Nearly 30 years had passed since I left China, but I still remember vividly the wonderful days around the Chinese New Years. Extended families gathered at the large dinner tables, briefly forgot about their quarrels throughout the year. The wok chinked with an aroma of delicacies that we couldn’t afford as daily meals. The rolling pins were out for the wickedly delicious sweet peanut pastry.
The flower festival (‘huaJie’, 花街) was held about a week before the Chinese New Year. Families went to the street market packed of flower vendors to select their festival decorations. Kumquat 金橘 was an essential – ‘kum’ means gold and ‘quat’ has a similar pronunciation as fortune. It is a plant that will bring good prosperity in the new year. A small blossoming peach shrub was also an essential, s symbol of strength and vitality, with beautiful flowers emerged from the harshness of the winter. Also common were the chrysanthemum 菊花 and peony 牡丹, large and colorful, symbols of riches and honor.
When I was a little girl, my father worked in another city. So my second uncle took me to the flower festival each year. Our most memorable trips were the ones on the New Years Eves. We had loads of fun browsing the market and pushed through the crowd. There were so many people at the market, my uncle had to put me on his shoulders to be safe. When it was close to the midnight, we rushed home to light our fire crackers. There was one time that we were late and ran into the fire cracker storms at mid-night. The crackers and the odd firework were loud and smoky, with laughter of the children, so much joy and happiness.
The next morning the streets were quiet with a red carpet of paper left behind by the fire crackers. Kids got up early to collect the odd fire crackers that did not go off the previous night, then ran around greeting their relatives ‘goon he fa choi’ 恭喜發財, in exchange for red envelopes with a little money, which they would use to buy lollies for months to come.
After the big feast on the New Year’s Eve, vegetarian meals were common on the first day of the new year. My favorite dish was the stew Chinese mushrooms, a delicacy rarely consumed during the year. The mushrooms were cooked with different types of dry or fresh vegetables – lily buds, fungus, dry tofu sticks, hair vegetable 髮菜 and bamboo shoots. The aroma of the dish is still lingering in my mind.
Nowadays I cook Chinese mushrooms quite often – nearly everybody in our family and extended families love it. In Sydney the Chinese mushrooms are inexpensive, a 250g bag of good quality mushrooms cost around $12. It makes a huge dish for 8-10 people to share. We are thankful for what we are able to enjoy today.
Here is a simple mushroom dish I’d like to share with you.
- 20 large dry Chinese mushrooms. soak in hot water for at least 30 minutes to soften, remove and discard the stems; reserve the liquid.
- 10 cloud ear fungus, re-hydrate in warm water for 20 minutes; split into halves if the fungus are too large (larger than bite size)
- 2 tbsp oyster sauce (for a vegetarian option, replace with soy sauce)
- 2 tsp sesame oil
- a little chili, thinly sliced (optional)
- salt to taste
- white pepper to taste
- 2 tsp corn flour
- 2 tbsp water
- A little green shallot, chopped, to garnish (optional)
- toasted sesame seeds, to garnish (optional)
- In a large pot, add Chinese mushrooms, oyster sauce, sesame oil, chili, white pepper, bring to boil; then cook on low heat for approximately 1 hour or until the mushrooms are tender (time required depends on the quality of the mushroom).
- Add cloud ear fungus, bring to boil again, stir
- Mix the 2 tsp of corn flour with 2 tbsp of water, add to the pot, bring to boil again, stir frequently
- Add salt to taste
- Garnish with sliced green shallot and sesame seeds before serving