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 children 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 kids could handle it. Must be their Chinese blood I suppose…
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
1 tbsp dark soy sauce
salt and pepper
4 slices ginger
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
½ cinnamon stick
8 skinless chicken thighs
250g potatoes, peeled and cut into wedges
400ml coconut milk
100ml coconut cream
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!