Taste: Festive foods

7 Dec 2016 by Business Traveller Asia Pacific
Indian shahi tukra

Sometimes it’s a wonder Asia ever gets any work done – there’s always a festival to celebrate and a mountain of food to make for it. Exactly what you eat will depend on if you’re celebrating Diwali in Bangalore, Ramadan in Jakarta or Christmas in Japan. Just bear in mind: it’s festival food, not a diet club meal plan.

We’ll start with something a little off the wall: Christmas in Japan. Even though the festival is not officially a holiday, it has attracted some curious traditions in recent years. Since the success of KFC’s 1974 “Kentucky for Christmas” advertising campaign, the Japanese have been ready to queue up round the block for a party barrel of fried chicken. As in previous years, the 2016 Christmas offer includes a commemorative plate, eight pieces of chicken, a chocolate cake and a salad for ¥3,990 (US$38). It may not sound much like Christmas, but who can argue with fried chicken and chocolate?

Note though, that the idea of celebrating with fast food is not that incongruous in Japan. Many festivals are celebrated with street food, often sold by itinerant vendors with one speciality dish – more traditional fare than KFC includes takoyak (octopus in a spherical pancake), ikayaki (grilled squid on a stick) or shioyaki (salty grilled bream on a stick).

It’s probably less surprising that some Australians insist on a roast turkey and ham dinner, mince pies and plum pudding… until you think about the intense summer heat. Sydneysider and foodie Peter Bailey says a hot meal is “wildly inappropriate” and “I think we only keep doing this out of a sense of tradition”. The other stereotype is not true either – Australians would rather be in the air-con on a summer’s day than at the beach slapping prawns on the barbecue. “I think cold meats and seafood with salads are more appropriate [at Christmas], washed down with Australian bubbles,” says Bailey, who also likes seasonal mango at this time.

Japanese ikayaki grilled squid

Some Australians celebrate a second Christmas in their winter, travelling to places like the Blue Mountains in July, where it sometimes snows. Gifts are given, carols are sung and hotels provide a tree and eggnog. As Bailey says: “Barmy!”

The Philippines takes its Christmas very seriously, and this is the time of year when hard-to-prepare dishes arrive on the table. That might include lechon, a roast suckling pig, or paella. For most families though the centrepieces of the Christmas Eve meal are a sweet glazed ham, often sliced and fried, and queso do bola – a whole spherical Edam cheese! Yes, in a continent that rarely touches the stuff, one family will get through a whole ball in one meal. Journalist and foodie Abe de Ramos says to also expect sweet spaghetti and red jelly – “occasionally with fruit” – and a fruit salad “heavy on the condensed and evaporated milk”.

Indonesians love to jajan (snack) and can often be found eating some small fried titbit, dipped in chilli sauce, at any time of the day. Except of course over the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, when eating and drinking in daylight hours is not allowed. It’s during this period, however, that Indonesia sometimes has to import extra rice – night-time food consumption goes up exponentially.

In Sumatra and Java especially, the meal celebrating the end of Ramadan – or indeed weddings, birthdays or any noteworthy event – is likely to be nasi kuning, or yellow rice. Cooks use a tin mould to form a turmeric-tinted mound of rice into a volcano shape. Arranged around this on a banana leaf are seven small dishes such as fried potato cakes (perkadel), fried compressed soybean (tempeh), an omelette, and of course two varieties of chilli sauce. Did we mention that Indonesians like chilli? (Indonesians take great offence at the idea that this dish could resemble the colonial Dutch invention rijstaffel – which just happens to be rice surrounded by several different types of curry.)

Traditional Korean tteokguk rice cake soup

Rice is central to the festive fare of South Korea too. “Korean Lunar New Year’s Day is when we eat rice cake soup – tteokguk – bow to our parents and elders and get lucky money envelopes,” says Korean-born writer Nan-Hie In. “Then there’s chuseok, our harvest or mid-autumn festival when we gather together for the full moon and eat songpyeon rice cakes.”

Tteokguk starts with a beef broth, or guk, to which family favourites are added. “My mother makes it with rice cakes, egg and some minced beef,” says In. Other additions are sweet soy sauce marinade-based beef and sprinklings of chopped spring onion and crushed toasted seaweed. Some say that asking someone how many bowls of New Year soup they’ve eaten is a polite way of finding out their age.

Songpyeon are small, glutinous rice cakes with a white or red bean and honey stuffing and a symbolic half-moon shape. “There’s a popular anecdote that the prettier the rice cakes, the greater chances of marrying a good spouse or, if married, having beautiful babies,” says In – before confiding that this doesn’t always work.

Hong Kong homemaker Candy Chung is used to cooking for up to 20 people over the city’s Lunar New Year festival. While winter solstice is said to be more important, it’s the New Year when the good eating’s done. In many Chinese traditions, food has auspicious meanings. For the Cantonese there has to be the lucky number of eight dishes on the table, never seven – except at a funeral banquet.

Each dish has its own meaning. “The name of the black moss (fat choi) and dried oyster (ho see) dish means getting rich and prosperity in Cantonese,” says Chung. “Fish is also a must as fish sounds the same as the word surplus. Having it means we’ll have a surplus for the whole year to come. Prawn or ha is my family must-have since the word sounds the same as laughter (ha ha!).”

Mid-Autumn Festival is most commonly associated with mooncake, which is a love-it-or-loathe-it pastry for many, traditionally a mix of nuts or another stuffing surrounding salted egg yolk, all encased in a lard-based pastry crust. Chung is quite happy to only have it once a year, although she is fussy about what she has. “A good mooncake for me has to have the salty egg yolk in it. It’s that sweet and savoury contrast that makes it so good. Most innovative flavours aren’t very appealing to me.” Family fun can be had carving lanterns out of pomelos, and making dumplings by wrapping dough around lumps of cane sugar before frying in a gingery caramel. “It’s so good, sweet and oozy,” says Chung.

In India the key ingredient seems to be sugar too – with a bit of spice and then some more sugar. While the many religions mean there is thought to be a festival somewhere in the country every three days, possibly the biggest is the Hindu festival of light, Diwali. It’s no coincidence it’s known also as a festival of sweets. According to one estimate, there are a staggering 135 different sweets and snacks associated with bringing in the Hindu New Year. One website lists 121 recipes purely for sweet vegetarian treats. You can test your commitment to type-2 diabetes with shahi tukra – that’s bread soaked in a sugar syrup and then fried before being soaked again in a rich thickened milk. Or try rasgulla, a soft, milky sponge soaked in a sugar syrup.

Shutosh Bisht, who works at the Michelin-recommended Bombay Dreams restaurant in Hong Kong, says that surprisingly there are some sugar-free snacks available. “Dried-fruit barfi is an easy Diwali sweet recipe which is sugar-free, fat-free and healthy and works great as a snack too.” This option might be sugar free but weight watchers will want to bear in mind that the snack is loaded with cashew nuts and chocolate.

In the former Portuguese colony of Macau, F&B lecturer Hugo Robarts Bandeira has no problem making more complicated fare but says he prefers one-pot dishes like feijoada (beans, cabbage and meat stew), tripas à moda do Porto (tripe and bean stew) and
cozido à Portuguesa (boiled meats, sausages and vegetables). “I was born in Macau but raised in Portugal, my father is Portuguese and my mother Macanese, so I always had both worlds at home,” he says. “But European winter food can be a bit heavy and rich if you’re not used to it.”

A Portuguese festival wouldn’t be complete without some of the salted cod called bacalhau. Sometimes it’s just boiled with potatoes, chickpeas, carrots and cabbage, though the aptly named “espiritual” version has the fish shredded with carrots in a heavenly béchamel sauce. Macanese dishes are often heavier on fish than meat. The Bandeira household likes its roast lamb and meatloaf but also puts sopa de la cassá (Chinese vermicelli soup with shrimp and fermented shrimp paste) and empada de peixe (savoury and sweet fish pie) on the table. And no doubt there will be space for the traditional desserts too, which Bandeira says always involve “lots of eggs, sugar and cinnamon”. It must be a big table.

Mischa Moselle

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