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Eat healthy, eat fresh

China Daily | Updated: 2014-01-25 08:07

For the Chinese, festivals are incomplete without food. The biggest celebrations every year must revolve around the Lunar New Year and China Daily's food team taps into the mother lode to find out food trends for the coming Year of the Horse.

No one understands what's in and what's passe better than chefs. Often, they subtly nudge diners toward certain ingredients or food styles, and they are the ones who guard the health and happiness of those who eat out.

We ask the chefs some hard questions about favorite dishes ordered during the Lunar New Year, what they feed their families and what we can expect in restaurants all over China in the next 12 months.

Eat healthy, eat fresh

Poon choi, or pencai, features layers of ingredients cooked in a large basin or pot and is a popular Cantonese dish at Summer Palace Chinese restaurant in Beijing during the Spring Festival. Provided to China Daily

Most agree that diners are becoming more conscious of where their food comes from, and the focus this year will be eating healthy and fresh. And for the Lunar New Year celebrations? Traditions are here to stay.

Eat healthy, eat fresh

Steven Liu Executive chef, Fairmont Peace Hotel, Shanghai, and culinary ambassador for Fairmont Hotels

'The must-haves during the festivities are fish, meatballs, dumplings and some seasonal vegetables. At home, it's my mother who cooks most of the time and we will have fish, meat, vegetables and dumplings ... and hotpot!"

For the Year of the Horse, Liu predicts, "Healthy concepts will be the focus".

- Mike Peters

Eat healthy, eat fresh

Jin Qiang Chinese cuisine chef, Made in China, Grand Hyatt Beijing

'The most popular orders during the Spring Festival are jiaozi (dumplings) and fish. Jiaozi is traditional food for the festival and fish has an auspicious meaning, because its pronunciation is homophonic with the word 'surplus' in Chinese."

Jin says the restaurant has a special set meal for the festival consisting of dishes considered festive and auspicious, including Sichuan spicy chicken, donkey meat, abalone, brown-braised pork and steamed yellow croaker.

Traditional Beijing snacks such as deep-fried gezha made with mung-bean flour and "four happiness" pork meatballs are also offered.

At home, the chef says he would buy pork ribs, beef, chicken and vegetable balls to deep-fry. But his mom will do the cooking.

"Restaurants cater to different groups of people. But the ordinary people are the strongest force in the market," Jin says. "The coming year will see restaurants cater to them."

That will mean more good value options, dishes that are not over-prepared and have healthy and fresh ingredients, and dishes low in oil and salt.

"Even the affluent want to eat dishes like those made by Mom, with the taste of home."

- Ye Jun

Eat healthy, eat fresh

Hou Xinqing Executive Chinese sous chef, Summer Palace, China World Hotel, Beijing

The most popular dish at Summer Palace during the Spring Festival is poon choi, says the chef. Poon choi, or pencai, literally means "food in a basin" and includes layers of ingredients cooked in a large basin or pot. It is a delightful mixture of abalone, fish maw, chicken, brown-braised pork, duck and vegetables.

As a Huaiyang-style chef, Hou says his hometown of Yangzhou has its own version using an array of meatballs made from pork, fish, and duck. There will also be pork skin and egg-skin jiaozi.

Other popular Huaiyang dishes served at the restaurant include whole pork hocks braised with rock sugar, pea sprouts and water celery. The water celery, especially, is an auspicious seasonal vegetable because of its hollow stems. It is given the name "lu lu tong" which means "all channels open", presuming for wealth and prosperity.

Hou says he will be back in Yangzhou cooking with his family during the holidays, and they will make brown-braised meatballs, steamed mandarin fish, and chicken soup. In their part of the country, families will eat wonton instead of jiaozi.

In the coming Year of the Horse, Hou says Huaiyang cuisine will become more popular.

"Huaiyang home-style dishes are popular because they are light. With the government's curb on public spending, restaurants will turn to catering for the common folks."

- Ye Jun

Eat healthy, eat fresh

Chan Yan-tak Chef, Lung King Heen, Four Seasons Hong Kong

Eating and cooking at home takes on new meaning when you are a three-star Michelin chef like Chan. And as a Cantonese chef, every ingredient must have an auspicious name.

"I love making steamed fish, air-dried oysters and sea moss. We also have a steamed pig tongues with salted black bean during the Lunar New Year. Steamed fish is always my favorite as I love going to the wet market and finding a very fresh fish to cook for my family.

"Fish also means surplus and is very lucky," he says.

The most popular dishes ordered by diners at Lung King Heen have lyrical names in Chinese and include braised sea cucumber with dried oysters and sea moss, and abalone cubes in oyster sauce. The Cantonese pronunciation of "sea moss and dried oyster" is "fat choi hoe see", which means "prosperity and success in business".

Abalone, pronounced "bao yu", is not only a delicious way to start the year but also promises "a surplus every year".

Chef Chan says that his restaurant will continue to use imported seasonal ingredients, and organic produce is also gaining importance in Chinese cuisine.

- Donna Mah

Eat healthy, eat fresh

Xu Guisheng Head chef, Jin Man Zhan Traditional Teahouse at TaiWai, New Territories, Hong Kong

Xu Guisheng is the head chef of a "cha chaan teng" or Hong Kong-style tea restaurant in the Special Administrative Zone's Tai Wai district in the New Territories. At this grassroots level, the traditions are even more faithfully observed.

At Xu's restaurant, the dishes most often ordered during the festive period are steamed fish - grouper in this case - since Hong Kong is known for its fresh sea fish, braised goose, deep-fried crab meatballs and Cantonese barbecued meats.

The chef is pushing out an eight-course meal for his neighborhood clients, and every dish has appropriately auspicious names.

At home, his mother will shoulder the task of preparing the reunion meal, since Xu only gets off work after 11 pm. The family is expecting a feast of white-cooked chicken, sauteed prawns, a stew of winter mushrooms, sea moss and goose webs (feet).

In the coming year, Xu thinks fewer people will eat chicken, if they have a choice. That's mainly because of the avian flu that has hit Hong Kong. Whenever avian flu strikes, Xu has to take chicken off his menu, or use imported frozen chicken, usually from Brazil.

- Wang Yuke

Eat healthy, eat fresh

Raymond Siek Executive chef, Ritz-Carlton Shenzhen

Overseeing both Western and Asian food outlets at the hotel, Malaysian Chinese chef Raymond Teo draws inspiration often from his rich culinary heritage.

"Asian dishes are still very popular with our guests. Our signature nasi goreng is very well received. The spicy Southeast Asian fried rice is served with satay and condiments, and comes with shrimps, chicken, vegetables, sambal chili paste, a fried egg, chicken skewers and lobster crackers.

"It's a classic and old-time favorite in Malaysia and Indonesia."

When he gets to go home to Malaysia, Raymond surrenders his kitchen privileges to his mother.

"Mama's cooking is the best. Deep-fried fish marinated in turmeric and served with cut chili, lime juice and soy sauce is my favorite. After that, it's Mom's chicken curry with potato, and pig trotters stewed in sweet black vinegar, just to mention a few."

The next big thing in the Year of the Horse, Teo says, is the challenge facing chefs everywhere.

"There is such a lot of competition, and the culinary community is beginning to realize the importance of quality ingredients and the willingness to explore new ideas."

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