MaMa to show how easy it is to cook nutritious and appetising Chinese food at home.
When the Spring Festival is over I will tell you more about some of my experiences of reproducing these recipes as home and the pleasure I’ve got from learning new techniques such as how to brine and smoke duck and how to make home made chilli jam and ginger and cucumber pickles. For now I just want to point you in the direction of some of my favourite recipes from the last week. You will find all of them at Taste of China on the Dublin Chinese New Year Festival website here.
I got so much pleasure out of recreating head chef at Isabel’s Baggot St., Niall O’Sullivan’s Lapsang Souchong Tea-Smoked Duck with Scallops, that I felt briefly like a participant on MasterChef, especially with Niall at the other end of a tweet reminding me not to put too much orange in the smoking mix and to let the duck rest after smoking. My first attempt is photographed below.
I liked the lapsang souchong smoked flavour so much that the following night I made a simpler variation, thinly slicing the duck and serving it with the chilli jam I had made for the recipe for Spring Rolls of Duck Confit which the head chef of Samphire@the Waterside, Tom Walsh gave me for Taste of China. As Niall says, I’m not quite sure which chef should get the royalties for that one!
Tom’s chilli jam, which I got right on my second attempt is to die for.
My first attempt at his spring rolls didn’t look quite as pretty as Tom’s version but they sure passed the taste test and were given a firm thumbs up by my tasters at home.
I loved the way my Twitter chef friends entered into the spirit of the Spring Festival, shared their creativity with me and showed endless patience with my attempts to learn their professional techniques.
I’ve also enjoyed getting more recipes from my favourite Chinese restaurant in Ireland – China Sichuan in Sandyford, Dublin who were the first to let me inside their kitchen. Indeed I have so many of owner Kevin Hui’s recipes now that I could almost produce his unofficial cookbook. Chongqing Chicken is a dish I’ve tried to guess the recipe for several times at home so it is great to have the authentic version. And no, the amount of dried chilli mentioned in the recipe is not a mistake. Large quantities of dried chilli are used in this dish for colour and effect. They are not all meant to be eaten. I was quite pleased with my first attempt to recreate this dish at home and even got a compliment from Kevin for my efforts. This is going to be one of my staple week day suppers.
I’ve also discovered a few new (to me) Chinese restaurants in the past week and I can strongly recommend the recipes for Stir-fried Chicken with Celery from New Millennium restaurant beside the Gaiety in Dublin, MaPo Tofu from Green Dragon Well in Killiney Co. Dublin and Kaffir Lime Chilli Prawns from Chi Asian Takeaway in Galway.
I will be posting more Chinese and fusion recipes on Taste of China in the coming week but meanwhile, happy cooking and… Chun Jie Kuai Le – Happy Spring Festival.
May the Year of the Snake bring health, happiness and prosperity to you and your families wherever you are in the world.
There is such a thing as grace.
This evening, some 40 of my mother in law Alice O’Neill’s immediate family gathered in the room where she held court for so many years to mark 4 weeks from her passing with a “Month’s Mind” Mass celebrated by her and our good friend Fr. Malcolm. We ranged in age from her youngest great grand-child barely 1 to nearly 76 years of age. We piled into that small space grabbing slots on stools or cushions and, whether you had a religious bone in your body or not, you could not fail to be moved by the quiet peace that descended on the room as we followed an age old ritual. Her presence cast a soothing warmth on the gathering and I could sense her quiet smile of delight as she surveyed the crowd that gathered to remember her. In large families, even your children, their spouses and those grandchildren close at hand are enough to generate a satisfying crowd.
The occasion was doubly poignant because earlier this week we lost Mrs O’Neill’s daughter, my lovely sister-in-law Deirdre after a short but vicious illness. That is a death that is even harder to come to terms with – a young woman leaving behind a husband, 3 sons, a young daughter, 4 sisters and 5 brothers, all devastated by her loss. Dee – warm, generous, funny, colourful, loyal, free-spirited, a leader, determined, a keeper of promises – we miss you.
I know at times in the past few weeks, as we came to terms with the finality of Dee’s illness, our emotions ranged from disbelief to anger to deep sadness to numbness and a bone-rattling, chilling shock. Tonight, in that room, there was something else, a quiet acceptance, a letting go and a communal sense of love and compassion.
Afterwards we ate beef-filled pasties prepared by the sisters to their mother’s recipe, shaped like the jiaozi pot-sticker dumplings served at Chinese family get togethers – dumplings to remind you how family wrap themselves around you even when you are far away.
Shane commented to Shan earlier this week in Beijing that it had been a rotten start to the year and she replied that no, it was just a bad end to the old year. Because, as the last moon of the lunar year wanes, Chinese people across the world prepare to say farewell to the year of the dragon. The year of the snake is almost here. In our house, we are all in favour of starting the new year over.
As we wait to see if Shane and Shan’s baby will be a Dragon or a Snake, the time seemed right for me to embrace this new dimension of our family and our tiny Sino-Irish dynasty in the making. So I have been collaborating with the Dublin Chinese New Year Festival to develop a new dimension to the festival this year – A Taste of China. You can read all about it here.
Over the next few weeks, we hope to post a different recipe each day from a wide variety of restaurants around Dublin and further afield, both Chinese restaurants and Irish restaurants where the chefs are even a little bit susceptible to Asian fusion influences. First up are recipes for Stir-fried Chicken with Celery from New Millennium Restaurant in Dublin and Confit Duck Spring Rolls from Tom Walsh, Head Chef at Samphire@The Waterside.
We hope you will join in the fun and if you are a chef, restauranteur or food blogger who would like your recipe included on the Chinese New Year website, just leave a message here, a comment on my blog or DM me on Twitter @julieon.
Here in our family, we have all been changed by the events or recent weeks, in ways we don’t yet fully understand. But we owe it to the generation yet unborn to continue to nurture the multi-cultural traditions of family. And what better way to do that than through food.
春节快乐 Happy Spring Festival