CNY seafood recipes from a passionate 82-year-old chef


He may now be 82, but Choy is still very passionate about Cantonese food. — ART CHEN/The Star

ALTHOUGH he potters about slowly now, 82-year-old Choy Sin Sang still has a keen sense of taste and appreciation for what constitutes good Cantonese food. Choy was the former head honcho at the former Equatorial Hotel (now EQ)’s defunct Golden Phoenix Chinese restaurant, which closed in 2012 when the hotel underwent a refurbishment exercise.

The restaurant opened in 1974 and Choy joined in 1977, staying until the end. This year, EQ has staged a Golden Phoenix revival in the guise of a pop-up restaurant located in the hotel which will be running until 15 February. The renaissance has also brought Choy back to the place where he spent decades running the show in the kitchen. His gravitas is such that other chefs in the hotel all refer to him as the “sifu” (master).

Interestingly, Choy who grew up in Kampar, Perak, started working in restaurant kitchens when he was just 16.

“My first job was at a Chinese restaurant in Pudu, Kuala Lumpur. I had a very lowly position there so I was tasked with waking up at 1.30am to prepare the charcoal fire to cook the food at the restaurant,” he recalls, his eyes twinkling at the memory.

When he grew older, Choy moved to another hotel, where he started out as an assistant in the kitchen, tasked with chopping and cutting ingredients. It was also at this hotel that he met and learnt from one of Hong Kong’s most revered master chefs – Yeung Koon-yat, better known as Ah Yat, the founder of the three-Michelin starred Forum Restaurant.

It was from Ah Yat that Choy learnt to make what would become some of his signature dishes. Most are fairly simple and fuss-free, and hark back to old-school cooking and the halcyon days of Cantonese cuisine.

Choy learnt to make Cantonese food from celebrated Hong Kong chef Ah Yat, who runs a three-Michelin starred restaurant. — ART CHEN/The StarChoy learnt to make Cantonese food from celebrated Hong Kong chef Ah Yat, who runs a three-Michelin starred restaurant. — ART CHEN/The Star

Choy’s king prawn with yam paste and chestnut for example is a simple, uncomplicated dish that focuses on premium ingredients like prawns and chestnut, with a yam paste sauce tossed in for good measure. The yam paste sounds unusual but actually makes for a very interesting – and enticing – addition to the dish. The auspicious quality of the dish is of course enhanced by the prawns, which signal happiness and endless laughter. Chestnuts also have good connotations and typically refer to prosperity for the coming year.

To nail the dish, Choy says the prawns have to be flash fried to retain a bouncy succulence.

Another simple seafood dish for the CNY table is Choy’s giant grouper fillet with crab meat and sweet corn sauce, which features incredibly fresh fish juxtaposed against a sauce that is very, very light and enhanced with the sweetness of crab meat and corn.

Although fish is typically served whole during CNY, Choy’s fillets make for an easy eat for elderly family members as well as the young at the table. Fish also signifies a surplus of wealth and is always a welcome addition to the CNY festive meal.

Another dish that Choy learnt to make from the famed Ah Yat (who is often known as the ‘abalone king’ because of his expertise with the dried mollusc) is the dish of sautéed abalone with crab roe and crab meat sauce. Abalone is a must-have during CNY as it is believed to bring good fortune and abundance for the rest of the year.

Choy says that back in the day, it was much harder to get the now readily available tinned abalone. Often, chefs used to get the dried version and had to work hard to extract flavour into the premium ingredient.

“Back in the day, I used to boil the abalone with chicken carcass and pork bones and then leave it to simmer for 18 hours,” he says, chuckling.

Ultimately though, Choy says cooking flavoursome CNY dishes is all about using one’s most prized culinary arsenal: the sense of taste.

“You have to taste and use your intuition and instincts when cooking. That is the only way to cook a dish well,” he says, smiling widely.

KING PRAWNS WITH CHESTNUTS AND YAM PASTE

one purple yam, skin removed

300g king prawns, shells removed and de-veined

salt to taste

½ tsp potato starch

1 tsp minced ginger

1 tsp minced shallot

50ml chicken stock

½ tsp chicken stock powder

pepper powder, to taste

80g chestnuts

20g cherry tomatoes, for garnishing

coriander leaves, for garnishing

Cut the yam into slices and steam for 20 minutes until soft. Blend to a paste.

Marinate the prawns with salt and potato starch. Set aside for 30 minutes.

Blanch the prawns quickly. Then heat up oil in a wok and sauté prawns for a few minutes. Set aside.

In the same wok, saute ginger and shallots till fragrant. Add chicken stock, chicken powder, pepper powder, yam paste and chestnuts. Bring to a boil, then add prawns and stir for a bit.

Serve immediately, garnished with cherry tomatoes and coriander leaves.

GIANT GROUPER FILLET WITH CRAB MEAT AND SWEET CORN SAUCE

1 tsp minced shallot

½ tsp minced ginger

300g giant grouper, cut into 6 to 8 fillets

20g mustard greens, blanched

½ tsp chicken stock powder

salt to taste

100ml chicken broth

50g crab meat

20g sweet corn kernels

30g egg white

a handful of coriander leaves, for garnish

Heat a wok or large pan over high heat. Add vegetable oil. When the oil is hot, add the shallots and ginger. Stir-fry for a few seconds.

Add the grouper fillet, mustard greens, chicken stock powder and salt. Stir-fry for 2 minutes. Add the chicken broth. Bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to low and simmer for 3-5 minutes, or until the grouper fillet is cooked through.

Season accordingly with more chicken stock powder, salt and white pepper to taste. Simmer for 1 minute.

Remove the grouper fillet and mustard greens and arrange on a plate.

In the wok, thicken the remaining the sauce with potato starch and some water and add sweet corn kernels and crab meat. Top up with additional chicken broth, egg white, salt and white pepper and pour onto the grouper. Garnish with coriander leaves.

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