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Chinese New Year Celebration

Chinese New Year began on 23rd January and to celebrate, we had Sachiko Saeki at The Vegetarian Cookery School's to lead a Chinese New Year Celebration cookery course. Our chef Helen Lawrence was there and wrote this blog post about her day.

Chinese New Year Celebration with Sachiko Saeki

For some, New Year's came and went almost a month ago. But those who came on Sachiko's course were lucky to enjoy New Year's a second time with her traditional family recipes to celebrate Chinese New Year.

New Year's food in China is different to everyday food in that the preparation will often take a day or two. Every region will have different dishes to celebrate New Year, and they will vary household to household. ‘Father’s one day old yam’ is called thus because it is Sachiko’s father's recipe and is always made the day before to allow the marinade sauce to fully absorb into the yam and tofu.

Being a special occasion, the Chinese New Year meal has a significant element of thought and planning. Some ingredients need soaking in advance, others need time and attention during the preparation. The shape and size of the vegetable cutting is important too.

But all of this is worth the effort - this is celebration food, after all, and we had the treat of deep frying as part of the cooking techniques, along with steaming and stir-frying.

Chinese New Year Celebration with Sachiko Saeki

We started making some seasonings. First, chilli oil, made with dried chillies, Szechuan peppercorn, cinnamon, star anise and clove, all ground up and heated in oil along with some garlic and spring onion: very aromatic yet not too hot. This was to become a dip for the mooli cake, a simple steamed loaf made with rice flour, corn flour and flecked with sweetcorn kernels and spring onion slices, fried until golden and crispy on the outside - they remind me of the texture of crumpets.

Next we deep fried cashew nuts until golden and then mixed them with salt and star anise, letting them sit to infuse in the anise flavour (it was a difficult task to leave them alone!). The cashews were used later in a stir-fried dish of fresh vegetables, unusually including cucumber, which is delicious cooked.

Chinese New Year Celebration with Sachiko Saeki

We delved into the world of dried Chinese ingredients, finding out how to use dried mushrooms and dried bean curd, making an amazing thick broth of cloud ear fungus, dried lily buds and bean curd, with mung bean noodles. The broth was made with a simple stock made from soaking kelp in water, plus the water used to soak the mushrooms.We then finely sliced some fresh purple sprouting broccoli, carrots and leeks, and boiled them briefly. The dish was finished with a special vegetarian "oyster sauce". It came together quickly and was so flavoursome; it got all of the sense going, from the umami flavour in the mushroom stock to the textures and colours of the vegetables: a real celebration of good food.

We also learnt the skill of making bamboo leaf parcels, stuffed with black rice, bamboo shoots and shitake mushrooms, folded and threaded into triangles, holding themselves together if made correctly!

Chinese New Year Celebration with Sachiko Saeki

Probably the biggest excitement of the day came with the pudding: sweet potato and sesame balls in jasmine syrup. None of us had eaten sweet potato as a dessert before and everyone was interested to taste the result. We used sweet potato, gently steamed and then mashed and held together with some rice flour. Once shaped into balls, each one was rolled in sesame seeds and then deep fried until golden. The result was extraordinary, simple flavours, soft sweet potato and a toffee apple-like surround made chewy from the caramelised sesame seeds.

On their own they were great, but with the jasmine-infused syrup they were divine.

Chinese New Year Celebration with Sachiko Saeki

So a really big thank you to Sachiko for sharing some of her family cooking secrets with us, and a happy new year of the dragon to everyone.

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