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Tsinoy chefs celebrate Chinese New Year with auspicious food

By Dolly Dy-Zulueta Published Feb 01, 2022 6:24 pm

While there may be no fireworks lighting up the sky today or dragon and lion dances adding to the pomp and gaiety, no thanks to the pandemic, the quiet Chinese New Year (CNY) celebrations at home will go on as scheduled.

Families will once again gather and share an auspicious meal together. While ham, lechon and chicken galantina are the usual stars of the noche buena and media noche table when it comes to Western Christmas and New Year celebrations, during Chinese New Year, it is fish, a prosperity cake called huat keh, and nian gao (better known as tikoy), among others, that bind” the celebration and are believed to bring abundance and good fortune in the coming year.

Here, some Tsinoy chefs share their own Chinese New Year food traditions, as they wish for a definitely better year for all of us.

Penk Ching, owner, The Pastry Bin

“Steamed fish is a must whenever we celebrate Chinese New Year. The pronunciation of fish is like a homonym of the word for prosperity or surplus, so it is associated with a Chinese saying, which means surplus all year-round. That's why we serve fish. We always go for a good-sized lapu-lapu for our steamed fish,” explains chef Penk Ching.

She has been touted as the “Queen of Wedding Cakes,” as her creative designs and the quality of her work have become the standard for wedding cakes in the Philippines, particularly in Metro Manila.

Chef Penk’s family also does the Yu Sheng Prosperity Toss as part of their Chinese New Year tradition. The yu sheng (or yee sang) is a raw fish salad, a platter of salmon slices accompanied by other “lucky” ingredients such as shredded carrots, crushed peanuts and sesame oil, placed side by side on a platter.

Yu sheng (or yee sang) is a raw fish salad

Everyone gathers around the table with chopsticks and, together, mixes the salad and tosses the ingredients high up. The higher, the better; the messier, the better. Then everyone partakes of the salad.

“We also have huat keh (a steamed round cake) on the table. We used to make our own for Chinese New Year, until we became busy with our own orders and decided to just buy the huat ke,” adds chef Penk.

Johnlu Koa, founder and CEO, The French Baker

There are a number of dishes that The French Baker founder and president Johnlu Koa considers lucky for the family to partake of together during Chinese New Year. And so, the Koa family makes sure they are on the table on this special occasion.

“We have steamed fish for prosperity; abalone and mushroom, because they are rich and decadent; dumplings and mini spring rolls because they look like gold ingots that symbolize wealth; pancit canton-style noodles with quail eggs for long life; fried tikoy with beaten eggs to make the family stick together; and mini glutinous rice balls cooked in ginger-sugar soup,” he explains.

Also served during Chinese New Year are Peking Duck 2 Ways or 8-Treasure Stuffed Chicken “because the dishes suggest prosperity.”

Huat keh symbolizes personal growth and business expansion.

“We also serve Buddha Jumped Over the Wall soup because it contains expensive ingredients like abalone and black seaweeds, which take hours to cook, and is the ultimate soup to celebrate one’s success in the past year carrying over to the new year,” he explains.

For dessert, there’s always hot-sweet taro soup symbolizing family unity “because uncooked taro looks like family members huddled together in unity; huat keh symbolizing personal growth and business expansion; and fresh fruits or almond fruit cocktail, which look like precious jewels and stones.”

Ju.D Lao a.k.a. ‘Fruitcake Queen’ and owner, Ju.D’s Pastries and Confectionery

Chinese New Year takes place during winter in China. So, what the Chinese have is usually hot pot, which has a hot soup base, where they add vegetables and dumplings like gyoza.

This is the CNY tradition that “Fruitcake Queen” Ju.D Lao has picked up and annually observes with her family.

Miso soup-based hot pot

“Since I’m vegetarian, I use miso for my soup base, to which I add leeks, white onions, tomatoes, pechay Baguio, carrots, golden mushrooms, enoki mushrooms, shiitake mushrooms, dumplings and gyoza. We have sate sauce on the side in case anyone wants to have some sate flavor in the soup. Sometimes, we also have raw eggs in our bowl to ‘cool down’ the hot soup, sukiyaki-style,” says Ju.D, who has been baking special fruitcakes for 46 years now.

Her fruitcakes, perfected for the Filipino palate, have become the standard for fruitcakes in the country.

Bruce Lim, chef and host of Tablescapes food and travel show

“In my family, we usually eat a whole steamed fish—and the fish has to be red. So we use the red señorita lapu-lapu which, in English, is called coral trout. With its bright red color and delicate white flesh, it’s perfect for our family,” says celebrity chef Bruce Lim, a restaurateur and cookbook author who also hosts food and travel shows, including Tablescapes with Angel Aquino.

Whole steamed fish for prosperity

He adds: “Since we grew up in San Francisco, we cook the fish in simple Cantonese style, steamed with soy and ginger.”

Joanne Limoanco-Gendrano, executive chef, Unilever Food Solutions-Middle East, Pakistan and Sri Lanka

“During CNY, my mom would usually prepare a braised pork leg dish when she was still alive. We continued that tradition and replicated that dish when my husband and I moved to Dubai,” says chef Joanne Limoanco-Gendrano, who has been living in Dubai for the past three years with her husband Gerhard Gendrano, also a chef.

It is chef Gerhard who actually cooks the dish every year since they have been in Dubai.

Braised pork mantou

“According to my mom, pork is auspicious because it represents prosperity and progress,” she adds. She substitutes canned pork leg whenever fresh pork leg is not available.

Decker Gokioco, chef-restaurateur, White Flower Tea House

“When the family gathers together for the CNY celebration, we usually have a roasting combination platter composed of charsiu, soy chicken, white chicken, roast duck and jellyfish,” shares chef Decker Gokioco, who was executive chef of a hotel in Bonifacio Global City before he decided to venture into his own food business along with key partners.

“We also have suahe, salt and pepper pork, yang chow fried rice, and cha misua, of course, tikoy and some fresh fruits will always be on the table for everyone to enjoy,”

He put together White Flower Tea House for The Grid Food Market and developed the entire menu based not just on his culinary experience, but also on his personal circumstances as a Tsinoy.

Cha misua symbolizes longevity.

Of all these celebration dishes, chef Decker’s favorite is the cha misua, a dry noodle dish cooked with misua.

“Cha misua is a must. It’s my all-time favorite. I can eat it all day. Besides being my favorite, it is also considered lucky because noodles symbolize longevity,” he says.

Sharwin Tee, cookbook author, food show host and recipe developer

Raddish cake

“Whenever the family gathers for Lunar New Year, I do cook a lot of Chinese and Filipino food. I guess the staple would have to be radish cake, also known as lo bak go, which I make from scratch. I don’t think it’s particularly lucky, but even with the distinct and unique tastes of the members of my family, this is a dish they all love, so it’s a nice start for the year to have a dish that everyone can agree on and enjoy,” he shares.

Nathaniel Uy a.k.a. @thehungrychef

“Growing up in a Chinese family, we usually had cha misua or any other type of noodle dish. We also had steamed fish, huat keh and tikoy on the table,” he shares.

A cook by profession, a foodie at heart, and always hungry by choice, Nathaniel graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Organizational Communication at De La Salle-University Manila in 2008. His love for food led him to enrol in the International School of Culinary Arts and Hospitality Management (ISCAHM). In 2013, he completed a Restaurant Entrepreneurship course under the same institution.

Cha misua is a must for any celebration. Noodles signify long life, and each of the toppings has its own auspicious meaning.

“This dish is very labor-intensive, so many prefer to just buy instead of preparing it at home. In our house, this is everyone’s much-awaited dish, since I seldom cook cha misua and Chinese New Year is one occasion when I do,” he adds.

Chinese-style steamed pampano with koji berries

Steamed fish is also on the menu.

"My version has goji berries on top to make it more appealing and auspicious because goji berries are red. The berries also add a different kind of sweetness to the soy broth,” he adds.

Sweet potato huat keh

As for the huat keh, or prosperity cake, it is made using yeast and baking powder to make sure that the cake puffs up to look like a blooming flower. More than tikoy, the huat keh is a more sought-after CNY dish. Many will buy the biggest and puffiest huat keh they can find to celebrate the special occasion with.

Mud crab in spicy coconut cream sauce

Besides being a popular “Instablogger” with 19,400 followers, chef Nathaniel also operates a home-based commissary, which sells creative tikoy, mooncakes, food trays, processed meats and other food products depending on the request of his clients.

Jonas Ng, chef-owner, James and Daughters

“Chinese New Year, for me, means mom's whole steamed fish, hokkien mee, and tikoy!” chef Jonas Ng says, when asked what his family’s Chinese New Year staples are.

Why whole fish?

“When one eats fish, there is always some leftover. This symbolically means that we will end the year with some abundance left over, and we will start the year with something from last year. In short, we won't run out of our needs. There is always something to sustain us,” explains chef Jonas, who used to host a cooking show titled Chef Next Door on Lifestyle Network.

Hokkien mee noodle dish

And the hokkien mee?

“This noodle dish is our family's way of celebrating and promoting long life. I'm sure everyone has his favorite noodle dish. But our mom's hokkien mee is like the best version of pancit ever. That's why we serve it in the restaurant, James and Daughters, every day,” he says.

And for the tikoy?

The stickiness of the tikoy represents the bond between members of the family.

Patrick Go, Gochugang at The Grid Food Market

Whole roasted threadfin fish by chef Patrick Go

“One staple dish that we always have during Chinese New Year is whole fish. We often either steam, fry or braise it. My personal favorite is the whole roasted threadfin fish with lemongrass and holy basil,” says chef Patrick Go, the talented young chef behind Gochugang at The Grid Food Market.

Francis Lim, chef and F&B director, NAV Modern Thai and Tipple & Slaw

“For my family, one of the dishes that we usually have is roasted duck,” says chef Francis Lim.

“Here’s the roasted duck I made for the Chinese New Year and then served with duck jus and scallion sauce,” he adds. “But more than just having the food bring luck to the family, I consider it lucky that the family is always complete during special occasions such as Chinese New Year.”

Roast duck by chef Francis Lim