Delicious reunion table to draw the family home


Photo: RAYMOND OOI/The Star

Growing up in her father’s kopitiam in Rantau, in the mid-1960s, capable little Clare proved herself worthy of being daddy’s little helper. She found her place helping him in the kitchen to prepare his famous “Mee Ah Hui”. The soup noodle dish was made with beef and prawns, to cater to the largely Malay community living in this small town in Negri Sembilan.

When she was 12, she was entrusted to do the marketing for the business, as well as the home. That meant meal planning and budgeting, tasks usually given to older family members – her secret strategy was to imitate how Dad did it.

The author of Seashore Publishing’s Reunion Recipes has a long tradition of getting meals ready – for the family, and also for the family business. And no other meals involve more preparation than the celebratory meals for festivals.

When she started working in Kuala Lumpur after her schooling years, Ng saved up all her holidays for the Lunar New Year so she could go home for a long stretch to do the festive cooking.

She stopped working in her early 30s to be a stay-home mum – and since then, has been cooking seven days a week to feed the family.

“I can’t remember the last time I went out for dinner,” says Ngan, laughing. “Of course I often pop into a coffee shop or buy something from the hawker stalls, but having a restaurant meal is really rare for me.”

Ngan believes that the best kind of food is the one that comes out of the home kitchen - made with love, and full of homey appeal.
Ngan believes that the best kind of food is the one that comes out of the home kitchen - made with love, and full of homey appeal.

People kept asking Ngan what to cook for their reunion dinners - leading to the idea for her very first cookbook.
People kept asking Ngan what to cook for their reunion dinners - leading to the idea for her very first cookbook.

The self-taught cook learnt from helping her father and sister, and local recipe journals published by Her World magazine and Berita Publishing. Now, she enjoys watching TV cooking shows.

Her dedication to the family paid off when, three decades later, her daughter’s friend in the publishing industry, impressed by her cooking skills, offered her a book deal.

As friends often asked her what to cook for the Chinese New Year reunion dinner, she came up with the idea for her first cookbook.

From years of feeding family and friends, she has nailed the formula for making happy meals: at least five dishes for a small crowd, eight for larger festive gatherings.

Start off with the obligatory dishes of a chicken or duck, pork, seafood, vegetable and soup. Double up in any of the categories, especially vegetables.

Whole chicken dishes symbolise prosperity and reunion, while duck represents fertility. Pork dishes, like the stewed pork knuckle, are considered lucky, as pork signifies strength, wealth and abundant blessings. Prawn dishes denote liveliness and happiness, and dried tofu, fulfilling wealth and happiness.

In the book, recipes are split into dishes for the adult table and the kids’ table. “Flavours that are milder, and textures that are smoother and softer, suit young palates better,” says Ngan.

The influence of local food makes its way into the book. There’s a section for fusion beef dishes, such as beef rendang with potato and stir-fried beef with kai lan – unsurprising, since Ngan was born in the Minang heartland, which is famous for rendang and beef dishes.

Cute tomato rabbits to provide colour and fun on the table.
Cute tomato rabbits to provide colour and fun on the table.

This little intrusion is interesting from the socio-gastronomic perspective: it’s commensality in action and one more piece of evidence that Malaysians are increasingly sharing a common festive table. Spicy asam fish, rendang, sambal, or a curry or two at the Chinese festive table hardly raises eyebrows these days.

Dishes with a Hainanese bent can also be found in Reunion Recipes, reflecting Ngan’s origins: stewed galangal duck, taro (yam) duck stew, fragrant boiled chicken, and stir-fried chicken gizzard with pineapple.

The charm of Reunion Recipes lies in its homey, accessible nature. As Ngan says – with the sweetest of smiles, swelling with home-y pride – “It’s nice to eat at home.”

Ngan shares five recipes, some from her book, for a memorable family meal.


Theres nothing better than a home-cooked feast for the reunion dinner table at Chinese New Year.
Theres nothing better than a home-cooked feast for the reunion dinner table at Chinese New Year.

FATT CHOY BRAISED PORK KNUCKLE

6 servings

1 whole pork knuckle

3 tbsp oil

2 star anise

seasoning (mix well)

2 cubes red fermented bean curd (nam yee), crushed

1 tbsp soybean paste (tau cheong)

2 garlic cloves, chopped

3 shallots, chopped

2 tbsp Shaoxing rice wine

5 cups water

1 tbsp sugar

1 tbsp thick soy sauce

1 tbsp light soy sauce

20g black sea moss (fatt choy), soaked and rinsed

200g bok choy

Cut the pork knuckle in half, but do not cut through, so that it can be butterflied (opened up).

Remove bones, keeping the skin intact – you can also ask the butcher to do this for you.

Pass the skin of the knuckle over an open flame to burn off any hair if necessary. Scrape the skin with a sharp knife, rinse under running water and pat dry.

Heat oil in a pot and stir-fry star anise until aromatic. Add seasoning and stir-fry lightly, until aromatic.

Place the knuckle skin side down in the oil, and cook for a minute or two.

Pour in wine and water. Bring to a boil, lower heat to medium low, and simmer, partially covered, for 2 hours. Turn the knuckle over every half hour, to prevent skin from burning.

Add sugar and soy sauces. Cook until meat is tender – topping up with water if necessary.

Then cook over medium high heat, uncovered, to reduce the braising liquid to a sauce consistency. Turn off heat and allow to cool. Refrigerate overnight.

To finish

Place knuckle, along with the braising liquid, in a steaming tray and scatter the black moss over.

Steam with the black moss for 20 minutes.

Meanwhile, blanch the bok choy and arrange around the side of a serving platter. Place knuckle in the centre and serve.


Superior Fragrant Fried Chicken.
Superior Fragrant Fried Chicken.

SUPERIOR FRAGRANT FRIED CHICKEN

6 servings

3 whole kampung or free-range chicken legs, deboned

1 tbsp oil

marinade

2 tbsp light soy sauce

2 tbsp Shaoxing rice wine

1 tsp freshly ground pepper

1 tsp salt

1 tsp sugar

Make a few shallow cuts on the meaty underside of the whole, deboned chicken leg. Coat well with the marinade and set aside in the fridge for at least 1 hour.

To cook

Heat up the oil in a non-stick frying pan over medium heat. Place chicken skin side down, and pan-fry over low heat until the skin turns golden brown.

Turn over and fry the other side until cooked. Remove from pan.

To serve

Chop the leg into pieces, and garnish as desired.


Fragrant prawns.
Fragrant prawns.

FRAGRANT PRAWNS

5 to 6 servings

1 kg large prawns

1 tsp freshly ground white pepper

1 tsp sea salt

1 red chilli, finely chopped

5 garlic cloves, finely chopped

seasoning

1 tbsp light soy sauce

1 tbsp Shaoxing rice wine

spring onions, sliced finely

Slit prawns down the back and devein. Trim off any sharp parts. Season with salt and pepper and set aside for 30 minutes in the fridge.

In a wok or saucepan, heat 4 to 5 tablespoons of oil over medium­-high heat. When hot, add the prawns and fry until the shells are crispy – the shells will turn slightly white. Remove prawns.

In the remaining oil, fry the chilli and garlic until aromatic and golden brown. Add pre-fried prawns and seasoning. Turn up the heat and toss well. Lastly, add the spring onions, toss and dish out.


Mixed vegetable stir-fry.
Mixed vegetable stir-fry.

MIXED VEGETABLE STIR-FRY

6 servings

200g cauliflower, cut into florets

100g broccoli, cut into florets

50g green peas

100g baby corn

5 garlic cloves, chopped

6 fresh shiitake mushrooms, halved

1/2 red bell pepper

1/2 yellow bell pepper

seasoning (mixed together)

1/2 tsp salt

1 tsp soy sauce

1 tsp pepper

1 tbsp oyster sauce

1 tsp abalone sauce

1 tsp Shaoxing rice wine

1 tbsp water

paste

1 tbsp cornflour

2 tbsp water

Bring a saucepan of water to boil and blanch the cauliflower, broccoli, green peas and baby corn for 5 minutes. Drain and rinse with cold water.

Heat 3 tablespoons oil in a wok. Add garlic and cook on low heat until aromatic.

Add in mushrooms, fry over high heat till fragrant.

Add the rest of the ingredients and seasoning and stir-fry until fragrant.

Add cornstarch paste, stir in well and bring to boil, then turn off the heat. Dish out onto serving plate.

Lotus root & peanut soup.


LOTUS ROOT & PEANUT SOUP

5 to 6 servings

400g pork ribs

500g lotus root, cleaned and sliced

150g peanuts

8 dried figs

10 dried red dates

10 cups water

seasoning

1 tbsp light soy sauce

1 tsp Shaoxing rice wine1 tsp white pepper

1 tsp salt

Soak peanuts in hot water for half an hour. Blanch pork ribs for 5 minutes.

Place all the ingredients in a pot, bring to boil for a few minutes, then lower heat and simmer for 90 minutes or until meat is tender.

Alternatively, pressure­-cook for 30 minutes. Add seasoning and adjust to taste before serving.

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