Traditional Chinese meals mixed with Nyonya favourites for Chinese New Year

  • Food News
  • Friday, 11 Jan 2019

Acar - YAP CHEE HONG/The Star

In many ways, home cook May Goh owes her phenomenal cooking skills to her boarding school in Melaka. Having been sent there at the tender age of six, Goh found that even the littlest kids weren’t spared the task of cooking meals for up to 100 of their peers.

“We were trained from very young to be in the kitchen. Even if you were seven or eight years old, you had to start helping by peeling shallots and garlic,” says Goh, a retired school principal.

Most of Goh’s Chinese New Year celebrations were spent with her school mates at boarding school but when she was in her early teens, Goh’s mother got a house in Melaka and she began spending Chinese New Year at home with her family. In her new neighbourhood, she formed a strong friendship with her Nyonya neighbours. This bond deepened into a tangible culinary influence that has since permeated Goh’s festive cooking.

“My neighbours and I were good friends, so I used to go around to help them prepare food for Chinese New Year. Whatever they served, we also served at our home because we helped with the cooking and then took some food over for our visitors,” she says.

May Goh
Goh is a talented home cook who learnt how to cook at the tender age of six. Every Chinese New Year, her home is filled with friends who come to eat her delicious food.

Over 40 years later, Goh still continues the tradition of infusing her Chinese New Year meals with Nyonya staples like jiu hu char and acar. Although her children and grandchildren cannot always make it for Chinese New Year (most of them live overseas), Goh typically cooks a big lunch or dinner for her many friends.

“When my mother-in-law was in KL, we always spent CNY with her. When she moved to Sungai Petani, we went up a few times but the traffic jam was horrendous, so we decided to break with tradition.

“So for me, since I don’t do my part in going home for Chinese New Year, I also don’t impose on my children to come home. So over the years, I have issued CNY invitations to my friends to come over,” she says.

So come Chinese New Year, Goh will be hard at work cooking up a storm for her friends, whipping up Nyonya food like jiu hu char, which is essentially a rich filling made up of ingredients like prawns and jicama dolloped on lettuce leaves and accentuated by Goh’s homemade sambal belacan.

Then there is her tangy, sumptuous vegetable acar, a labour-intensive pickle that Goh makes from scratch using a homemade chilli paste. Although there is a lot of work involved in putting together these meals, Goh says they can also be made in advance, as people are typically busy during the festival period.

“Chinese New Year is normally always a busy time, so you need to prepare food that saves you a lot of time on the actual day. Jiu hu char and acar can be prepared beforehand and then just assembled on the day,” she says.

Goh’s children and grandchildren do not often come back for CNY, but she loves cooking for them when they are home. From left: grandson Miguel Fok, daughter Jeanette Goh, husband Peter Goh, Goh, grandsons Jayden Fok and Justin Fok.

With the passage of time, Goh has inevitably accumulated more recipes and some have become newer favourites on her Chinese New Year table. Like poon choi, a one-pot meal filled with opulent offerings like abalone, clams and prawns, which Goh says is the perfect alternative to a conventional steamboat.

“When I got married, my mother-in-law loved to do steamboat. Every year, she had steamboat, so I also picked up their tradition and had steamboat in my place. But lately I have thought poon choi is good, because it’s quite a tasty one-pot dish and has very auspicious ingredients inside. It’s a very complete Chinese New Year dish,” she says.

Ultimately though, Goh’s boarding school days continue to have a lingering effect on her Chinese New Year meals as she finds that it is pointless cooking unless she is cooking for a crowd (no doubt a byproduct of having cooked for 100 people from the age of six!).

“When you cook, you have to cook in bulk – that’s why for Chinese New Year, I like having friends over to enjoy what I’ve cooked because I think eating brings people together,” she says.


Jiu Hu Char

Serves 8 to 10

For the sambal belacan

2 small pieces belacan (4cm each)

5 red chillies

5 red or green cili padi

4 calamansi limes, juiced

sugar and soya sauce to taste

For the filling

300g finely sliced pork pieces/minced pork

1 tbsp oyster sauce

1 tbsp light soya sauce

1 tbsp cornflour

pepper to taste

2 tbsp oil

1 to 2 tbsp chopped garlic

1 to 2 tbsp chopped shallots

20g dried squid, washed, soaked, drained and sliced

30g dried mushroom, washed, soaked and drained and sliced

1 jicama (bangkuang), approximately 1kg, julienned finely

1 carrot, grated finely

200g to 300g small prawns

water, to loosen mixture

1 tbsp dark soya sauce

salt or chicken seasoning to taste

8 to 10 Romaine lettuce leaves, for serving

To make sambal belacan

Dry-toast the belacan in a pan until fragrant. Pound or blend the belacan and chillies. Add calamansi juice, sugar and soya sauce to taste. Set aside once mixture resembles a chunky paste.

To make filling

Marinate the pork with with oyster sauce, light soya sauce, cornflour and pepper. Set aside.

In a large pan, heat oil and add chopped garlic and shallots. Fry till aromatic. Add dried squid and mushrooms. Stir-fry, then add pork and fry till semi-cooked. Add jicama, carrot and prawns and stir to combine. Add water, dark soya sauce, and seasonings to taste. Stir till the colour is even.

Leave to simmer covered, occasionally tossing the ingredients till cooked and almost dry. Remove from the heat and leave to cool slightly.

Spoon filling onto Romaine lettuce leaves and serve with homemade sambal belacan.



Serves 15 to 20

For the basic chilli paste

200g dried chillies

5cm galangal

5cm turmeric

3 to 4 pieces small pieces belacan (4cm each)

3 cups shallots

3 to 4 stalks lemongrass, chopped (white part only)

2 cups oil, for frying

2 tbsp sugar

For cooking together

1 tbsp chopped lemongrass

1 tbsp chopped turmeric

1 tbsp chopped candlenuts

1 tbsp chopped galangal

oil, for frying

1 1/2 cups to 2 cups basic chilli paste (depending on how spicy you want it)

60 calamansi limes, juiced (more, if needed)

200g assam jawa, diluted with 1 cup water to make tamarind juice

2 tbsp vinegar for cooking

sugar to taste

1 pineapple, julienned

For the vegetables

2 carrots, julienned

2 cucumbers, julienned

a little oil and salt

2 tbsp vinegar, for blanching the vegetables

6 long beans, julienned

1 small cabbage, cut into small square pieces

4 red chillies, de-seeded and julienned

For garnishing

3 cups ground peanuts

1 piece kacang tumbuk, crumbled

6 tbsp sesame seeds

To make the chilli paste

Soak the dried chillies in hot water until softened. Blend all the ingredients (except oil and sugar) together to form a paste.In a large pot, heat oil and fry the blended mixture. Add sugar to caramelise the chilli paste. Keep frying until the chilli paste is dark red or the oil separates from the chilli paste. Leave to cool and set aside.

To make the acar

Blend lemongrass, turmeric, candlenuts and galangal together till smooth.

Heat oil and fry the basic chilli paste and lemongrass, turmeric, candlenuts and galangal paste together. Pour in calamansi juice, tamarind juice, vinegar and sugar to taste. When the mixture reaches a simmer, add the pineapple, give it a quick stir, and switch off the flame. Leave chilli mixture in a mixing bowl to cool.

Salt carrots and cucumbers with 1 tablespoon salt each, then wash and squeeze out remaining liquid. Dry vegetables in the sun for 30 minutes or use a paper towel to dry thoroughly.

In a large pot, add water, oil, salt and vinegar and bring water to a boil. When boiling, blanch long beans, cabbage and red chillies separately. Leave to cool and wipe dry with paper towels.

To assemble

In a large bowl, combine all the dry vegetables and add the chilli mixture. Mix well until absorbed. Add ground peanuts, kacang tumbuk and sesame seeds and stir to evenly distribute. Serve immediately or store in the freezer and thaw as needed.


Serves 8 to 10

1 chicken breast

250g radish

425g canned abalone, reserve water in can

400g canned baby clams, reserve water in can

1 to 2 tbsp cornflour to thicken broth

12 large prawns

10 black mushrooms, soaked3 pieces fish maw, soaked and cut

3 pieces sea cucumber

2 tbsp oyster sauce

2 tbsp light soya sauce

2 tbsp dark soya sauce

6 Chinese cabbage leaves

80g lotus seeds

80g gingko nuts

6 beancurd sheets, cooked

1 yam, sliced and deep-fried

425g canned button mushrooms

1 whole broccoli head, blanched and cut into florets

2 carrots, blanched and sliced

1/4 roast chicken (store-bought)

250g roasted pork belly (store-bought)

1/4 poached chicken (store-bought)

salt to taste

Boil chicken breast and radish with some water. Once mixture has boiled, remove chicken breast from the broth and add liquid from the canned abalone and baby clams. Stir to combine and thicken the broth lightly with cornflour. Use this broth to poach the large prawns. Remove prawns once cooked and set broth aside.

Braise the black mushroom, fish maw and sea cucumber separately with oyster sauce, light soya sauce and dark soya sauce.

Prepare a large serving pot (like a steamboat pot) and start layering ingredients. For the first layer, arrange the Chinese cabbage leaves and radish and ladle some broth over that. For the second layer, add lotus seeds, gingko nuts, beancurd sheets and fried yam and ladle more broth. For the third layer, add the rest of the ingredients, arranging neatly. Add the final layer of broth and leave to simmer on the stove until the broth reaches a boil. Serve hot.


Serves 8 to 10

For marinating

1 tbsp oyster sauce

1/2 tbsp light soya sauce

1/2 tbsp sesame oil

pepper to taste

500g minced meat (pork or chicken)

For cooking

1 yam, about 1 kg, cut into pieces

chicken seasoning to taste

salt and pepper to taste

500g to 700g tapioca flour

oil, for frying

50g dried shrimp

20g cuttlefish, sliced

1 tbsp chopped garlic

1 tbsp chopped shallot

50g black fungus (bokji)

50g button mushrooms, sliced

chicken seasoning to taste

pepper to taste

a few sprigs scallions

a few sprigs coriander leaves

2 red chillies, sliced, for garnishing

Marinate meat with all the other marination ingredients and set aside.

Steam yam for 20 minutes or until soft, adding a little chicken seasoning to enhance flavour. Reserve some water from the steaming.

Place cooked yam, (together with the added water for steaming) into a mixing bowl and mash the yam, leaving some chunks so that the texture of the abacus will not be starchy.

Add salt and pepper. Gradually fold in the tapioca flour until the mixture becomes smooth and non-sticky. Knead the mixture, cut into small, equal portions and roll each portion into smooth round balls. Grip with two fingers and make an indent.

In a pot of boiling water, boil the yam balls. When the balls rise to the surface, remove and place in a basin of tap water. This is to ensure they do not stick together. Remove from the water when the abacus is cool.

Heat some oil in a deep frying pan, fry dried shrimps and cuttlefish separately until fragrant and cooked. Set aside.

Fry the chopped garlic and shallots until golden brown. Add the black fungus and sliced mushrooms, and fry for awhile. Then add the marinated minced meat and stir to combine evenly. Add some water and leave to simmer till cooked. Finally, add in the abacus and stir-fry until combined.

Garnish with scallions, coriander leaves and chillies and serve hot.

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