Lunar New Year Comfort Food Hacks and Origins – Part One

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BY: JO-EZER LAU

Lunar New Year, also known as Chinese New Year within Chinese communities, marks the first day of spring, or rather, the vernal equinox. Furthermore, as its name indicates, the months are derived from the lunar cycle, which lasts around 29.6 days on average. As a result, the Lunar New Year and it’s festivities almost always starts later than the Western New Year, which follows the Gregorian calendar – today’s internationally accepted civil calendar.

Studying abroad as an international student is tough when Lunar New Year is just around the corner and you know you’ll be spending the festive season (with the likes of Christmas for most North Americans) away from family, friends, and pineapple tarts. Before you know it, all the photos of food start rolling in on the family chat group, say, 8-12 hours before your Lunar New Year, no thanks to time zone differences.

Never mind your new year’s resolution, how about a Lunar New Year’s resolution – to quench that thirst for homecooked food henceforth and turn the FOMO tables, all by yourself. After all, when the going gets tough, the tough get going – straight into the kitchen, with their sleeves rolled up.

The main challenges in whipping up Asian cuisine whilst living overseas are predominantly the limited range of traditional or native ingredients available, accessibility to such supplies, and the price and value of these rare ingredients. Furthermore, the preparation and cooking facilities appropriate for the dish are not common and very tedious to obtain, such as, but not limited to, rice cooker, steamer, pestle and mortar, steamboat pot, claypot, slow cooker, gas stove, etc.

Yet, despite all odds, there are two must-have, incredibly symbolic Lunar New Year dishes that can be recreated easily in your own version with inexpensive, yet high quality ingredients sourced locally: Steamed Fish and Yee Sang, which will be covered in part II.

Steamed Fish

Fish has a very special place on the round tables of reunion during Lunar New Year because it symbolizes a superabundance of prosperity. In the Chinese language, fish (鱼—yú) has the same pronunciation as 余, which literally translates to leftover, or contextually, ‘surplus’ or extra’. One of the popular Lunar New Year well wishes is ‘年年有余’ (nián nián yǒu yú), a surplus of happiness and wealth (or fish) that spills over from one year to another.

Traditionally, half of the fish is eaten during the first meal and the other half is deliberately saved for the next meal. This alludes to allowing your ‘extra’ abundance to spill into the future, prolonging prosperity through generations.

Image from Chinese New Year

Essentially, fish finds itself to be a famous Lunar New Year dish over wordplay so subtly steeped in culture and auspicious homophones, intended by our ancestors. This idea even trickles down into the details of what type of fish[1] should be chosen.

Instead of the usual steamer, this dish only requires a microwave oven to cook. Fun fact – contrary to hearsay among some older generations, microwaving does not make the food carcinogenic, and it certainly does not zap away nutrients in the food either.

Ingredients/Materials

Sea bass/cod/salmon – gutted and filleted

2 stalks, scallions – sliced thinly

1 inch, ginger – sliced thinly

Coriander/Cilantro/Chinese Parsley – finely chopped

5 cloves garlic, finely chopped

2 green onion

Soy sauce

Chillies (optional)

Salt

1 Lime

Microwavable plate, ceramic plate.

Instructions

  1. Peel the onion, slice thickly crosswise, perpendicular to the root-bud end. Line the plate with the slices.
  2. Slice the scallions, ginger, herbs, and garlic. Set these aside, placing the raw garlic into a sauce bowl.
  3. Wash the fish thoroughly, taking care to not bruise the flesh or tear the skin. Place the fillet(s) on a bed of thick onion slices, sufficient to prevent the fish from touching the plate.
  4. Sprinkle some salt to season, then add the sliced ginger on top of the fish
  5. Add water into the plate, just enough to not come into contact with the fish.
  6. Wrap snugly with 2 layers of cling film (saran wrap) and place into the microwave oven
  7. For a 900W oven, cook on low power for 2 minutes, medium power for 4 minutes, and then high power for 2 minutes.
  8. Check that the fish is cooked thoroughly, flaky flesh is a good sign. If the fish is not well done, continue cooking in intervals of 30 seconds on high heat, checking between intervals for doneness.
  9. Add soy sauce to the garlic, chillies as well, if preferred.
  10. Garnish with scallions and herbs, serve with fresh lime.

I took it upon myself to make sure that this hack works, and here is proof that it does!

via GIPHY

A few important science-y tips to follow for a moist and thoroughly cooked dish.

  • Only salt or marinate the fish right before cling wrapping and microwaving it. For only a short period of marinating time, salt draws out water from the fish, and you do not want this to happen. Microwave energy penetrates through the fish and bound water molecules (among many other compounds) within the flesh absorb this energy and get excited, vibrating vigorously, leading to a rise in temperature. In layman’s terms, the higher the moisture content within the fish, the better it will cook and therefore you want to add the salt/marinade at the last minute.
  • Leave the fish skin on, this helps to seal in the moisture and prevent the fish from drying out. On that note, adding sufficient water into the plate before steaming is crucial. These conditions replicate that of a conventional steamer.
  • Always start with low heating and then increase the power slowly. If you are using fish with a higher fat content, preferably refrain from microwaving on high heat in case the fish ‘pops’ and ‘splatters’ everywhere in the microwave oven. Remember that the microwave energy is being absorbed by other compounds, including fat. Fat has a boiling point higher than water, and thus heats up surrounding water molecules almost instantaneously, causing very rapid expansion into steam, leading some parts of the fish to ‘pop’.
  • Smaller sections of fish will cook more evenly than one huge fillet. The recipe is intended for fish fillets without the head and bones.
  • Microwaving a bowl of lime water and skin after preparing this dish helps to get rid of the fishy smell, leave the microwave oven door open too.

As Lao Tzu rightly said, give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day-

How about, teach a man to steam fish and you feed him for a lifetime.

Watch this space for another easy recipe you can whip up on the 7th day of Lunar New Year!

References

Ng, N., (2018). Chinese New Year Reunion Dinner Sets in 20 Klang Valley Restaurants, digital image. Available at https://discoverkl.com/2018/01/15/price-of-chinese-new-year-reunion-dinner-sets-kl-2018/, Discover KL. Accessed 28 Jan 2019.

Tang, C., (2019). Chinese New Year Food: Top 7 Lucky Foods and Symbolism. Available at https://www.chinahighlights.com/travelguide/chinese-food/chinese-new-year-food.htm, [online]. Accessed 1 Feb 2019.

Wasai LLC., (2019). Chinese New Year Dishes, digital images. Available at https://chinesenewyear.net/food/, [online].  Accessed 28 Jan 2019.

Wu, K., (2016). Skip the Oven—Microwave Your Fish. Available at https://food-hacks.wonderhowto.com/how-to/skip-oven-microwave-your-fish-0174595/ [online]. Accessed 27 Jan 2019.

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