Feedback
Features 2 minutes 20 February 2018

Chinese New Year: Taste Of The Past

Executive chef Mok Kit Keung of Shang Palace reminisces the tastes and textures of the Chinese New Year celebrations of his childhood

video CNY2018 memory

"In the past, people would burn firewood to heat up pans of oil to fry traditional snacks. These were called 'jau hei'. The steamed goodies are called 'gou', like nian gao (glutinous rice cake), yam cake, carrot cake and water chestnut cake. These were the things we ate during Chinese New Year," executive chef Mok Kit Keung of Shang Palace reminisces fondly.
Wu haa is a traditional Chinese New Year snack eaten by the Cantonese and Hakka.
Wu haa is a traditional Chinese New Year snack eaten by the Cantonese and Hakka.
The Connection Between Taste and Memory

He goes on to share that Cantonese families would often start making all these traditional Chinese New Year goodies a few days before reunion dinner on the Eve. Each of these snacks carried auspicious meanings in their shapes or names.

Wu haa, which translates to 'taro shrimp', is a Cantonese and Hakka tradition. The savoury snack, in fact, does not contain any shrimp. Instead, yam is shredded into thin strips, battered with a little glutinous rice flour, five spice powder and sesame, and fried in a sputtering wok with chopsticks. The strips of taro would unfurl in the hot oil, taking on a shrimp-like shape, thus its name.

"Every household would have their own version of these snacks. Every mother or grandmother had their own variations to the recipe, more oil, or more sugar, but they were essentially all the same." Everyone's favourite snack would inevitably be the one made by their mother or grandmother, because that's how taste and memory are inextricably linked.
Wu Haa gets its name from the shrimp-like shape it takes on after frying.
Wu Haa gets its name from the shrimp-like shape it takes on after frying.
The Taste Of Childhood Memories

"When I was young, the sight of these goodies in the house was the indicator that Chinese New Year was here, and it brought so much joy to me. The thought of receiving ang pows (red packets) from my parents and relatives, and stuffing my pockets full of them. The taste of the new year goodies are laden with memories of this time in my childhood."

Chef Mok hails from Dong Guan in Guangdong, China, where his grandmother would make all her Chinese New Year goodies by hand every year when the festive season rolled around. He remembers especially fondly her sung gao, a steamed glutinous rice cake. He recalls that she would heat up a huge wok of water over firewood to steam the sung gao, lighting a stick of incense by the pot as a medieval timer. When the incense finished burning, which took about five to six hours, the steamed cake would be ready.
With no recipes handed down, Chef Mok recreates his childhood snacks from memory.
With no recipes handed down, Chef Mok recreates his childhood snacks from memory.
"Back then, we didn't have refrigerators, so all the steamed and fried goodies would be piled up on the table to be eaten on the eve of Chinese New Year, as well as when relatives and friends visited on New Year's Day."

Recreating The Taste of the Past


He points out: "Our grandmothers didn't explicitly teach us how to make these goodies, nor did they leave written recipes behind. So what can we do now except try to recreate these snacks through trial and error, based on what I remember, to capture that taste of the past."

Even the process of recreating these snacks brings joy to the chef. "It's not just about getting the taste right, the sweetness or saltiness, but it's about capturing a feeling from my childhood. We only tasted this once a year during the Chinese New Year season, and capturing these fleeting memories in the food is a way of preserving tradition and giving our heritage new life."

Watch the video here:
The MICHELIN Guide Appreciation Series: Reminiscence

This article was written by Tan Pin Yen and translated by Rachel Tan. Click here to read the original story.

Features

Subscribe to our newsletter and be the first to get news and updates about the MICHELIN Guide
Subscribe
Follow the MICHELIN Guide on social media for updates and behind-the-scene information.