With Chinese New Year approaching at the end of the month, a stock up of the various ingredients that are traditionally cooked during that festive season is a must. So let us be a Chinese auntie for a day and stroll through a traditional Chinese shop to find out about these delicious yet auspicious condiments.
Every family has their Chinese dish staples during Chinese New Year featuring an array of interesting ingredients. These condiments are not only delicious to eat but have significant meaning to the Chinese like bringing good fortune and happiness as they bring in the New Year.
To find out more, we visited Chinatown in Kuala Lumpur to one of the oldest Chinese ingredient shops in KL founded in 1958 called Kwang Yeow Heng. We met the owner, 92-year-old Mr. Hiah who handles the cashier like the boss he is, all with a smoking pipe in hand. He fled to Malaysia from China after the Sino-Japanese War and learned the ways of shop keeping from his brother-in-law who owned one. In 1958, Mr. Hiah branched out and opened his own shop in Petaling Street next to Central Market where he would personally transport his stock via trishaw, a story of struggle he told with teary eyes.
Now 58 years later, Mr. Hiah’s shop is supplying to restaurants and hotels while serving his regulars with top notch ingredients sourced from around the world. We’re talking about sea cucumber from South Africa, abalone from Mexico and cashew nuts from India.
Sea Cucumber 幸
A popular ingredient cooked during Chinese New Year even though the cooking process is long, the sea cucumber has been part of Chinese culture since the fourth century AD. Mr. Hiah’s shop sells a couple of types, varying is size and place of origin. The best comes from the waters of South Africa where its round shape is still retained even after the drying process. Need a health benefit? The folks at the shop believe it is packed full of collagen for that youthful glow of the skin.
Cooking it requires one to soak for 3 – 4 days before cutting it to open to remove the insides before braising them. The sea cucumber itself does not yield much flavour therefore needs to be cooked in a flavourful sauce or broth. Despite that, the sea cucumber is considered a Chinese delicacy that is worth trying if you get invited to a Chinese New Year open house.
You will be spoilt for choices when it comes to the abalone selection at Kwang Yeow Heng with the long fully-stacked shelf dedicated to this special ingredient. We are talking cans of this stuff from all over the world with the best coming from the seas of Mexico. What you want is that instant sea smell the moment you take the lid off the can, an indication of its high quality.
This particular ingredient is expensive not only because of its meaning but because of its rarity. The fishing of abalone is heavily controlled. Plus the length of maturity for these molluscs are long, taking up to four years to fully mature for collection and consumption. That is why one can of abalone usually contains only one to three pieces. Its cooking method is simpler than the sea cucumber, with the heating of the whole abalone can in a wok filled with water for about 50 minutes.
Fish Maw 花膠
Though some people describe fish maw as the belly of a fish, it is actually the bladder of a big fish that has been dried. Mr. Hiah’s shop has them behind glass cases and some are even hung on the walls. The dried ones are the most prized but there is also the fried fish maw which can be mistaken for fish crackers or keropok in Malay. These thin transparent fish parts are believed to be high in collagen and those who consume it will benefit with a fairer complexion.
The grade of it varies from type of fish and even gender. Male fish bladders are thicker thus making them more expensive compared to female ones. When the fish maw is cooked, the bladder turns into a gel-like substance which can easily dissolve if the temperature and time of cooking are not monitored well. It has to be soaked first though before cooking for about six to 12 hours depending on the type of fish maw.
Cashew Nuts – Nuts are a big part of Chinese culture as they have various meanings while boasting many health benefits. Mr. Hiah stocks his cashews from India and can be cooked with stir fry dishes or simply eaten as a snack.
Walnut – Walnuts saw a massive growth during the Tang dynasty where it was commercially grown in the north of China. It is eaten raw or roasted but can be embellished with sugar for a sweet take on this favourite snack.
GOOD TO KNOW
- If you prefer to eat poultry, try Lap Cheong or waxed Chinese sausage which is a wine-dried sausage.
- When serving chicken during Chinese New Year, it is preferred to serve it whole with the chicken’s head and all as it symbolises completeness in Chinese culture.
- Tofu is not usually served during Chinese New Year because its white colour signifies death. However, it can be served if it’s fried till golden brown.
KWANG YEOW HENG | NO. 36, JALAN HANG KASTURI 50050 KL | 03-2078 0969