With less than a month to Chinese New Year, there’s is still time to think about adding more festive dishes to usher in the Year of the Ox. Be inspired by four local celebrities who share the recipes and stories behind their family favourites:
Text: Kenneth Goh/ST
For television host-actor Ben Yeo, bonding with his family over reunion dinner starts not at the dining table, but in the kitchen.
One of his fondest childhood memories of Chinese New Year is helping his mother prepare the ingredients for shark’s fin soup with chicken, crab meat and mushrooms, one of his family’s reunion dinner classics.
He and his three siblings were in charge of shredding boiled chicken meat and peeling crab meat from shells, while his mother cooked other festive dishes, such as braised sea cucumber and mushrooms, steamed fish and stir-fried leeks.
Yeo, 38, says: “It was very tedious work, but it was fun, like playing with play dough.”
After years of observing his mother make the shark’s fin soup, the culinary arts graduate from hospitality institute Shatec came up with his own version when he started his own family seven years ago. He has two sons, aged eight and five, with his wife, Ms Claudia Cheong, 38, who helps run Big Big Heart, a domestic abuse shelter started by Yeo.
He also runs Western restaurant Tenderfresh Classic, which has four outlets including in Our Tampines Hub and Cheong Chin Nam Road.
His soup recipe omits shark’s fin for conservation reasons and also because he says “it doesn’t add much taste”.
Another modification is replacing tang hoon (glass noodles) with Japanese vermicelli. “Unlike tang hoon, Japanese vermicelli does not become too soggy when cooked and has a firmer and more chewy bite, like that of konnyaku (Japanese jelly),” he says.
He also adds enoki mushrooms as they are a family favourite.
To reduce preparation time, he uses frozen crab leg meat, but insists on shredding chicken meat by hand instead of slicing it.
“Hand-shredded meat is finer and doesn’t fall apart easily. And the meat is more tender,” he says. “It reminds me of my childhood.”
He wants his children to learn how to prepare this dish. “They are old enough to start helping out in the kitchen and this also gives them a sense of what their grandmother used to cook.”
Besides the soup, Yeo, who hosts Little Life Hacks, an info-education series on Channel 8 on Sundays at 10am, also prepares a steamboat meal for his family with ingredients such as abalone, fish and sliced pork belly.
Other than feeding his family, another Chinese New Year tradition he observes is to buy them a new set of clothes “from head to toe, from inside to outside”.
He says: “The practice helps to spice up Chinese New Year or else it will become just another holiday.”
For more than 30 years, actress Constance Song’s first meal on the first day of Chinese New Year is homecooked mee sua soup.
She eats a version of the thin wheat noodle dish at an aunt’s house, where 15 to 20 relatives gather for a feast.
The noodles are served in a pork rib stock brewed overnight and topped with ingredients such as fishball, abalone and black moss (fa cai).
This is the taste of childhood for the svelte 41-year-old, who is currently seen on Channel 5’s drama series, Tanglin.
She says: “Although mee sua is soggy and doesn’t have an al dente texture, I need to eat it to celebrate Chinese New Year every year. It is a family tradition.”
The dish, which is also a symbol of longevity and good fortune in Chinese culture, is also eaten on birthdays.
Over the years, she has perfected her own version. Her soup is a chicken stock spiked with hua diao jiu (Chinese rice wine) and topped with seaweed, peanuts, fried ginger slices, omelette slices and chicken.
“It is the only dish that I’ve learnt to cook from my mother two years ago, so that I can enjoy it whenever I crave it,” she says.
Song, who is starring in home-grown composer Dick Lee’s upcoming film, Wonder Boy, opening in August, does not cook often and generally steps into the kitchen only for her “lover, son and therapist”, a four- year-old male golden retriever, Murphy. She whips up dishes such as steamed vegetables with beef for it.
It is evident that the two share a tight bond, with the dog prancing excitedly around Song’s two-storey terrace house in Upper Thomson Road during this interview.
For this Chinese New Year, Song, who owns Spanish- Japanese restaurant Bam! in Tras Street, plans to whip up a noodle soup dish for Murphy that is inspired by mee sua. The dish comprises chicken and gluten-free bee hoon in a vegetable stock.
“Since Murphy is a part of our family, it should follow what we eat and our traditions too,” she quips.
Her other food highlights during the festive period are a steamboat reunion dinner with her family – with must-have ingredients of fiery mala stock, beef and fish – and pineapple tarts, which remind her of pineapple jam biscuits, a favourite childhood snack.
Growing up, actor Nick Shen fondly remembers observing his late grandmother cook lunch while doing his homework after school.
Her speciality was steamed fish in Teochew style, that is, with ginger, salted vegetables and pickled plums.
These memories have inspired him to come up with a vegetarian version of the classic Teochew dish of steamed pomfret.
The dish features slabs of tofu (beancurd) that are arranged in the shape of a pomfret. They are laid out on a bed of dried seaweed that mimics the scaly texture and taste of the fish skin. Covering the body is a blanket of chewy oyster mushrooms, pickled plums, salted vegetables and strips of Chinese mushrooms, ginger and red chillies.
Instead of lard, fried soya bean crumbs are added for crunch.
One of the first few times that Shen cooked vegetarian “pomfret” was for a family dinner on the first day of Chinese New Year two years ago for 12 people.
The five-course vegetarian meal included dishes such as curry with mock chicken meat and potatoes, broccoli with mushrooms and his “signature dish”, lotus root soup with radish and corn.
The 40-year-old recalls: “It was pressurising as it was my first time cooking for so many people. I spent the whole day in the kitchen chopping and cooking.
“It is my way of showing sincerity through the effort that I put into cooking.”
The actor eats vegetarian food most of the time as it is “healthier and environmentally friendly”.
A self-confessed perfectionist, the founder of events company Tok Tok Chiang fussed a fair deal over the dish’s intricate decorations – from cutting cherry tomatoes into the shape of rabbits to crafting flowers from shredded carrots and Japanese cucumbers – during this interview.
One reunion dinner that he starkly remembers was the year after his mother died from cancer 10 years ago.
“She used to take charge of the festivities by cooking her specialities such as ngoh hiang and baking cashew and almond cookies,” he says.
“It felt so different without her and I particularly missed her that night.”
These days, the bachelor continues the tradition of decorating the family’s five-room flat in Bukit Panjang. He is also busy during the Chinese New Year season as he is hired for God of Fortune appearances and Chinese opera performances in companies and schools.
Shen, who is starring in a Channel 8 drama as a police officer in March and Zi Char, a telemovie on E City (StarHub TV Channel 111 and 825) in August, has also been decorating the corridor of his flat with his neighbours for the past four years.
He says: “It always puts me in a festive mood.”
Long before it became trendy for restaurants to use laksa gravy as a steamboat stock, theatre director- actress Selena Tan, 45, has been tucking into laksa steamboat during Chinese New Year.
For 30 years, laksa steamboat has been a staple in the family’s reunion dinner and open house, during which 80 to 100 relatives and friends drop by throughout the day.
The star of the laksa steamboat is the tongue-tingling stock that is concocted with a blend of laksa rempah (spice mix) and prawn broth.
More than 20 kinds of ingredients are cooked in the soup, including yong tau foo, steamed chicken wings and tau pok (fried beancurd).
The steamboat is not complete without thick white bee hoon, cockles and a dollop of homemade fiery sambal.
Laksa steamboat is the brainchild of Tan’s mother, Daisy, 66, who runs the Peranakan restaurant, Daisy’s Dream Kitchen, in West Coast Road, with her son, Roy, 37.
Tan, founder and artistic director of theatre company Dream Academy, says: “We like eating all sorts of ingredients that can soak up the thick and lemak (rich in Malay) laksa gravy. My siblings and I ate a lot of such rempah-based dishes as my mum grew up in a Malay-Peranakan kampung.”
While she would not reveal the recipe for the homemade laksa rempah, she says it is a blend of seven ingredients, including blue ginger, lemongrass and candlenut.
As a healthier alternative, she uses evaporated milk instead of coconut milk and she says the laksa “tastes just as nice”.
She also squeezes lime juice into the laksa to inject some tanginess into the stock.
As part of their Chinese New Year tradition, her family of 30 gather for a reunion dinner comprising seven to eight main courses that “are enough to feed an army”.
The dishes include pen cai (treasure pot filled with seafood), ngoh hiang (five-spice prawn roll), roast duck, chicken rice and fish maw soup – all whipped up by her mother and Roy.
Tan, who will be directing a new musical set in a school called Detention Katong at Esplanade Theatre from Feb 17 to March 5, recalls that the festive food line-up these days pales in comparison with the “astronomical” amount of food they had when she was growing up.
Tan is married to John Pok, 48, who helps run Dream Academy. They have a two-year-old son.
As for one of her favourite Chinese New Year Eve memories, she says: “We’d eat, watch television, go comatose and hop into the car to Chinatown at 11pm to rub shoulders with other shoppers and buy goodies at last-minute discounts to get into the festive mood.”