Lo Bak Go (Steamed Turnip Cake): A Lucky Dish For a Lucky Rabbit Year

February is always the time of “lucky foods” for me.

With the lunar new year typically beginning at around this time, my family — a rather superstitious lot of folks — tends to turn its attention to eating specific foods that have special significance. Noodles, for example, are a must as they represent longevity. Fish is a compulsory, too, as the Chinese word for it — yu — sounds like the word for abundance. Of all the lucky foods eaten at this time, yu sheng, a Singaporean tossed salad that combines fish with a melange of ingredients like plum sauce (added for sweetness) and chopped peanuts (which resemble bits of gold), is supreme. (Big kudos to Cathy over at Show Food Chef for putting this incredibly complex dish together!)

When my Let’s Lunch bunch decided to do lucky foods for our February virtual lunch date, several of the dishes I’ve celebrated past lunar new years with immediately came to mind. Of them all, though, I have a soft spot for one that I only rather recently learned: Lo Bak Go, a steamed turnip cake that I adore at dim sum — one that my Auntie Hon Tim took the time to teach me last Chinese new year.

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Watercress Soup: A Healthy Beginning

You could say my mother is a rather predictable person.

As soon as she hears a sniffle, a cough or simply looks you in the eye and surmises (usually correctly) that you’ve been up far too late the night before, mugs and bowls of liquids start appearing around the house. Like many Chinese, she’s a big believer in the healing powers of soup, that ingredients such as goji berries, preserved dates, lotus seeds and more have the ability to restore heaty (yang) or cooling (yin) energy to the body when tossed into a pot with pork or chicken and boiled together for hours.

Among her healing soups, my mother is particularly fond of making one for me: Watercress soup.

“You always cough and you have so many late nights — your body heat builds when you stay up late,” she’ll often say, pushing a steaming bowl of the stuff toward me. “This will cool you down.”

So, when my Let’s Lunch friends suggested sharing a recipe for a healthy dish for our first lunchdate of 2011, I immediately thought of watercress soup…
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Lin Heung Tea House: Hong Kong Dim Sum, The Old School


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Because we are in Hong Kong, dim sum is a must.

My dear friend Jeanette and I — two women who have been driven by our stomachs in the 20 years that we have been the best of friends — we wake up in the cool grayness of Hong Kong bleary-eyed and starving.

Even in the fog of sleepiness, our mission is clear — we stumble out into the dusty bustle of mid-morning Hong Kong and make our way toward Central. On a corner of narrow Wellington Street lies our destination: Lin Heung Tea House, a dim sum place that has been around since 1928 and is packed most mornings with regulars who head there for a morning dumpling fix, strong pu erh (or po lei as it is known in these parts) and some quality time with the day's newspaper …

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Winter Melon Soup: Comfort, Simple & Clear


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Among the many Cantonese-style soups of my Singaporean girlhood, the one I find myself craving once temperatures start heading south in fall is a simple one: Winter melon soup.

This broth, dotted with cubes of soft winter melon and bits of mushroom and pork, isn't an elaborate or fussy soup — it's what the Chinese call "cheng," or clear. The flavor is subtle; the experience is all about warmth and comfort.

So, when my Let's Lunch friends suggested doing a fall soup for November, I immediately started badgering my mother for her recipe

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Kok Kee WanTon Noodle: Battling a Memory


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"It is impossible," my Singaporean chef friend Willin said to me one day, "to please everyone when you make wanton mee."

This Cantonese-style noodle dish, which is ubiquitous in Singapore, is usually served dry, with the broth in a small bowl on a side. The thin yellow noodles come swimming in a salty sauce that's usually some combination of soy sauce, a sweet and dark thick soy sauce, sesame oil and, perhaps, oyster sauce. Slivers of Chinese roast pork, vegetables and wantons (which is how wontons are spelled in Singapore) are scattered on top and a smear of chili sauce is scooped onto the side for added fire.

There is one fundamental problem with wanton mee, according to Willin. It's fairly easy for hawkers to make and there are so many variations on the dish out there — each hawker center in Singapore usually has at least one, if not two or three, stalls selling just wanton mee. The noodles could be more al dente at one place; the gravy could be thicker and saltier at another. The wantons could be soft, boiled versions or crispy and deep-fried.

"Everyone ends up loving the exact kind of wanton mee they grew up with," Willin says. "So unless you're making that exact kind, they're not going to love it."

It's an interesting perspective, but I still wasn't sold — until I trekked to a spacious hawker center in Singapore's Lavender neighborhood to sample the dish at Kok Kee Wanton Noodle, a little stall that had come highly recommended by some of the most discerning palates in Singapore…

 

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Nam Seng Noodle House: Old School Wonton Mee


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It may sound shallow, but the name of a hawker in Singapore can sometimes be an easy way to tell how good its food is.

If the place is known by or bears the name of a locale that’s nowhere near its actual location, that’s often a sign that you should just drop everything, get in line and order something. Once a hawker stall has made its name somewhere, after all, its faithful will want to follow, wherever it ends up.

The much-beloved Hill Street Char Kway Teow, for example, is currently parked in Singapore’s Bedok area, nowhere near Hill Street. And one of the best places in my parents’ neighborhood for ta meepok, a dish of spicy tagliatelle-like noodles tossed with fishballs and pork, is named Jalan Tua Kong even though, frankly, I have absolutely no idea where Jalan Tua Kong is.

So when I started hearing about the “Old National Library” wonton mee shop — now situated near Singapore’s financial district, far from the former central library — I knew it was a must.

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Prosperity Cakes (Fatt Gou): Ushering In A Rich Tiger Year


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You will have to excuse the radio silence on this blog. 

Between stuffing myself with pineapple tarts and cooking up a storm in Singapore, there simply hasn’t been a spare moment since the Chinese year of the Tiger began on Sunday to sit down and pen an intelligible sentence.

Amid the bacchanalia, however, some lessons have been learned. The deeper ones — about family, love and the enduring power of ancestral lore — I won’t go into. (You’ll just have to buy the book.) 

But the Chinese new year recipes — usually designed to conjure success, prosperity or love — now those, those I’m more than happy to share.

Over the last few days, I’ve had the good fortune of spending quality time in the kitchen with Auntie Hon Tim, the Colorado-based mother of my dear Auntie Donna in Singapore. Now, Auntie Hon Tim used to own and run a Chinese restaurant in Lakewood, Colo. — so she’s got some serious cooking chops. 

Besides teaching me the quickest way to skim fat off a pot of stew and how to rapidly chop carrots without slicing off my fingernails, Auntie Hon Tim has been showing me how to make some of her favorite lunar new year recipes.

On her must list every year is fatt gou, or prosperity cakes — cupcake-sized desserts that she makes to send friends wishes of riches and sweetness in the new year. 

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