A Malaysian Chinese New Year Feast

I don’t know about you, but when I was little I wanted to be less like me and more like everyone else. More like my friends with their pale skin and mums who wore high-heeled shoes. Less like me with my Chinese eyes and mum who wore hand-painted baseball boots.

Growing up in Newcastle in the 1980s, I found myself being teased quite a bit, sometimes even bullied, for being part Chinese and being the daughter of artists. Both of which I’m fiercely proud of now, but back then I’d have given anything just to be normal.

Thankfully my daughters seem proud of their Chinese heritage, although the world does feel quite a different place now. In recent years we’ve started celebrating Chinese New Year and it’s becoming one of our family traditions, a chance to bring a taste of Chinese Malaysian cuisine to our little corner of rural Somerset.

Last year I cooked up quite an ambitious Chinese banquet for our New Year celebrations. It was delicious but a little stressful preparing so many dishes for one meal, so I decided to make things easier this year. So last weekend, I chose just a few recipes from a wonderful cookbook called Nonya Flavours, an excellent guide to the cuisine of the Straits Chinese community of Penang, the Malaysian island where my mother grew up.

We had a couple of chicken dishes – a sweet soy sauce chicken and a traditional chicken curry, served very simply with boiled rice and a nourishing vegetable soup. And it was perfect, proving that a fabulous feast doesn’t need to be complicated. The curry was fairly spicy and I was rather surprised that both my daughters could handle it. Must be their Chinese blood I suppose…

Vegetable soup

2 litres water
2 tbsp light soy sauce
2 tbsp Shaoxing (Chinese rice wine)
3 slices ginger
1 tsp white peppercorns
2 carrots, peeled and cut into decorative shapes
2 cloves garlic, crushed
10 dried shiitake mushrooms, soaked in hot water and halved
300g pak choi, shredded
salt and sugar

In a large pan, bring the water to a boil and add the soy sauce, Shaoxing, ginger, peppercorns, carrot, garlic and mushrooms and cook for about 5 minutes before adding the pak choi. Cook for another 10 minutes and season to taste with a little salt and sugar. Serve hot. We like to pour the soup over our boiled rice.

Sweet soy sauce chicken

2 chicken breasts, cut into bitesize pieces
20g sugar
1 tbsp dark soy sauce
salt and pepper
4 slices ginger
125ml water

Mix together the sugar, soy sauce and a little salt and pepper and pour over the chicken pieces. Make sure the chicken is well covered and leave to marinade for at least half an hour.

Pour the water into a wok over a medium heat and add ginger slices and the marinated chicken. Bring to a boil and simmer until the chicken is tender and cooked through – around 20 minutes. Add more water if the liquid dries up before the chicken is cooked.

Serve immediately with rice.

Nonya chicken curry

For the spice paste

1 green chilli
100g shallots, peeled and finely chopped
2 cloves of garlic, crushed
2 tsp dried turmeric
1½ tbsp coriander seeds
½ tsp cumin seeds
½ tsp fennel seeds

3 tbsp vegetable oil
1 star anise
2 cloves
½ cinnamon stick
8 skinless chicken thighs
250g potatoes, peeled and cut into wedges
400ml coconut milk
100ml coconut cream
salt

First of all make the spice paste. Put all the ingredients in a food processor and mince well. Then grind using a pestle and mortar – you’ll probably need to do this in several batches – until you have a fairly smooth paste.

Heat the oil in a large pan and fry the star anise, cloves and cinnamon stick for a minute. Add the spice paste and stir fry well. Add a couple of tablespoons of the coconut milk and fry over a low heat until fragrant.

Throw in the chicken thighs and fry for a couple of minutes. Add the potatoes and pour in the rest of the coconut milk. Simmer gently until the chicken is tender and the potatoes are cooked through.

Pour in the coconut cream and stir well. Season with salt to taste. Continue to cook until the gravy is slightly thick.

Serve with boiled rice. This served two adults and two children, and there were plenty of leftovers for the freezer to provide us with an easy mid-week supper.

Kung Hei Fat Choi!

Care to Cook: The Winner is Announced!

When I put out a call a month or so ago for people to send in their favourite family recipes for the Care to Cook recipe challenge I had absolutely no idea what kind of response to expect. Care to Cook is a challenge I set up with a fostering and adoption charity I work with called TACT in order to promote their cookbook, which they’re selling to support adopted children and their families.

But I had nothing to worry about. You lot rose to the challenge splendidly, supplying a fantastic assortment of family favourites, both savoury and sweet. The task set was to suggest a dish you would cook to welcome someone into your family home. For many children in care, family meals are simply something they are not used to. Each and every dish submitted into the challenge is one I know would make a vulnerable child or young person feel special, valued and welcomed.

Before I announce the winner, here are each of those delicious entries in turn. Warning – this list is guaranteed to make you hungry!

First in was this tasty little number from Under The Blue Gum Tree, which looks far superior to its McDonald’s namesake: Homemade Fillet O’ Fish and “Chips”.  The fillet is served in lovingly prepared carrot and cumin bread rolls, with potato skins covered in paprika and cayenne pepper, and some salsa and soured cream on the side. Now, who could resist that?

Homemade Fillet O’ Fish and “Chips” from Under The Blue Gum Tree

Next we have French Madeleines from Crêpes Suzettes. These pretty little cakes look so tempting and perfect for goûter, the snack French kids have at around 4pm. I think my children must be a bit French as they are always starving when they come home from school too!

French Madeleines from Crepes Suzette

For Reluctant Housedad, what to cook for this challenge was a bit of a no-brainer. It had to be his Peanut Butter and Salted Caramel Chocolate Cheesecake. Doesn’t it look incredible? I love puddings that combine sweet and salty and absolutely anything that contains peanut butter, so this is going straight to the top of my must-bake list.

Peanut Butter and Salted Caramel Chocolate Cheesecake from Reluctant Housedad

My fabulous mother Cheryl suggested this next dish Hokkien Mee, which she remembers eating as a girl growing up on the Malaysian island of Penang. It’s a hot and spicy noodle dish, featuring both meat and seafood, common in many South East Asian dishes. It’s a little different to the Singapore version but, as my Mum would tell you, much more delicious!

Penang Hokkien Mee from Cheryl Leembruggen (photo via vkeon.com)

Karen from Lavender & Lovage offers up these ‘frugal but comforting’ Stuffed Tomatoes with Herbs and Oats, which I think look incredibly tasty and very satisfying. It’s a real family-favourite in Karen’s house; her daughter loved eating this when she was little, and still does now she is all grown up!

Stuffed Tomatoes with Herbs and Oats from Lavender & Lovage

My little sister Elly surprised me with her cooking skills with this next entry, her Nonya Chicken Curry from Malaysia. I just assumed she would submit a recipe for something sweet and sticky – she’s a great baker you see. But no, this is her curry dish that got a big thumbs up from her boyfriend’s dad. He’s from Malaysia himself and apparently not an easy man to impress!

Nonya Chicken Curry from Elly Rowe

Pasta and Pesto Sauce is our next entry which comes from A Trifle Rushed. Pesto is always a favourite in our house but I must admit it’s normally a meal-in-a-hurry using dried pasta and jarred sauce. Here Jude and her daughter lovingly make fresh pasta by hand and blend their own pesto in a pestle and mortar. I bet it tastes incredible; it certainly looks wonderful.

Pasta and Pesto Sauce from A Trifle Rushed

Louisa at Chez Foti now lives in the French Pyrenees and likes to cook classic French dishes whenever friends and family come to visit. This Boeuf en Daube is a particular favourite and I can see why; it looks so sumptuously satisfying! It’s one of those meals you can prepare in advance and leave to slow cook in the oven, so that your visitors arrive to the most glorious aromas emanating from the kitchen. Yum!

Boeuf en Daube from Chez Foti

When I received this next entry from Lavender & Lovage for Yorkshire Season Pudding with Herbs I had to try it straight away. We had it for brunch one Sunday morning, and it was perfect with our bacon, eggs and beans. I like the fact this is a traditional family recipe, and one that Karen’s grandmother used to make. I think it might just become a tradition for our family too.

Yorkshire Season Pudding with Herbs from Lavender & Lovage

Spinach and Bacon Macaroni Cheese from Sian at Fishfingers for Tea is next up. Macaroni cheese is the ultimate in satisfying comfort food and I do love this version, beefed up with tasty bacon and spinach and finished with slices of tomato and crunchy cheesy breadcrumbs on top. Another great dish for preparing in advance and popping in the oven just before your visitors arrive.

Spinach and Bacon Macaroni Cheese from Fishfingers for Tea

My Nana Barbara sent in two dishes for her entry: Courgette Bake followed by Vanilla Cream Terrine. She says the courgette bake works well both as a starter and as main course served with large hunks of crusty bread. My Nana is fantastic in the kitchen and as a kid I would love staying with her and Grandad as it always meant getting to eat lots of lovely cakes and pies.

Barbara’s Courgette Bake – perfect for anyone with a glut of courgettes on their hands

Chicken Basquaise is the delicious entry from Helene at French Foodie Baby. She warns that it might differ from traditional recipes but that’s what she likes so much about her mother’s cooking; she cooks from the gut. I love the way Helene relives her food memories through her blog and brings them into the present day as she cooks for her little boy Pablo.

Chicken Basquaise from French Foodie Baby

This Strawberries and Cream Birthday Cake comes from my step-mum Sue and is the cake she bakes every June to celebrate my twin sisters’ birthday. I’ve always been very jealous of them having a summer birthday when strawberries are in season! Now wouldn’t you like this for your birthday cake each year?

Strawberries and Cream Birthday Cake from Sue Hamer

The final entry is one of mine: Hainanese Chicken Rice. It’s a dish I loved to eat when I was a little girl on trips to Penang with my mum and little sister. I had no idea how to make it so I turned to members of my Chinese-Malaysian family for a helping hand, and my Aunty Lorene and Cousin Sisi did the honours by providing this recipe. How would I ever survive without Facebook?!

Hainanese Chicken Rice from Bangers & Mash

There you have it – a fine collection of family recipes if ever I saw one! But there can only be one winner in the Care to Cook challenge, and the unenviable task of selecting a winner was given to 15-year-old Josh, who lives with one of TACT’s foster carers in the South West of England.

Josh says it was a very difficult decision to make and he sat deliberating – and salivating! – over the list for quite some time and really struggled to choose just one winner. He really liked the look of both the Penang Hokkien Mee and the Strawberries and Cream Birthday Cake, but in the end it was the Peanut Butter and Salted Caramel Chocolate Cheesecake from the Reluctant Housedad that won his vote.

So a huge congratulations to Keith at the Reluctant Housedad for your fabulous entry, which Josh found he simply couldn’t resist! As winner of the Care to Cook family recipe challenge he will receive a copy of TACT’s Care to Cook recipe book, signed by the charity’s celebrity patron Lorraine Pascale.

Choosing one winner wasn’t easy but in the end our judge Josh couldn’t resist this Peanut Butter and Salted Caramel Chocolate Cheesecake from the Reluctant Housedad

And thank you to everyone who has taken the time to share their favourite family recipes, helping to raise awareness of this very worthwhile charity, which is working so hard to improve the lives of children and young people across the UK who haven’t had the best starts in life. More information of the work of TACT is available on their website.

Elly’s Nonya Chicken Curry for the Care to Cook Challenge

My little sis Elly with our Mum Cheryl (left) in Penang in the early 80s, and again with me (in the days when I was still bigger)

Our next entry for the Care to Cook Challenge comes from my little sister Elly. I say ‘little’ but must admit that Elly has towered over me for many years now, despite being five years my junior.

Elly has a very sweet tooth and I assumed when I asked if she’d submit a favourite recipe for this challenge, her contribution would certainly be a cake or pudding. But no, she’s gone and surprised me with this amazing looking Nonya Chicken Curry. My little sis is all grown up and is cooking very grown up food!

Nonya cuisine comes from the Malaysian island of Penang, where our Mum was born, and is now seen as one of the earliest examples of fusion food. Penang is a melting pot for different cultures and food from the Nonya kitchen is influenced by Chinese, Malay and Thai cooking. My sister Elly will tell you more…

I make this for my partner Kelvin and to this day he still says it’s the best chicken curry he’s ever had, which from a Malaysian is pretty high praise. And if we think perhaps he is a little biased, I also made it for his father (a lovely man but one of very few words) who told me, “It’s good.” I almost fell over – hehehe!

The method is pretty short so makes it look likes it’s going to be quick but if you really make it from scratch (ie grind and pound all the spices with a mortar and pestle), it’s quite a lot of work and you’ll end up with muscles. However, it is worth it and even just thinking of it is making my mouth water!

Here we go:

Nonya Chicken Curry

4-5 tbsp oil
1 star anise
2 cloves
1 cinnamon stick

Spice paste (ground)

7 dried chillies, soaked
200g (20) shallots
3 cloves garlic
20g belachan (shrimp paste), toasted
20g (2cm) turmeric
3 tbsp coriander seeds
1 tsp cumin
1 tsp fennel

1.5 kg meaty chicken pieces
300g potatoes, peeled and cut into wedges
400ml thin coconut milk
100ml thick coconut milk
salt and sugar

Heat oil over a medium low flame and saute star anise, cloves and cinnamon stick. Add in spice paste and stir-fry well. Add 2 to 3 tbsp thin coconut milk (if it is too dry) and fry over low heat until fragrant and oil separates.

Add chicken and fry for a minute. Add potatoes and pour in thin coconut milk. Simmer until chicken is tender and potatoes are cooked.

Lastly, add the thick coconut milk and season to taste. Continue to cook until gravy is slightly thick. Serve with boiled white rice or roti.

Elly with her gorgeous daughter Loella

Do you have a favourite family recipe you’d like to contribute to TACT’s Care to Cook Recipe Challenge? Share a link to a post on your own blog or email me your recipe to be featured here on Bangers & Mash. The winning recipe will receive a copy of TACT’s cookbook signed by the charity’s patron and celebrity cook Lorraine Pascale. The closing date is 12 August – more details are here.