Tan Su-lyn, CEO of The Ate Group
What do you and your family eat every year for reunion dinner?
Before we had children, Aun and I would usually cook reunion dinner for his immediate family – his parents, brother and sister-in-law.They were rather elaborate dinners, often keeping to the theme of the festivities (meaning that they would be Chinese meals, usually individually plated, featuring classic ingredients that are considered indulgent and auspicious). No two dinners were ever the same.
But after our children arrived, these meals have been pared down to accommodate both our children’s bedtimes (7.30pm) and their tastebuds; as well as the fact that we now have less time to prepare intricate dishes. This means that we now have smaller menus, with at least one dish that appeals to the kids.
These days, we simply serve a pen cai from one of our favourite Chinese restaurants. Last year, my mom-in-law managed to score us one from Shisen Hanten on Chinese New Year’s Eve itself, when we were there for lunch. We enjoyed it so much that we ordered another one this year. We appreciate the level of attention to detail the restaurant accords to its pen cai. It does taste like a 10-course meal served from one pot. The seafood items are not overcooked (even after the dish has been re-heated). And every element of it is exceptionally tasty. We just keep it simmering on the kitchen stove and everyone helps themselves to their favourite parts of the dish.
What CNY specialties would you prepare?
One of the dishes I do often prepare for the Chinese New Year period is jiaozi. First of all, it is considered an auspicious dish. More importantly, it can be made ahead of time, is incredibly easy to cook; and fabulously versatile.
I often make a batch and store it in the freezer. This year, I used fresh egg wonton skins from Handpicked and served them with fresh la mian from the same site. The kids loved eating these dumplings with la mian tossed in a sesame oil and soy sauce dressing.
My only tweak was to add jamon iberico bones to the Chinese chicken broth I prepared. The fat from the broth was skimmed off and added to each serving bowl. Then, I added my sister-in-law’s homemade umami chilli oil, a touch of sugar and sesame oil, and a dash of Japanese fish sauce to each serving. The hot noodles were placed in the bowls along with the boiled jiaozi. This was finished with a ladleful of hot jamon-chicken broth, freshly crushed black Kampot pepper and minced Japanese spring onions.
Did you indulge in any other unique dishes this year?
I guess to push our menu a little over the edge into over indulgence, I couldn’t resist chef Drew Nocente of Salted & Hung’s whole suckling pig stuffed with carabineros and chorizo. It was a perfect east-west inclusion for our reunion dinner menu.
We just had to complete the cooking process very quickly in our oven, then served a slice of the pork roulade with kipfler potatoes cooked with garlic, shallots, cornichons, fresh herbs, cream, butter and truffled mustard. It was absolutely delicious.
What did you have for dessert?
For the first time, this year I didn’t even plan dessert! We snacked on Japanese mikan and a selection of my favourite goodies: pineapple tarts made by a friend’s mother, love letters made over a charcoal fire, bak kwa, Taiwanese preserved plums from Tea Bone Zen Mind and seasonal pineapple cake from Sunny Hills made with Echire butter.
Bing Blokbergen-Leow (Director of Gastro-Sense) and Konstantino Blokbergen (Founder of Gastro-Sense & Firebake)
What are the dishes you usually eat for reunion dinner?
Traditional Hakka ‘rolled egg ‘ban’ (kueh) is served at our Chinese New Year table once a year. It is made by my uncle’s wife, who is also a Hakka from Tai Pu(大埔). This is a time-consuming dish to make, where tapioca and white flours are mixed together with eggs to create a thin batter. The mixture is poured onto a pan and made into a ‘rolled omelette ‘ban’ or kueh, and sliced like noodles. A Hakka stir-fried mix of pork, tofu, black fungus, cuttlefish and dried mushroom is cooked on the side and stir-fried into the rolled egg omelette. This is such a delicious and hearty dish. As a Hakka, I prefer this rolled egg ‘ban’ (kueh) to the abacus seeds we grew up making and eating, as the texture of this dish is less heavy and dough-like, and the bite is ‘springy’ and light. Under the skilled hands of my aunty, the egg rolls are thin and even.
Another typical Hakka dish found on our Chinese New Year table and family- gatherings, is a braised pork dish made with pork, cuttlefish, Chinese yellow rice wine, dark soy sauce and fish sauce. Perfect with white rice and best when left overnight for a more intense flavour.
A family favourite is olive rice, a creation by another uncle’s wife. It is a Thai-inspired dish she would cook for my cousins, and had since been another dish we look forward to during our reunion dinner each year. It is rice wok-fried with black olive tapenade, and topped with cashews, cilantro and fresh pomelo flesh. Very refreshing. In recent years, this dish is made by the family helper, who has lived with them for over 30 years.
These days our reunion dinners reflect a colorful kaleidoscope of treasured recipes; embracing the diversity of cultures and traditions, and celebrating the common love of food, and the beautiful bonds of family. This is why I love Chinese New Year.
What are some of the other home-made family specialties for CNY?
I grew up making abacus seeds with my grandma. My cousins and siblings would sit on the floor around the kitchen, shaping and moulding the yam dough into abacus-seeds’ like dough with my paternal grandma. Today, several of the family members would take turns to make this.
Another dish is prawn fritters. As long as I can remember, my aunty would make this dish at every family gathering. Fresh prawns are dipped into a batter and deep-fried into crispy, golden brown treats. Typically, only half of what’s cooked actually make it out onto the dining table, as many hands would come and ‘steal’ them off the plate as soon as they are out of the wok despite the scalding heat.
We also prepare home-made fish balls – we scrape the flesh of fresh yellow tail, and beat and shape it by hand. The fish balls are boiled and served in a soup made with the fish stock. Each of us would eat at least 10 fish balls!
Is there a dish that you’re usually in charge of?
I am usually in charge of desserts at these dinners, and I would prepare around four different types, usually more Asian, such as home-made longan almond jelly and pulut hitam where my husband, Tino, would churn fresh coconut ice-cream. In addition, we would always order a traditional multi-layer agar agar from a lady nearby.
How do you usually celebrate Chinese New Year?
Since my niece was born four years ago, my parents would make it a point to come to Singapore (they live in Australia) to celebrate the occasion together as a family. We would have our reunion dinner with the extended family at my uncle’s home. Dinner on the first day would usually just be our immediate family, either at my brother’s home or mine. Our entire family (dad’s side) would come together for dinner (about 50 of us) usually at one of our uncle’s home or at a restaurant. This year, we had our dinner on the second evening at Kamboat Orchard Parade Hotel, where karaoke was organised in the function room, and photos and videos from the past were shown. It was so much fun!
We usually have breakfast together as a family on the first day at my house, with nian gao plus whatever delicious food that takes our fancy. This year it was the Hakka noodles. For the first meal of the New Year of the Rooster, we decided to go back to our Hakka roots and cooked traditional Hakka (lou mian). What sets this apart is the simple pork mince cooked generously with lard, fish sauce and white pepper. In our family we add shallots too. Garnished with crispy pork lard, spring onions and fried shallots. This is a dish we used to eat every Sunday at my grandfather’s about 40 years ago.
Serene Tan, Head of sales hub, AMEA
What are the must-haves for your family every Chinese New Year?
Pan-fried nian gao is always served – these cakes symbolises “achieving new heights in the coming year”. This is has been my grandma’s quotes and sayings.
Steam fish with ginger and mushrooms is also a dish we have every year. The Chinese word for fish sounds like the word for abundance. We also have stir-fried chicken with lobster and bamboo shoot.
My mum’s deep-fried spring rolls are my favourite (fried spring rolls look like gold bars and signifies “a wish for prosperity”). My mum would do the cooking; she comes from Indonesia with a few eager relatives who would do the cooking too.
Every new year, we would always have mandarin oranges. Displaying these fruits is said to bring wealth and luck as the Chinese words for mandarin sounds like gold and echoes luck. Both my mum and mother-in-law seem to share the same sentiment.
What desserts do you have after the meal?
Mum’s tutti frutti dessert: peach (symbolises longevity), sliced oranges (symbolises luck), lychee and longan (‘dragon’s eye’). They’re eaten for superstitious reasons, referencing family abundance and togetherness. Chinese tea is always been served at the end of the meal to complete the dining experience.
What else do you do during the festive period?
We usually have relatives in town. We dine, chat and dodge all the awkward questions. It is always hilarious to see a variety of creative responses. And we always pick a Chinese kung fu movie to watch together at our home theatre.