Happy Chinese New Year 2014 + some January food discoveries

I contemplated whether or not to write about Lunar New Year this year because I just wasn’t in the mood for it. This is my first Lunar New Year without my grandma and her absence could not be more magnified at this moment. Back when she was still around, CNY was one of the busiest days in the house. She was meticulous. Every dish had to be carefully and perfectly arranged. All the cups and saucers had to match with the chopsticks. The food had to be piping hot when it was laid before the Chinese deities… It’s too strange not to feel her bustling presence anymore when it used to be displayed, at full force, around this occasion. 

But here we are, and you’re probably wondering why I decided to post anyway. See I was browsing through an old album the other night, looking through photos of my family’s last trip abroad with grandma back in 2007. We were in Taiwan and I was smiling as I went through each photo, then oddly enough I come to this picture of tea eggs:

I remember we were walking around in one of the provinces in Taiwan and I had a whiff of this most amazing smell. I wondered what it was aloud and my grandma pointed to it and said in Hokkien, ‘Tea eggs’. We bought a few pieces and this was the first time I discovered how amazing tea eggs were. Fell in love with them actually. That’s when the idea came to me to write about tea eggs. Tea eggs are very Chinese New Year appropriate and the least I could do was use it to honour this most important occasion as my grandma used to.
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Chinese New Year cookies and things

Every year in our house, we follow the Hokkien way of celebrating Chinese New Year. My grandmother, or Ah-ma as we call her, was born and raised in Fujian, China so she is incredibly traditional, and even after 50 years of living abroad, all she knows is how to speak Hokkien. My grandmother is 92 years old now and although she doesn’t look it, she’s become rather forgetful of dates, so my Mother has taken over with the Chinese New Year preparations.

It’s not really about being Buddhist as much as it is about being Chinese that we still continue celebrating the Lunar New Year in the way that we saw Ah-ma do it. We have the burning of gold paper, and prayers using incense. There is the never-absent offerings of a feast and wine at the altar. But my favourite is this giant colourful bowl of grain and things which I like to call ‘The Melting Pot of Prosperity‘.

The Chinese are big on symbolism, and in every province in China, they have their own unique symbols for every Chinese occasion. Here’s the one I grew up with, which I assume originated from Fujian. The Chinese culture is so rich it’s kind of hard to keep track of these things.

According to my Ah-ma, we set up these bowls for several days all over the house to help attract good feng shui for the year. The grain stands for year-round abundance in food, and the green onions stand for growth in business or in the home (as with the coins stuck on the grains, which is like money growing out of the ground). The cut-out figures with the rose plus the yam tied with the red ribbon represent family unity and a blooming relationship. The orange, the bread, and the colourful decorative ornament stand for objects that invite luck and opportunities into one’s life. The meanings may vary for each household, but one thing is for sure: all the elements in this bowl represent aspects in life the Chinese consider as most important, such as family, wealth, luck, and prosperity.

It’s kind of overwhelming sometimes how seemingly mundane objects can have so much meaning. Something easier for me to understand though is the food that usually comes connected with the Lunar New Year: glutinous rice cakes locally known as tikoy, pineapple tarts (and actual pineapples), huat ke, and the list goes on and on. I made these super yummy pineapple tarts last year, and this year I had a craving for peanut cookies.
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Easier Chocolate Babkas to make in a pinch

Ever since I heard about Chocolate Babkas, they immediately wrote themselves into my to-bake list. I had no idea what a Babka was except that it involved chocolate. Surely anything with chocolate would be fantastic right? Later on I learn that it is actually a loaf of yeast bread with chocolate inside!

The reason why I am not all that familiar with babkas is because, other than the fact that I’m fairly new to the foodie world, we don’t really have much of a designated food item for the Lenten Season. I guess you can call my efforts at making these Easter pastries an attempt to start some sort of tradition. Well people here at home are kind of picky, so it would have to be something marvelously tasty, this to-be tradition of ours.

Personally I would love for it to involve dark chocolate, which is why I knew I had to make babka the moment I saw it. And knowing me, I not only had to make it, I had to make the one.

For all my excitement, the days got pretty busy around here and so I found myself with very little time to hatch my plan of baking several different versions of this Easter classic. I wanted to find a favourite, as is my usual practice. Alas, not this year. I decided simple was the way to go this time.
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Ye odd hot cross buns

Lenten Season comes rather early this year. We don’t really make anything in particular for Lent, I just thought these were a good place to start. There is just something about Hot Cross Buns that are so fitting for the occasion. Aside from the cross on top of course, they look so unassuming. They remind me of the Christian teachings about learning how to appreciate simplicity in our lives, rather than the material, more ornamental things.

It is said that Hot Cross Buns baked on a Good Friday never became moldy, and so keeping one bun until next year’s batch for the Lenten Season would supposedly bring good luck. And while I have not, and most likely will never, attempt to find out if this is true, I did attempt to bake my own Hot Cross Buns at home.
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