The diversity of Chinese cuisines is extraordinary but one food ritual unites Han Chinese communities all over the country and the world: the lunar New Year’s Eve dinner. (This year’s Chinese new year is on 25 January.) It’s the time when families traditionally gather for a lavish feast, prefaced by ritual offerings to gods and ancestors, and followed at midnight by a storm of firecrackers.
There are few rules for this “family reunion” (tuannian) meal except that there should be extraordinary amounts of food, particularly fish, meat and poultry (dayu darou: “great fish and great meat”). In the countryside, many households still fatten a pig as the holiday approaches, eating the prime cuts over the festivities, then making bacon, sausages or confit pork to eke out over the months ahead. The other essential is a fish, served whole and never quite finished, because the phrase “a fish every year” (niannian youyu) sounds the same in Chinese as “every year a surplus”.
When I’m cooking a Chinese new year feast at home in London, I like to borrow freely from different regional traditions, mixing some of the delicate dishes from the Jiangnan region and the Cantonese south with a bit of Sichuan and Hunan spice. What’s most important from the point of view of the cook is to avoid a menu that leans heavily on dishes that have to be prepared at the last minute. Instead, try to include a few cold dishes and slow-cooked stews that can be made ahead of time: that way, you can have fun with a bit of wok whizz-bangery and still sit down with your guests to eat.
In the following selection, a sumptuous potful of dongpo pork, one of the classic dishes of Hangzhou, tastes even better when made a day in advance. The chicken for the Sichuanese bang bang chicken can also be poached beforehand, the spinach blanched, the sauces made. After that, a hot and spicy Sichuanese dry-braised fish will drive out winter chills and augur well for the year ahead. I’ve also included a dish made with an ingredient that was virtually unknown in China a few years ago but is now all the rage: okra. This sizzly stir-fry is laced, Hunan-style, with black beans and chilli – delicious. With a potful of rice, this menu will generously feed four. If you’re feeding more than four, the dongpo pork, bang bang chicken and spinach in ginger sauce can easily be doubled up. Alternatively, add other dishes or buy in Cantonese roast duck from a restaurant.
All recipes serve 4 when eaten together
Braised fish with scorched chillies
This beautiful, spicy fish lolls in a pool of red oil under a glamorous scattering of chopped scorched chillies. The cooking method is a version of the classic Sichuanese “dry-braising” (ganshao), in which the sauce is not thickened but simply reduced to a scant, aromatic cloak of seasonings. In Sichuan, they tend to use carp; in London I’ve used both bream and sea bass to delicious effect. Please make sure you use chillies that are not excessively hot: although the dish should pack a punch, you want fragrance as well as heat.
For the marinade
salt 1 tsp
Shaoxing wine 1 tbsp
spring onions 2, white parts only
sea bream or bass 1 fresh, scaled and gutted (700g)
Sichuanese dried chillies 15g
cooking oil around 140ml
Sichuan chilli bean paste 1 tbsp (doubanjiang)
ginger 1 tbsp, finely chopped
garlic 2 tsp, finely chopped
chicken stock 250ml
Shaoxing wine 1 tbsp
light soy sauce 2 tsp
dark soy sauce ½ tsp
white sugar 1 tsp
Chinkiang vinegar 1 tsp
spring onion greens 3 tbsp, finely sliced
ground roasted Sichuan pepper ¼-½ tsp
Lay your fish on a board and make 5-6 diagonal cuts into the thickest part on each side, to allow the flavours to penetrate. Rub the fish, inside and out, with the marinade salt and wine. Smack the ginger and spring onion whites lightly with the flat of a cleaver blade or a rolling pin to loosen, then pop them into the belly of the fish. Set aside while you prepare the other ingredients.
Using a pair of scissors, trim the stem ends of the chillies and snip them into sections; shake out and discard the seeds as far as possible. Heat 4 tbsp of the oil in a seasoned wok over a medium flame. When the oil is hot but not smoking, add the chillies and fry briefly until crisp and dark red, then remove immediately with a slotted spoon. (If you burn the chillies, repeat with another batch!) When the chillies have cooled, chop finely. Retain the spicy cooking oil too.
Discard the ginger and spring onion from the marinade and tip away any juices; pat the fish dry. Return the wok to a high flame with 5 tbsp of fresh oil. Sprinkle a little salt around the base of the wok: this will help to prevent sticking. Add the fish and fry for a minute or two on each side until a little golden, tilting the wok for even browning. (Try not to disturb the fish until it is fairly well fried; this will help keep the skin intact.) When the fish is done, remove carefully from the wok. Pour off the oil and rinse and dry the wok if necessary.
Return the wok to a medium flame with the spicy chilli oil you have reserved. Add the chilli bean paste and stir-fry gently until the oil is red and wonderfully aromatic. Tip in the ginger and garlic and fry until they smell gorgeous. Then add the stock, Shaoxing wine, soy sauces, sugar and vinegar and turn the heat to high. Use a slotted spoon to strain out and discard the solids from the wok. Now slide the fish into the sauce. Let the liquid bubble away, spooning frequently over the fish until it has evaporated to leave a lazy, glossy sauce. Turn the fish over after about 2 minutes; total cooking time should be about 4 minutes (poke a chopstick into the thickest part of the fish to make sure it’s cooked through: the flesh should flake easily from the backbone).
Gently transfer the fish to a serving dish. Pour over the remaining sauce and scatter with the spring onions. Finally, scatter with the Sichuan pepper, if using, and all or some of the chopped fried chillies, to taste.
The Observer aims to publish recipes for fish rated as sustainable by the Marine Conservation Society’s Good Fish Guide
Spinach in ginger sauce
This is a most refreshing starter, with juicy leaves in a delicate dressing of ginger, mellow vinegar and sesame oil. The combination of seasonings is known as “gingerjuice flavour”, and comes from the canon of classic Sichuanese flavour combinations. Do use bunched spinach for its wonderfully juicy texture (baby spinach leaves tend to melt away when you blanch them).
bunched spinach 300g
cooking oil 1 tbsp
ginger 1 tbsp, very finely chopped
Chinkiang vinegar 2 tsp
light soy sauce 1 tsp
stock or water 1½ tbsp
sesame oil ½ tsp
Bring a large panful of water to a boil (1-1.5 litres will do). Wash and trim the spinach, but keep the leaves whole. When the water has boiled, add the oil, then the spinach and blanch for about 30 seconds. Drain the spinach and refresh in cold water, then shake dry in a colander. Gently squeeze it to remove as much water as possible.
Combine the ginger, vinegar, soy sauce and stock or water in a small bowl, with salt to taste. Add the sesame oil.
Lay the spinach leaves out on a chopping board and cut them across into about four sections. Pile these sections neatly on a serving plate. Give the sauce a stir and pour it over the spinach.
From The Food of Sichuan (Bloomsbury)
Bang bang chicken
Bang bang chicken appears on countless Chinese restaurant menus in the west, but usually only as a shadow of its authentic self. In southern Sichuan, where the dish originates, the base seasoning of sesame paste is jazzed up with sugar, vinegar, soy sauce, chilli and sesame oils and Sichuan pepper to make a lip-tingling sauce. The dish is said to have originated in Hanyang Ba, a town near Leshan that was once known for its chickens: free-range birds that fed on insects, stray grains and leftovers from the local peanut crop. In the early 20th century, Hanyang street vendors sold chunks of cooked chicken meat draped in spicy sauce as a snack.
The dish became known as bang bang chicken, because of the sound their wooden cudgels made when hammered down on the backs of cleaver blades to help them through the meat. It began to feature on Chengdu menus from about the 1920s, though here the cudgels were used to whack the meat directly, loosening the fibres so it could be torn into slivers by hand.
I have found this recipe one of the most difficult to commit to paper, because I have enjoyed so many different versions of it. If you like, you can serve the chicken on a bed of slivered lettuce or sliced cucumber.
poached chicken meat 400g, cold, off the bone (see below)
spring onions 4, white parts only, cut into fine slivers (optional)
roasted peanuts 30g
sesame seeds 2 tsp
For the sauce
sesame paste 2 tbsp
salt ½ tsp
caster sugar 1½ tsp
light soy sauce 2 tbsp
Chinkiang vinegar 1½ tsp
ground roasted Sichuan pepper ¼-½ tsp, or 1-2 tsp Sichuan pepper oil
chilli oil 4 tbsp, plus 1-2 tbsp sediment
sesame oil 2 tsp
For the poached chicken
chicken 1 x 1.6kg whole, to give 800g boneless meat
spring onions 2, white parts only
To make the poached chicken, let the chicken come to room temperature before you start. Lightly smack the ginger and spring onion whites with the flat of a cleaver blade or rolling pin to loosen them.
Pour enough water to immerse your chicken into a lidded pan that will hold the bird snugly, and bring to the boil over a high flame. Lower the chicken into the water, return it quickly to the boil and then skim. Add the ginger and spring onion whites, half-cover the pan and turn the heat down so the liquid barely murmurs and poach for about 30 minutes, depending on the size of the chicken; if any of the bird sits above the water level, turn it halfway through.
Pierce the thigh joint deeply with a skewer to see if it is done: the juices should run clear, not pink and bloody. When the chicken is just cooked, remove it from the pan and set aside to cool before chilling until needed (to arrest the cooking quickly and keep the skin taut, immediately immerse the bird in a large pan or bowl of ice water). The flesh should be moist and silky.
For the bang bang chicken, if you want to be traditional, pummel the meat with a rolling pin to loosen the fibres, and then tear into bite-sized slivers; otherwise, simply tear or cut into bite-sized slivers or strips.
Toss with the spring onion slivers, if using. Roughly chop the peanuts: the easiest way to do this is to gather them on a chopping board, lay the flat of a cleaver blade over them and press firmly to break them up a bit, then chop them into smaller pieces. Toast the sesame seeds in a dry wok or frying pan over a very gentle heat, until fragrant and tinged with gold.
Next make the sauce. Dilute the sesame paste with a little oil from the jar and about 2 tbsp of cold water: you should end up with a paste the consistency of single cream – it needs to be runny≈enough to clothe the chicken. Place the salt, sugar, soy sauce and vinegar in a small bowl and stir to dissolve the salt and sugar. Add the remaining sauce ingredients and mix well.
Shortly before serving, pile the chicken on to a serving dish and pour the sauce over it. Garnish with the peanuts and toasted sesame seeds.
From The Food of Sichuan (Bloomsbury)
Stir-fried okra with black bean and chilli
Until a few years ago, okra was all but unknown in China, but a sudden fashion for this originally African vegetable has swept the country and it now appears on the menu of almost every trendy restaurant. Local chefs prepare it in many ways, but this is the most delicious I’ve encountered: a simple, sizzly, Hunan-style stir-fry of the sliced pods with fermented black beans, garlic and fresh red chilli.
The following recipe is my attempt to recreate one I tasted at the Shengyongxing restaurant in Beijing. You can adjust the chilli heat according to taste, but it’s best, in my opinion, to choose fresh red chillies that are colourful but not too hot (and you can substitute diced sweet red pepper if you prefer something that isn’t spicy at all).
fresh red chillies 2-3
garlic 3 cloves
cooking oil 4 tbsp
fermented black beans 1 tbsp
sesame oil 1 tsp
Top and tail the okra pods, and then slice at a steep diagonal angle into 1cm pieces. Do the same with the chillies, but with thinner slices. Peel and slice the garlic.
Heat 2 tbsp of the cooking oil in a wok, add the okra and stir-fry over a high heat for 2-3 minutes, until the slices are piping hot, tender and slightly scorched around the edges. Remove from the wok and set aside.
Tip the remaining cooking oil into the wok, add the black beans, garlic and ginger and stir-fry briefly over a high flame until they all smell delicious. Add the okra and mix everything together. Season with salt to taste.
Off the heat, stir in the sesame oil and then serve.
This sumptuous dish, named after the Song-dynasty poet Su Dongpo, is a Hangzhou speciality. Large square chunks of belly pork are slow-cooked with soy sauce, sugar and Shaoxing wine until they are so exquisitely tender that they melt away at a chopstick’s touch.
While serving as governor of Hangzhou in the late 11th century, Su Dongpo organised the dredging of the city’s beautiful West Lake, which had become clogged. According to local lore, the grateful townspeople sent him gifts of his favourite meat for Chinese new year; touched by their kindness, the poet-governor instructed a servant to red-braise the pork and return it with a gift of wine. The servant mistakenly thought he’d been told to cook the pork with the wine, and the resulting dish was so magnificent it has never been forgotten.
The supposed rule with Dongpo pork is to let wine take the place of water in the stew, but in practice most chefs add a little water. Although it’s traditionally cooked on the stove-top, a low oven works very well too. The final dish is so rich and intense that one square of pork, served with plain rice, is usually enough for each person. Make it a day in advance and chill it if you want to remove the layer of solid fat that will collect on the surface. Do not make this dish with everyday Shaoxing cooking wine; invest in a bottle of five- or 10-year aged drinking wine, found in good Chinese supermarkets.
Happily, although this is one of the finest dishes in the whole pantheon of Chinese cooking, it’s very easy to make.
belly pork 1 x 12cm-wide strip, unscored, skin on, boneless (about 1kg, or 1.3kg bone-in)
spring onions 2
fresh ginger 30g, skin on
caster sugar 4 tbsp
light soy sauce 5½ tbsp
dark soy sauce ½ tbsp
good Shaoxing wine 250ml
plain white rice to serve
If using an oven, preheat it to 110C/gas mark ¼. Bring a large pan of water to the boil, add the pork and cook for about 5 minutes. Drain it well and rinse under the cold tap. Place the pork, skin-side up, on a chopping board and cut it as accurately as possible into 5cm squares. Keep any trimmings. If you have one, lay a bamboo mat in the bottom of a heavy-based pan to prevent sticking. Crush the spring onions and ginger slightly with the flat side of a Chinese cleaver or a rolling pin and put them in the pan. Add the pork trimmings and arrange the pork chunks, skin-side down, on top. Add the sugar, soy sauces and Shaoxing wine. If you are using a traditional Chinese clay pot, warm it gently over a low flame to prevent cracking, then bring it to the boil over a high flame; if you are using a more robust pan, bring it to the boil directly.
Boil rapidly for 1-2 minutes to give the skin a rich, soy-dark colour. Cover and cook gently for 2½ hours over a very low flame or in the oven. Keep an eye on it to make sure it doesn’t boil dry; add a little hot water if necessary. Remove and discard the ginger and spring onions. For best results, leave the pork to cool in the pan and chill overnight.
Scrape off and remove the layer of white fat on the surface (this can be used for other purposes, such as frying potatoes or stir-frying mushrooms).
Reheat the pork in the pan, turning the pieces skin-side up as soon as the juices have loosened. You want to end up with a dark, slightly syrupy sauce: if there is too much liquid, strain it off, fast-boil to reduce it, then return it to the pan. Serve the meat and its juices with plain white rice.
From Land of Fish and Rice (Bloomsbury)