Children have odd ideas about how the world works. I've often said to friend that I'd like to host a talk show where I interview kids because they have an interesting perspective on the world. That's not to say that mine was that interesting when I was young but I was convinced of one thing.
I was absolutely sure that I wasn't able to open cardboard milk cartons because I was Chinese.
We were given a small carton of milk every year at school and all the other kids around me were able to open theirs with ease. And there was me, fiddling and making a mess out of my spout. I tore the waxy paper and the inside sort of turned mushy. And it was then that I decided that I couldn't open these containers because I was Chinese and we didn't really drink milk at home. By the way I still can't open milk cartons well. We buy it in bottles now :P
One of my favourite Chinese traditions is not the ceremonial opening of the milk carton but the Chinese New Year dinner. There are lots of foods that are good luck for the superstitious culture and these include things like oranges (heralding wealth because of the golden colour), pork (abundance and wealth), eggs (fertility and wealth), long noodles (for a long life), shiitake mushrooms (longevity) and duck (fertility).
I decided to create a Chinese New Year dinner menu that was not only easy because I had plenty to do that day but also one that used some of the recipes that I had gotten from my recent trip to Shanghai.
The main dish would be a duck with Chinese orange sauce because that would combine two auspicious ingredients of duck and orange. I also hand made some noodles so that I could make them as long as possible because long noodles means a long life. I served these with tofu in a delectably rice, sweet salty sauce that I came across in Shanghai. I also made a savoury steamed egg custard dish topped with a flavoursome pork mince topping.
For dessert my mother decided to experiment and make Chinese New year cake. You may have seen these in the shops-they look like light brown, firm jelly textured rounds. Sometimes they're even shaped into creatures like fish. You slice into them, dip them in beaten egg and pan fry them so that the edges become crisp and the insides soft. They're ridiculously easy to make and so she has shared the recipe below. She also made another Foo Chow sweet dish of taro cake but we weren't quite as smitten with this. And of course my father brought his own rice because he doesn't like my rice ;)
On the day I was actually surprised at how little time everything took. You could easily create this in under two and a half hours as long as your duck is dry (and even that isn't that necessary). I stood around twiddling my thumbs and rearranging the duck chopstick rests (a gift from my friend Freaky Flier). The duck was crispy skinned but succulent and the sauce aromatic with just enough tang to cut through the rich duck skin and meat.
Even my vegetarian loathing sister loved the tofu and noodle dish and we dispensed these metre long noodles onto plates with tongs held high. The silken egg custard set perfectly and I used the last of the dozen guinea fowl eggs from our trip out to the country which provided a beautifully buttery, silken texture underneath the topping of minced pork and mushrooms. My mother brought an eggplant dish, a family favourite and I'm hoping that she will share that recipe soon with me.
Dessert was the Chinese New Year cake dipped in beaten egg and pan fried so that the edges were crispy. And of course no Chinese banquet is complete without some complaining about how full we were!
So tell me Dear Reader, were you able to open the milk cartons when you were little? And are you a superstitious person? And do you cook duck much at home?
Glistening Chinese Orange Duck
There are some things that I don't cook at home much. Duck is one of them, not because I don't enjoy eating it because I love it but because I thought that it would be intimidating. If you thought that a beautifully crispy skinned duck was perhaps out of your reach, please try this dish. You dry it in your fridge for 24 hours uncovered and then you simply roast it for just over an hour in the same way that you'd roast a chicken. While it is roasting, the incredible sauce which is a mixture of orange juice and aromatics cooks in less than 10 minutes. It's similar to the famous Kylie Kwong duck in look but the ingredients are very different and the method simplified. This also works beautifully with duck breasts if you can't deal with the carving palaver.
An Original Recipe by Not Quite Nigella
Preparation time: 15 minutes
Waiting time: 24 hours in the fridge
Cooking time total: 1.5 hours
- 2kg/4 pound duck
- 4 star anise
- 2 tablespoons salt and pepper
- 1 cup orange juice
- 1/4 cup white sugar
- 1/8 cup light soy sauce
- 3 star anise
- 1 cinnamon or cassia quill
- 3 slices fresh ginger
- 3 tablespoons shaoxing cooking wine
- 1 tablespoon honey
- 3 slices of orange for decoration
Step 1 - Clear space in your fridge for the duck - the skin is crispiest if the duck skin is dry and if you don't have a cool area to hang a duck, placing it in the fridge uncovered is the best way. Wash the duck and remove the extra fatty pieces - you can save this to render down for duck fat potatoes and other goodies.
Step 2 - Put a pot large enough to fit the duck onto boil and add the star anise in it. Simmer the duck for 10 minutes and then remove it from the water. Pat dry with paper towels and season with salt and pepper. Place the duck on a rack in a baking dish and refrigerate for at least 24 hours, turning halfway so that both sides get a waxy coat to them.
Step 3 - When ready to cook the duck, preheat oven to 220C/428F. Place the duck in a baking dish with a deep rack - there is a lot of fat in the duck and you want this to drain off. Add about an inch of water to the bottom of the pan to prevent the oil from splashing (but make sure that the duck isn't touching the water). Roast breast side up for 15 minutes. Reduce the heat to 190C/374F and bake for a further 15 minutes. Then turn the duck over and bake for 30 minutes. Then turn it again breast side up and roast for 20 minutes until done.
Step 4 - While the duck is roasting make the sauce. Place all of the sauce ingredients in a small saucepan and simmer uncovered for 7-10 minutes until it thickens.
Step 5 - When duck is ready, carve the duck and pour the sauce over the pieces and serve.
Shanghai Tofu & Noodles
The first time I tried this dish, it featured wheat gluten which was served as small, spongey cubes cooked and soaked in an incredible sauce. It was utterly delicious and the sauce was that wonderful balance of sweet and salty that you get in Shanghainese and Cantonese food a lot. The 88 Xintiandi hotel shared their recipe for it but there was one item that was a mystery and that was "pork sauce".
This apparently takes ages to make and is quite complicated but they explained that I could use a bought char siu sauce instead. I re-made it with tofu and my own noodles which I rolled as long as I could make them - about a metre long because long noodles are said to be good for a long life.
Adapted from a recipe from the 88 Xintiandi Hotel
- 2 cups chicken stock
- 100g/3.5ozs char siu sauce (I used Lee Kum Kee brand)
- 2 tablespoons dark soy sauce
- 2 tablespoons light soy sauce
- 2 tablespoons brown sugar
- 1 long red chilli
- 1/2 cup sliced green onions, divided
- 400g/14.13 ozs. tofu cubes (deep fried puffs or firmer deep fried cubes)
- 2 cups fresh noodles
Step 1 - Heat the chicken stock, char siu sauce, dark & light soy sauces, sugar, chilli and 1/4 cup of the green onions in a saucepan and heat until sugar has melted. Add the tofu cubes and simmer uncovered for 15-20 minutes until sauce has thickened and tofu cubes have taken on some colour. Remove from heat.
Step 2 - Meanwhile, cook the noodles in boiling water until al dente and drain and rinse under cold running water.
Step 3- Heat a non stick frypan or wok and add 1/4 cup of the tofu sauce to the pan and add the noodles. Stir fry the noodles in the sauce coating the noodles well in the sauce. Place on serving plate with the noodles at the bottom and the tofu on top.
Chinese New Year Cake
I desperately wanted to make this into a fish shape but my parents didn't want to because they didn't know how to locate the retro fish mold from the 70's jelly making days. The original instructions for the Chinese New Year Cake were "Add 1 3/4 rice bowl brown sugar to 2 rice bowl water and boil." Alas, because I don't have any rice bowls, my mother translated it to a more universally friendly measurement.
- 2 1/4 cups brown sugar
- 2.5 cups water
- 500g/1 pound glutinous rice flour
- 1 egg, beaten
- A little oil for frying
- You will also need a steam proof dish around 20cms/8inches in diameter and about 2 inches high. We used a round non springform baking tin.
Step 1 - Oil a 20cm/8 inch steam proof dish with sides. Boil the brown sugar and water until the sugar has dissolved. Cool for about 10 minutes.
Step 2 - Mix in the glutinous rice flour and stir until the large lumps disappear. Sieve if there are small lumps remaining.
Step 3 - Transfer to the prepared dish and steam for 1 hour until cooked in the centre. Check halfway through to ensure that the water hasn't run dry.
Step 4 - If you make this a day or two ahead of time, it becomes firm once you store it in the fridge. The best way to serve it is to cut it into slices, dip it in beaten egg and pan fry until the edges become crispy.
The cake turned bottoms up