In Singapore, Lunar New Year is a multicultural feast

A close-up of Christopher Tan’s modern take on nian gao, a traditional Chinese sticky rice cake, in Singapore, Jan 16, 2022. The ethnic diversity of the island nation shines through food during the two-week Lunar New Year festivities. Amrita Chandradas/The New York Times
For about two decades, Shila Das has brought her chicken curry and nasi biryani to her best friend, Wendy Chua, for their Lunar New Year celebrations together in their native Singapore. They start the day with those dishes, then have hot pot.

The women, both 51, began spending the holiday together as teenagers, watching lion dance troupes perform in the wide atrium of Chua’s grandfather’s house. Nearly three decades ago, the ethnically Chinese Chua family tasked Das, who is Indian and Vietnamese, with presiding over its household’s New Year lo hei ceremony, a Singaporean tradition centered on yu sheng, one of the country’s most popular New Year dishes. Das led the family in tossing the ingredients, flinging raw fish, crackers, slivered carrots and pickled ginger into the air while shouting auspicious phrases in Chinese. (Lo hei means “tossing up good fortune” in Cantonese.)

“Just imagine. In this Chinese house, there’s this Indian girl that stands on the stool and leads the lo hei every year,” Das said.

Lunar New Year, which falls on Feb. 1 this year, is celebrated in Singapore primarily by members of the Chinese diaspora, who make up three-quarters of the population. They include those who are Hokkien, Cantonese and Teochew from southeastern China; Hainanese from the island province of Hainan; Hakka, a migrant group spread out all over China; and Peranakan, who have been in the region for over 400 years and also have mixed Malay and European ancestry. Each ethnic group has its own set of traditions, but years of living among one another, and among other peoples like Malays and Indians, have created the island’s colourful and distinctive culinary fabric.

Because Singapore is a port city where people from different cultures have mingled and shared food for centuries, sharing a multicultural holiday meal “comes as naturally as breathing,” said Christopher Tan, 49, a food writer who wrote a cookbook about traditional Southeast Asian pastries. For the holiday, he makes nian gao, a sticky rice cake that is a Chinese symbol of prosperity.

Desserts for the holiday used to be mostly made out of rice grown in the region. But British settlements and eventual colonisation brought wheat flour and butter to Singapore, which are now also commonly used.

When chef Shermay Lee visits her nonagenarian aunt during the festivities, she is greeted by a platter of warm homemade pastries: elongated fine cookies, sweet pineapple tarts and paper-thin biscuits rolled into delicate cigars. Those family recipes were passed down from Lee’s grandmother, Chua Jim Neo, a prominent Peranakan food personality and the mother of Lee Kuan Yew, a founding father and the first prime minister of Singapore.

Lee said her grandmother also used to serve Lunar New Year dinner on festive red and gold lacquered porcelain, with forks and knives instead of chopsticks — a typical Peranakan table setting. “It’s part of Singapore’s colonial history,” said Lee, who rewrote and updated her grandmother’s cookbooks.

The 15-day feast that Sharon Wee, a Peranakan cookbook author based in New York City, grew up eating took weeks of preparation. In advance of Lunar New Year’s Eve, she’d watch her mother season bright yellow noodles with sambal belacan, a pungent hot sauce, and a curry blended from spices that she dried and bloomed, then took to an Indian miller for grinding. Because her parents cooked many New Year dishes that included pork, they also bought beef rendang for their Muslim halal-abiding friends.

For many Singaporeans today, cooking for two weeks straight is just too much work. It is increasingly common for modern families to congregate at a hotel restaurant for a single feast or to whip up simplified versions of traditionally elaborate dishes.

“I think it’s easier to cook vegetables over the Chinese New Year period,” said Darren Ho, 32, a chef and belly dance instructor in Singapore. While meat is a popular choice for the holiday, Ho’s go-to meal is chap chye, a festive braised cabbage dish flavoured with pungent soybean paste. “Sometimes we get a little bit lazy, and this is the easiest quick fix,” he said.

Chua, who now lives in Vancouver, British Columbia, and Das, who resides in Seattle, will be meeting their friends in Singapore again this year to celebrate.

“Our food is Chinese, Malay, Peranakan, Indian, Indonesian and Filipino,” Das said. “We are an extended family.”

RECIPE: SINGAPOREAN CHICKEN CURRY

Total time: 1 hour, plus 40 minutes’ marinating

Yield: 6 servings

6 skin-on, bone-in chicken thighs (2 1/2 pounds)

2 tablespoons lime juice

2 tablespoons minced garlic

2 tablespoons minced ginger

2 1/2 teaspoons ground white pepper

Fine salt

1/4 cup ghee or canola oil

1 medium red onion, thinly sliced

1 cinnamon stick, preferably Indian

3 cardamom pods

1 whole star anise

4 whole cloves

4 fresh or 8 thawed frozen pandan leaves, knotted

2 teaspoons Kashmiri chile powder or other ground red chile

2 teaspoons ground coriander

1 teaspoon ground turmeric

1 teaspoon ground fennel

2 cups low-sodium chicken stock

1/4 cup coconut milk

Nasi biryani or plain steamed basmati rice, for serving

1. Pat the chicken thighs dry with paper towels and combine with the lime juice, 1 tablespoon garlic, 1 tablespoon ginger, 1 1/2 teaspoons white pepper, and 1 1/2 teaspoons salt in a large bowl. Mix well, cover and refrigerate for 40 minutes.

2. In a large wok or Dutch oven, heat the ghee over medium-high. When the ghee is hot and shimmering, wipe the marinade off the chicken and add the chicken in a single layer. Sear until light golden brown, 3 to 4 minutes on each side. Remove the chicken to a plate and set aside.

3. Reduce the heat to medium-low and add the onion, remaining 1 tablespoon garlic and 1 tablespoon ginger. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the onion is soft and translucent, about 5 minutes. Add the cinnamon, cardamom, star anise and cloves, and cook, stirring, until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add the pandan leaves, chile powder, ground coriander, ground turmeric, ground fennel and remaining 1 teaspoon white pepper, and stir until it smells lovely, about 10 seconds.

4. Add the chicken and stir until it is completely coated with the aromatics. Pour in the chicken broth, and bring the mixture to a near boil. Reduce the heat to low, cover and gently simmer until the chicken is tender and cooked through, 15 to 18 minutes. Stir in the coconut milk and simmer briskly to concentrate the flavors, 5 to 8 minutes. Add salt to taste. Turn off the heat and serve with nasi biryani or basmati rice.

RECIPE: NASI BIRYANI

Total time: 1 hour

Yield: 6 to 8 servings

For the rice:

4 cups basmati rice

5 tablespoons ghee or canola oil

1/2 medium red onion, thinly sliced

1 tablespoon minced garlic

1 tablespoon minced ginger

1 cinnamon stick, preferably Indian

3 cardamom pods

1 star anise

5 whole cloves

1 medium carrot, grated

1 medium tomato, finely chopped

4 fresh or 8 thawed frozen pandan leaves, knotted

Pinch of saffron

4 1/2 cups low-sodium chicken stock

1 cup coconut milk or evaporated milk

1 tablespoon fine salt

Chicken curry

For the garnish:

1/4 cup ghee or canola oil

1/2 cup thinly sliced red onion

1/2 cup raw cashew nuts

1/2 cup golden raisins

CILANTRO SPRIGS

1. Make the rice: In a large bowl, wash the rice by rinsing it vigorously in several changes of water until the water runs clear. Drain well in a fine-mesh sieve.

2. In a large Dutch oven or very large skillet, heat the ghee over medium-low and add the onion. Cook, stirring occasionally, until light brown and caramelised, about 10 minutes.

3. Add the garlic, ginger, cinnamon, cardamom, star anise and cloves. Cook, stirring, until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add the carrot, tomato, pandan leaves and rice. Stir until the rice is coated with the aromatics and ghee.

4. Stir in the saffron, chicken stock and coconut milk. Bring the liquid to a vigorous boil over medium-high heat. Give it a stir, then immediately reduce the heat to low and cover. Simmer until all the liquid has evaporated, 15 to 18 minutes. Turn off the heat and let the rice rest for 10 minutes.

5. While the rice cooks, prepare the garnishes: Heat the ghee in a skillet over medium-high and add the onion. Cook, stirring occasionally, until light golden brown and crispy, 10 to 15 minutes. Transfer the crispy onions to paper towels to drain, reserving the ghee. Add the cashews and raisins, and gently sauté until the cashews are lightly browned, 1 to 2 minutes.

6. Once the rice is done resting, sprinkle with the salt and 1/2 cup of sauce from the chicken curry, and fluff up the grains with a spatula. Arrange the chicken skin side up on a deep serving plate. Spoon the rice around and over the chicken. Sprinkle the crispy onions, cashews and raisins on top. Garnish with cilantro, and serve immediately with the remaining curry sauce in a small bowl on the side.

RECIPE: NIAN GAO (BAKED SWEET POTATO STICKY RICE CAKES)

Yield: 24 to 42 nian gao, depending on pan size

1 1/2 cups (292 grams) glutinous rice flour, preferably Erawan brand

1 pound (450 grams) orange or purple sweet potatoes

1 1/4 cups (280 grams) full-fat coconut milk

3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons (175 grams) sugar

1/2 teaspoon fine salt

2 1/2 tablespoons (35 grams) unsalted butter, at room temperature

1/3 cup (40 grams) tapioca starch

1 large egg

Canola oil, for greasing pan

1. Combine the glutinous rice flour and 3/4 cup/180 grams water in a bowl to form a dough. Cover tightly and refrigerate for at least 6 hours and up to 24 hours.

2. Heat oven to 400 degrees. Wash and scrub the sweet potatoes and pat them dry thoroughly with a clean kitchen towel. Poke holes all over the sweet potatoes with a fork. Bake on a foil-lined pan until a fork can pierce them with no resistance, 40 to 50 minutes.

3. When cool enough to handle, peel off the skin. Pass the sweet potatoes through a ricer or mash with a fork. Measure out 1 1/4 cups (320 grams) of the mashed sweet potato. (Reserve any remaining for another use.)

4. Heat oven to 350 degrees.

5. Combine coconut milk, sugar and salt in a large saucepan. Set the saucepan over medium-low heat, and whisk until the sugar dissolves and the mixture is hot but not boiling, about 10 minutes. Remove from the heat and add the butter, stirring until it melts. Mix in the sweet potato mash, followed by the tapioca starch, then add the refrigerated wet glutinous rice flour gradually in chunks, whisking as you go. Add the egg and whisk until smooth.

6. Heat 1 or more kuih bahulu pans in the oven until very hot, 7 to 8 minutes. If you don’t have a kuih bahulu pan, a decorative cakelet pan or mini-muffin tin made out of cast iron or aluminum works (see Tip below). The batter yields 24 to 42 nian gao, depending on the size of the hollows; work in batches if needed. Remove the pan from the oven and, using a silicone or pastry brush, lightly and quickly brush its hollows with oil. Stir batter, then quickly pour it into the hollows, filling them 80% to 90% full.

7. Bake on the center rack until golden brown on top and a toothpick inserted into the center of one emerges moist and sticky, but with no pasty raw batter on it, 20 to 40 minutes. The exact baking time will vary depending on the size and heft of your pan.

8. Use a wooden skewer or butter knife to pry out and remove the nian gao from the pan. If the pan was properly heated and oiled, the nian gao will not stick. If needed, repeat with the remaining batter. If the pan cools off too much while you are removing a batch of nian gao, heat it for a couple of minutes in the oven before baking the next batch.

9. These nian gao are best served slightly warm while the edges are still crisp and the centers are soft and chewy. They are best the same day they are made. You can keep leftovers in a covered container in the refrigerator and steam, pan-fry or microwave them to reheat the next day, but they will not completely recover their freshly cooked texture.

Tip:

These are traditionally made in brass kuih bahulu pans, but this recipe can be made in oven-safe cast iron molds, takoyaki pans, tartlet molds or mini-muffin tins. Decorative cakelet pans are also great because they’re festive. The batter bakes more quickly in thicker metal pans, which also yield a darker crust.

——Recipe: Nonya Hokkien Stir-Fried NoodlesTotal time: 40 minutes

Yield: 6 servings

1 pound fresh lo mein noodles (see Tip below)

2 large eggs

Fine salt

1/2 teaspoon plus 1/4 cup canola oil

3 large shallots, sliced thinly

1 tablespoon fermented soybean paste (taucheo) or Korean doenjang

3 garlic cloves, minced

4 ounces pork belly, cut into very thin 2-inch-long slices

4 ounces shelled and deveined medium shrimp

1 cup low-sodium chicken broth, plus more if desired

4 ounces mustard greens or bok choy, cut into 2-inch pieces

1 1/2 cups bean sprouts

3/4 teaspoon ground white pepper, plus more to taste

2 Holland or other fresh red chiles, seeded and thinly sliced, for garnish

CILANTRO SPRIGS, FOR GARNISH

Sambal belacan, for serving (optional)

1. Bring a large saucepan of water to a boil. Add the noodles and cook just until tender, 1 1/2 minutes. Drain well, rinse under water and drain again.

2. Whisk the eggs in a bowl and add a pinch of salt. Brush 1/2 teaspoon oil on a nonstick frying pan and set over medium-low heat. When the oil is hot, pour in the eggs and tilt the pan so that the eggs form a thin and even film. Cook until firmly set, 4 to 5 minutes. With a spatula, ease the omelet off the pan and flip onto a cutting board. When the omelet is cool enough to handle, gently roll it and slice into thin strips, cutting longer strips in half.

3. Heat a large wok or very large skillet over medium-high and add the remaining 1/4 cup oil. Add half of the sliced shallots and continuously stir until they are crispy and light golden brown, about 5 minutes. Turn off the heat and transfer the fried shallots using a slotted spoon to a paper-towel-lined plate, and save for garnish.

4. Heat the wok with the oil over medium and add the fermented soybean paste, garlic, and remaining shallots. Stir until the mixture is fragrant, about 40 seconds. Add the pork, shrimp and 1 cup chicken broth. Raise the heat to high and bring to a boil.

5. Add the mustard greens, lo mein noodles and bean sprouts. Toss well to combine, and cook until the pork and shrimp are cooked through, about 3 minutes. There should barely be any broth left, but if you prefer a soupier consistency, add up to 1 cup more stock. Season with 1 teaspoon salt and the white pepper, then taste and season with more if you’d like. Transfer to a serving platter.

6. To serve, garnish with the egg strips, fried shallots, chiles and cilantro. The noodles are best enjoyed with a side of sambal belacan.

Tip:

If you cannot find fresh lo mein noodles, cook 14 ounces dried lo mein noodles according to packet instructions.

—Total time: 1 hour 15 minutes

Yield: 6 servings

8 large dried shiitake mushrooms

8 large or 16 small dried wood ear mushrooms (or use more dried shiitakes)

4 cups boiling water

2 to 2 1/2 ounces dried glass noodles (mung bean noodles)

1/4 cup fermented soybean paste (taucheo) or Korean doenjang

2 tablespoons oyster sauce (vegetarian, if preferred)

2 red fermented bean curd cubes (furu; see Tip below), or 2 1/2 tablespoons red miso paste

2 teaspoons soy sauce

1/2 cup peanut oil

3 ounces (90 grams) dried tofu skin, cut into 1-inch-thick strips (see Tip below)

4 large shallots, finely sliced

8 garlic cloves, minced

2 pounds green cabbage, cut into 2-inch-thick pieces, leaves separated

2 large carrots, peeled and cut into matchsticks

1 tablespoon palm sugar or dark brown sugar, plus more to taste

1 teaspoon fine salt, plus more to taste

CILANTRO SPRIGS, FOR GARNISH

1. In a large heatproof bowl, cover the dried mushrooms with 4 cups boiling water. In a medium bowl, combine the glass noodles with enough room temperature water to cover. Soak both for 30 minutes.

2. Meanwhile, make the sauce: Combine the fermented soybean paste, oyster sauce, bean curd cubes and soy sauce in a small bowl. Mash the bean curd cubes with a fork, and mix thoroughly to form a paste. Set aside.

3. Lift the mushrooms out of the water and into a fine-mesh sieve, reserving the soaking water. Squeeze out excess water from the shiitake mushrooms, then trim the shiitake stems and discard. Thinly slice the shiitake caps. With a knife or scissors, trim and discard any tough, craggy bits from the wood ear mushrooms. If they’re larger than 2 inches in diameter, cut them in half. Drain the glass noodles and set aside.

4. Set a large wok or large Dutch oven over medium-high heat and add the peanut oil. When the sides of the wok begin to smoke, slide in half of the dried tofu skin and fry until light golden brown, 20 to 30 seconds. Transfer the fried tofu skin to a paper towel. Repeat with the remaining dried tofu skin. Reserve the oil in the wok and reduce the heat to medium-low.

5. When the reserved oil is shimmering, add the shallots and garlic. Cook, stirring, until fragrant, 1 to 2 minutes. Add the sliced shiitake mushrooms and cook for 30 seconds. Add the sauce, and toss in the cabbage. Quickly stir to combine so that the sauce completely coats the cabbage. Pour in the reserved mushroom water, leaving behind any grit, and turn the heat up to high. When the mixture begins to bubble, reduce the heat to medium-low and cover the wok. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the cabbage has wilted completely, about 10 minutes.

6. Add the wood ear mushrooms, glass noodles, fried tofu skin and carrots. Mix, cover and cook, stirring occasionally, until the cabbage has absorbed all the liquid and is very tender, 10 to 15 minutes. The dish is done when there is no more liquid pooled at the bottom. Turn off the heat, then stir in the palm sugar and salt, adding more to taste if you’d like. Transfer to a deep serving dish and garnish with cilantro. Serve immediately.

Tips:

Red fermented bean curd cube is tofu preserved in rice wine and yeast. It has a creamy, cheeselike quality to it — like a mild Brie. It is sold in Chinese grocery stores and usually packaged in small jars.

Tofu skin, sometimes labelled bean curd stick or yuba, is the thin film that forms on top of fresh soy milk. It can be found in most Asian grocery stores and is sold in both dried and fresh forms. For this recipe, it is important to buy the dried version.

And to Drink …

The intricate combinations of spices and flavorings in these Singaporean dishes can be tricky to pair with wine. My first go-to is riesling, preferably a modestly sweet style from Germany like spätlese or kabinett. The thrilling balance of sugar and acidity in these wines makes them quite refreshing, the alcohol level is low, and in general they are delicious with a variety of spicy, complex Asian cuisines. I don’t often drink dry gewürztraminer, with its lavish aromas of roses and cold cream, but I also find that it goes quite well with dishes like these. Other options include fresh, dry whites, regardless of where they are from, and young, juicy Loire reds. Good, dry ciders would be surprisingly delicious. So would fino sherry.

— ERIC ASIMOV

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