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 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.
- 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
- 2 eggs
- 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.