Sunday, January 29, 2012
My wife and I were equally surprised when we saw a sea cucumber on sale sign at the local Chinese fishmonger’s shop window, while we were shopping for the Chinese New Year’s celebration. We entered the shop for a closer look and found a hand written price tag of $19.99 a kilo floating among the rehydrated and slimy looking slugs. I thought it was a bit pricy but many other shoppers thought otherwise and the price definitely did not deter a mob of eager customers trying to buy them. I had mixed feelings about preparing this traditional dish for my family to celebrate the Chinese Lunar New Year. My main concern was not the displayed price of the sea cucumber but rather the fact that it was derived from the overexploitation of sea cucumber stocks in many parts of the world. I can still remember how plentiful and easily available sea cucumber was when I was in Papua New Guinea. Fishing for sea cucumber in Papua New Guinea was mainly carried out by free diving from canoes or dugouts crewed by 2-3 fishermen or by hand collection along reefs at low tide. Once collected, the animal was gutted.They are dried for preservation purposes and had to be rehydrated by boiling and soaking in water for several days. They are mainly used as an ingredient in Chinese cuisine soups or stews and renowned for its slippery, glutinous texture.
Should I continue to serve this traditional dish or send it to the sin bin, together with the infamous shark fin and be relegated to the history books?
I wonder how long before the sea cucumbers come under the same attack from conservation groups as there are growing international efforts to ban the shark fin soup; a traditional but increasingly controversial Chinese dish from the table for good. It is reported in the papers that Hong Kong-based Peninsula and Shangri-La hotel groups have taken shark fin soup off their menus. In Singapore this month, its largest supermarket chain, NTUC FairPrice, will cease sales of shark fin products in March. Cold Storage, another chain with several outlets in Singapore, banned it from its stores there last year.
Did I buy the sea cucumber? Yes I did, but for the last time as I have relegated this recipe to the history book.
Steamed Sea Cucumber with Meatballs Recipe
1 large sea cucumber
3 slices ginger
1 stalk spring onion
200 g oyster mushroom sliced
1 tbsp rice wine or dry sherry
2 cup water
Minced Pork 350g
1 tsp. Sesame oil
1 Tbsp soya sauce
2 tbsp cornstarch
3 tbsp dried sole fish, toasted over low heat until fragrant and grind to powder. If unavailable, use bonito stock powder.
1 tsp Salt
¼ tsp Pepper
Heat wok and add 1 tbsp oil, stir fry ginger and spring onion until fragrant. Add water and wine and put in sea cucumber and cook for 5 minutes over medium heat. Drain sea cucumber and set aside to cool. In the meantime, mix minced pork with grounded sole fish or bonito stock powder, cornstarch, egg, sesame oil, salt and pepper to form a paste. Stuff the meat paste inside the sea cucumber and secure the filling with a piece of string. Make remaining meat paste into meat balls. Place the sea cucumber, meat balls and sliced oyster mushroom with a cup of water and soya sauce and sesame oil in a plate and steamed for 20 minute and until the meat balls are cooked. Carefully remove the steamed and meatballs onto a deep serving plate. Pour the liquid from the steamed sea cucumber into a sauce pan and bring to boil. Add 1 tbsp cornflour to thicken over a low heat to make a sauce. Pour sauce over the steamed sea cucumber and meatballs and serve.
Monday, January 23, 2012
Today marks the beginning of the Chinese lunar New Year, my family and I would like to send our best wishes to all friends and relatives and especially to our grand nephew Matteo in Switzerland, who is the newest addition of our tribe.
Chinese New Year which is better known as Chun Jie (spring festival) in China remains steep in tradition and is the most important festival on the Chinese calendar. And with good reason. Chinese New Year like spring season which symbolises the beginning of the year, and offers another fresh start in one’s life. In the same way that spring ushers a new season of growth and vitality in Mother Nature’s world, it heralds fresh hopes for happiness and prosperity among us.
While many modern Singaporeans, Chinese New Year are just another public holiday but with the hassle of organising family reunion dinners, visits to friends and relatives, exchange of gifts and ang pows (lucky monies) to the elders, young and unmarried members of the family. Personally, I would like to think Chinese New Year celebration as a time for reaffirming family and kinship ties and serves to remind us of the important position the family as a unit, occupies in our modern society.
The Chinese New Year is so deep rooted that train tickets are a prized commodity in China at this time of the year with virtually the whole country rushing home to be with their family in time for the celebration which is celebrated over a period of 15 days which begin today. For millions of Chinese migrant workers, the Chinese New Year is the only chance they get all year to go home and see their family. Such was the importance of the celebration that the biggest of human migration in the world had happened in China in the past few days. In the context of modern day Singapore, where there is no great distance to travel it would not be a big ask to visit family elders to show their appreciation and demonstration of love and respect that binds family members together. Kong Hee Huat Chye!
Saturday, January 14, 2012
Holding a luncheon or dinner at home for friends and relatives to celebrate a birthday or first moon celebration to announce the arrival of a new baby is becoming a thing of the past in modern Singapore. Without a doubt, the hassle of food preparation and the cleaning-up afterwards have contributed to the demise of home entertaining. Even for those people, who likes home entertaining, very often will have their food ordered and prepared from the numerous caterers or even takeaway form their favourite hawker stalls. In recent times, I have noticed that many Singaporean families have also started to follow the popular trend of holding their traditional Chinese New Year’s eve reunion dinner at hotels and restaurants.
Having a reception at home may appear to be a formidable task for most Singaporeans, but it has several advantages which make the idea well considering. The main advantage, of course, is that it saves a great deal of money and in addition, the food can be better or at least more original than that supplied by most catering companies and hotels for these functions. Looking back, it’s the home entertainment times around our house that stand out in my memory, the times when it was as if a magical spell had been cast where usually there was a frightfully austere daily life of my childhood when job was scare for my father to bring enough money to feed his large family. The makan time is coming! I could tell. The grown-ups were talking about food preparation. It might be an occasion for someone‘s birthday or a very important feast day for an ancestral anniversary or better still, a Chinese New Year’s Eve dinner.
Home entertainment, however, requires some planning. First the number of people coming (allow at least two or three extra uninvited guests that your guests may bring along) and enough room for the reception to be held – it is necessary to allow at least 1 sq. metre per person. Remember, too that some furniture e, such as tables for food and drinks and chair for the young and elderly guests is essential. We are lucky to have a veranda to place a buffet table and a lawn for the guest to move around. Tableware can be a problem and it is best borrowed from friends but we solve it by having inexpensive disposable plastic sets and eliminate washing up. Of course, asking our guests to bring a plate (potluck) help to add more varieties of food on the buffet table.
With a bit of planning, a makan session with friends and relatives held in familiar surroundings of our home, imaginatively transformed with auspicious Chinese characters and chun lian (spring couplets) bought from Chinatown in Sydney will make the coming Chinese New Year for my family and friends to enjoy and remember.
Incidentally, we have decided to extend our invitation to some Singaporeans students and new migrants who may have to spend their New Year’s Eve alone for the first time away from home to come and join our family and friends for the celebration of the Year of the Dragon.