Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Penang Chinese New Year Dishes

In this post I shall share some recipes about some of the Penang favourite dishes served during Chinese New Year. As my daughter will not be back for Chinese New Year, we decided to have a sort of pre-CNY celebration so that she can enjoy the CNY food before she leaves. 
First, the XO fried chicken. The whole family loves this version of fried chicken. I served this dish when some friends from other states came to visit and they all loved it. I learnt this dish from my mother-in-law. The chicken is marinated overnight with sugar, salt, fivespice powder, pepper, a dash of sesame oil and some brandy. Before deep frying, the chicken is dusted with corn flour. To do this, I found it very useful to use a plastic bag to shake the chicken pieces. The oil must be very hot when the chicken is put in, but the fire is turned down low so that the chicken has sufficient time to be cooked without turning too brown.

Next, the all-time favourite among Penangnites : Joo Hoo Char! This is a dish which comprises of shredded chinese turnips, carrot, mushrooms, dried cuttlefish and some pork. This dish is usually eaten with lettuce and sambal.
The secret to making delicious Joo Hoo Char is to fry some shallots until the oil is fragrant. Set it aside and use the oil to cook the rest of the ingredients. I actually use a lot of shallots and minced garlic to get that special fragrance.Some other Joo Hoo Char which I have tasted lacks this aroma which makes the dish so delicious.
The fragrant oil is first heated. The other ingredients are added one after the other, stirring evenly, starting with the minced garlic, then the finely cut pork strips, the cuttlefish strips, the mushroom, the carrot and the turnips. When cooking these dishes, we have to be patient and fry the ingredients until the aroma comes out before adding the other stuff. If you just pour everything in and fry, your dish will have a missing oomph. You only need a little chicken stock and a bit of salt for flavouring. You can add a bit of black soy sauce for colour. The dish is not difficult to cook but the preparation can be a bit tedious.
Another CNY favourite is the Kiam Chai Ark. This is a soup dish made with duck and salted vegetables. Just by looking at the picture below, many Penangnites will find their saliva pooling in their mouth!
This soup is easy to cook, but you might have difficulty finding the ingredients, and processing the duck. Its easy to buy chicken and usually the vendor will cut it up for you. Its harder to find ducks. It is usually sold frozen, so the vendors might not cut it for you. Even if they defrost it and cut it for you, you still have a lot of work to do, removing the fat and the unwanted parts. I remove almost all the fat and skin, so I prefer to do the chopping myself. I buy the frozen duck and thaw it only when I want to cook it. 
You can buy salted vegetables (kiam chai) anywhere but make sure you get the China type(round) and not the local long green ones which is not suitable for this dish. In Penang, the kiam chai seller will also sell you the sour plum (sui bui) and the nutmeg seeds (lao hao chi) which is a must to give this soup a special aroma. You might have difficulty getting the nutmeg seeds elsewhere and maybe you have to improvise instead. The ginger slices, tomato, and bombay onions will blend nicely with the duck soup. You won't need any salt or any other flavouring at all! You might have to wash the salted vegetables a couple of times so that your soup is not too salty. I usually use 500-600 g of kiam chai for one duck, 3 nutmeg seeds, four sui bui,2 tomatos and 2 bombay onions.
My children also love assam prawns. You will notice that my assam prawns look different from the usual ones. My children prefer this wet version instead of the dry and black assam prawns others usually make. In this version, the prawns are tasty and juicy and not dry and hard like the original version. The prawns are marinated with pepper, sugar, salt and thick assam paste. You have to adjust the amount of assam to your liking. As to the amount of sugar and salt, well, you have to experiment or maybe taste the seasoning before you fry the prawns. I usually know the right amount for assam prawns because I cook this more often. As for the fried chicken, I will the taste the seasoning first to make sure the marinating is correct. 
And yes, I also cooked Too Khar Chor upon request by my elder daughter. I remember cooking some Too Khar Chor when some friends came over for dinner many years ago. After tasting it, they spread the word around about me being able to cook very nice Too Khar Chor. I think they were maybe fascinated that I could cook. Many people had this mind-set that only wives could cook and are overly surprised to hear thatI can cook. Or maybe they really liked the dish. Actually this is not my best dish as I seldom cook this. But I do agree that our Too Khar Chor is indeed very delicious.(yes "our", because I have to ask my wife to help to taste it while cooking in order to get the correct sweetness and sourness)  I use the China sweetened black vinegar, brown sugar, pork trotters and ginger for this stew. The ginger is first fried with sesame oil and then garlic. The pork is stir fried a while and then the vinegar is added. If you prefer more sour taste, add more sour vinegar (the one we use for sharksfin soup and xiao long bao). It takes quite a while to stew the pork trotters and you have to stir periodically. As usual, the amount of salt and brown sugar depends on your taste.
For dessert, we had chocolate fondue- something different. Of course, there is no tower or fountain! But the taste was superb. How to prepare the fondue? I have no idea! Ask my wife. Where baking cakes or cookies or western is concerned,my wife is the expert, not me. I'm more into cooking oriental dishes instead.   Do try these recipes yourself. Don't be afraid to experiment. Its such a joy being able to reproduce these delicious dishes yourself. We know the tradition is not lost. At least not with me. That's why I share this in this post. Hopefully more people can cook these favourite dishes and pass the skill to our younger generations.

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