SINGAPORE: If you’re planning to cook a full-on traditional reunion dinner to impress, there are probably few folks better to go shopping with in Chinatown than Madam Tang Bee Leng, a walking encyclopaedia of food traditions and their symbolism.
“This is fresh mustard green,” she announced animatedly as she picked up an odd-looking vegetable at one of the stalls at Chinatown Complex market. Round like a cabbage, its leaves were thicker and shaped like crinkle-cut potato chips.
This vegetable is a staple for the Cantonese during Chinese New Year, according to the 67-year-old, who has been cooking since she was seven. Stir-fried with crabs and egg, it is a hot favourite with her family.
“This vegetable is very sweet. During Chinese New Year, everybody must be sweet to one another, and everything must be wholesome like how this vegetable is round-shaped,” she said in her rapid-fire way of speaking.
An elderly man beside us agreed with his thumb up: “It can be very bitter too, but it is very good for the health.”
Mdm Tang was stocking up on the ingredients that typically go into her Chinese New Year feast, and the market was buzzing with the annual pre-festive frenzy of jostling housewives and grannies haggling with harassed-looking stallholders.
A seasoned pro, she expertly navigated the narrow aisles, sniffing out the best produce, bantering with the stallholders in Cantonese – and stopping every so often to dole out tips and hacks on choosing preserved delicacies, which drew a few curious eavesdroppers.
BEWARE MUSHROOMS WITH ‘COSMETIC SURGERY’
Much of it felt familiar yet foreign at the same time to the both of us tagging along – two 20-somethings who had asked the veteran home-cook and food blogger for a crash-course on the traditional ingredients that go into a Chinese New Year meal.
Knowledge that was perhaps common among older Singaporeans like her, but alien to many among our generation.
Beckoning us over to several large bags of dried shiitake mushrooms, Mdm Tang dipped her hand in one, grabbed a handful and proceeded to inspect the caps.
Brushing her thumb against the patterns, she shared: “The hua gu (flower mushroom) has a distinctive flower pattern on its cap; that is why it’s named hua (flower).”
It is the king of all shiitake mushooms, followed by the dong gu (winter mushroom) and the xiang gu (fragrant mushroom). Its cap is rotund and fuller, compared to its lower-grade cousins with thin and flat caps, she explained.
But don’t be fooled, she warned – it is a common practice for “cosmetic surgery” to be done on the lower-grade mushrooms to mimic their more expensive cousin.
Sellers have explained to me that the natural (top grade) ones have distinct lines. But the growers would use a knife to cut patterns into the caps of the lower-grade ones before the drying process.
After such ‘surgery’, they are sometimes mixed with the real hua gu mushrooms to cheat unsuspecting buyers. Top-grade shiitake mushrooms are typically sold for about S$4.50 per 100 grams, while the lower-grade ones are S$1 to S$2 cheaper.
As with most ingredients, you pay for what you get. The hua gu mushrooms are tender and smooth after an hour of braising – but with the cheap ones, “sometimes you bite very long also hard to break with your teeth”, she joked.
‘CANTONESE ARE GREAT COOKS’
She was so engrossed in her show-and-tell that she didn’t notice the irate stallholder next to her.
“Aunty, we are conducting a business here, okay?” he said to her curtly, urging her to pay for her mushrooms and leave.
The amiable Mdm Tang obliged without a fuss and thanked him. She turned to us and said with a smile: “It’s okay, if you want to buy things here, you have to be thick-skinned.”
She puts up with the sometimes gruff service here in this Chinatown market as she reckons it is one of the best places in Singapore to shop for her ingredients, due to the large congregation of Cantonese folks here.
“The Cantonese are great cooks and they buy only the good stuff. Chinatown is the only place where they can buy most of the things they want under the same roof.
“And if you can speak Cantonese, you are in their inner circle.”
WATCH: The quick tour (3:44)
SPEND MORE, GET MORE BLESSINGS
Beyond knowing the lingo, shopping for ingredients during Chinese New Year requires skill and careful observation.
One also has to be prepared to spend more in order to get the best ingredients for tasty dishes. “During Chinese New Year, (people) are willing to spend on reunion dinners such as buying expensive fish,” Mdm Tang said.
“They believe that if they spend more, they will get double the blessings.”
This is the time of year when home-cooks look to buy expensive whole dried scallops, instead of the smaller or broken pieces used for everyday cooking.
For ordinary cooking, we buy the small ones because nobody will see. But for Chinese New Year … it is all about presentation, and everything must be whole.
The big dried scallops can cost as much as S$200 a kilogramme, while the cheaper ones are about S$120.
The importance of presentation, according to Mdm Tang, is most apparent in the traditional pen cai or treasure pots – a one-pot dish filled with luxurious ingredients, where the size of the abalone, mushrooms and black fungus are ideally proportionate to each other.
“We use small black fungus to blend in with the abalone. If you have small abalone, you don’t use big mushrooms – it is disproportionate and very ugly.”.
MOSS THAT ISN’T HAIR, AND MEAT THAT ISN’T WAXED
Several other treasures caught her eye. She all but pounced with delight on finding whole preserved jellyfish. More often these days it comes packaged in cut-up strips
Preparing the jellyfish is a tedious process – requiring repeated soaking in water, and sometimes removing sand – but it makes for a great addition to yusheng (raw fish salad) or served as a starter, she said.
At another stall, she spotted fatt choy, or black/hair moss. Because its Cantonese name sounds like the term 'be prosperous', it has long been a must-have new year staple. But it is less popular these days, she said, because of fake fatt choy in the market.
She used to cook the hair moss in soup, and said that one should not add it too early as “it will dissolve very quickly”.
Chinatown Complex was not her only stop – Mdm Tang also went recceing for waxed meat among the tented stalls set up along Chinatown’s streets.
“Normally I won’t buy anything until the last two days, when everything is at half price,” the savvy shopper shared. “Then I’ll grab whatever I want, put it all in my freezer, and that will last me the entire year.”
There was waxed meat aplenty on display, ranging from duck to sausages – lap cheong in Cantonese – in red and black bunches.
On the first day of Chinese New Year, the Cantonese serve four kinds of waxed meat – duck leg, liver sausage, pork sausage and pork belly
“We steam them for 25 minutes, cut them into thin slices, and serve to our guests,” Mdm Tang said.
Contrary to popular belief, waxed meats contain no wax – they are instead seasoned and left to dry for months during winter, and it is the oil that makes it look glossy and waxy, she said.
Her tips: Look for the lumpier, home-made lap cheong. And the fattier the sausage, the smoother it is on the palate.
This all is high in cholesterol – waxed duck especially, with the thick layer of fat under the skin. “Of course, all the good things are very unhealthy. But you are not eating it every day, only once a year, so it’s no problem.
“And nobody goes on a diet during Chinese New Year.”
HER LEGACY IN A BLOG
Mdm Tang is eager to share her knowledge of culinary heritage and her home-cook’s wisdom distilled over 60 years of experience. Afraid it would die with her, she decided to put some of it down in a blog, with the help of her daughter Melissa Hong.
“I must leave behind a legacy, you know, by penning down whatever recipes are in my head. If I’m gone today, that’s it, my recipes would be gone.”
Theburningkitchen.com is the product of Mdm Tang’s years of experimentation - compiling her tried, tested and perfected recipes and useful tips in the kitchen (and yes, at the market). Said Ms Hong, “Every recipe carries a part of my mum and a part of all the loved ones we have shared these meals with.”
But at the outset, Mdm Tang had a technological bridge to cross. '
“(My mum) grew up with the typewriter, there were no computers. There was once I told her to ‘close the window’ on the computer,” said Ms Hong, 32. The only windows she was familiar with were those around the house. “She was like, what window?”
Mother and daughter now publish two posts a week, and Ms Hong helps her with the photography, videography and editing of visuals. “I’m very proud of my mum now … She can even respond to people on Facebook,” said Ms Hong.
“She can no longer call herself computer illiterate. But that’s after a lot pain. And a lot of tears.”
Click here for Madam Tang’s unique new year recipes. One is a dish that’s vanished in the last 50 years – deep-fried chicken skin pancake. The other is a beloved family recipe, 8-treasure celestial duck.