The Chinese New Year goodies scene is bursting at the seams with festive nosh competing for a place on every home’s coffee table. We trawled food fairs and bakeries (and piled on the calories!) to sift out the ones that are worth your attention – from traditional staples to new-fangled flavours and even a dairy-free bake.
The aroma of freshly-baked pineapple tarts. The crumble of a buttery pastry. It’s hard to beat home-made pineapple tarts, especially when Mum has perfected hers over the years – but these ones come close.
Ollella’s Golden Pineapple Balls ($36, 16 pieces) boasts dark brown jam that is pulpy and tangy. A golden globe ensconces it, complementing its rich, but not cloying, caramelised sweetness, with a soft and cushy pastry.
Equally gratifying is Cedele’s Pineapple Pocket Pie (from $22.80 a tub) that can be polished off in two bites. Tasters liked that the moreish jam is more zesty than sweet, polishing up to six pieces at a go, although some of us felt that it could do with more pastry.
We used to think that tarts wrapped in single serve packs are dull, but the ones from Old Seng Choong proved us wrong. Picky tart connoisseurs will enjoy the sticky strands in the zesty jam of its Yuzu Pineapple Tarts ($23.84, 10 pieces). The pastry could be more buttery, but it’s satisfying nonetheless.
Why add a sour ingredient to an already-sour filling? It works though, in Provisions’ Lime Pineapple Tarts ($21.80, 16 pieces). The citrusy flavour is fresh and pronounced, although the jam is denser than how some of us would have liked it.
KUEH BANGKIT, LOVE LETTERS AND COOKIES
Our criteria for the quintessential kueh bangkit? It should crumble into a lush mess in the mouth (not in the hand), sport a lively coconut flavour balanced by a light sweetness. Our top picks are from Baker’s Well ($24.70), HarriAnn’s ($20.90) and Little Nonya’s Cookies ($20). Others we tried were either bland, floury or exuberantly sweet.
In the league of modern Asian cookies, we like how Antoinette’s classy Kopi Susu Cookies ($10) leaves a bittersweet kopi note after every bite. And that these mounds, delicately shaped like petite flowers, adds an elegance to our buffet. For a varietal that is less robust but more buttery, there is Pantler’s Coffee Chocolate Cookies ($5.50). The java taste is more mellow, with a milky flavour – you’ll like this if you are a latte or mocha person.
From Cedele, we are adding Jasberry Rice Vanilla Shortbread ($21.50) to our annual to-buy list, which is ruled by its signatures like Chocolate Chip Macadamia, Earl Grey Tea Cookies and Espresso Crunch. At the blind taste test, tasters swooned over the light and crumbly texture of the shortbread. The vanilla flavour stands out, while the Jasberry Rice (a strain of rice which is purple in colour) adds a regal marbling effect, and a crunchiness to the cookie.
The flavours in the Mala Cookies ($17.82) from Old Seng Choong are redolent of those in gai zai paeng or Kampar Chicken Biscuit, a common Malaysian snack baked with fermented bean curd and five-spice powder. The difference is that the Mala Cookies are smaller and thicker, and leaves a pleasing spiciness at the end of each one.
Love letters are aplenty, and admittedly, there are too many for us to try them all. But we were disappointed that we did not find more that are as good as Baker’s Well’s Signature Nonya Love Letters ($24.70). They are shorter and smaller (more tightly-rolled) than regular ones, and delightful with an aromatic lemak flavour that is lacking in poorer cousins. Write to us (firstname.lastname@example.org) should you have good eggy rolls to recommend.
CHIPS AND SNACKS
From a convenient ingredient to jazz up seafood dishes, the salted egg yolk has migrated and pervaded the snack scene. It’s a myth that it is a magic bullet that makes everything tasty. From the numerous salted eggs snacks we tried, the Spicy Salted Egg Yolk Lotus Root Chips from Goodwood Park Hotel ($36.80) is the one that you would want to horde.
One taster said gleefully that she’s buying it for herself, not for the sharing table. Another asked if it was sold in a XL bag instead of its elegant bottle. Slices of crunchy lotus root and crisp curry leaves are generously coated with crumbly blobs of salted egg yolk powder. A mellow tinge of spice cuts through the unami. Very indulgent. Very addictive.
And while you are at the hotel deli, you might also want to grab the Chiku (arrowhead) Chips ($26.80). Thinner and more delicate than potato chips, they flaunt a light earthy flavour that is a cross between potatoes and tapicoa. Because they are not at all salty, it is easy to polish off a bottle in a flash. We so wish it’s sold all year round, to replace our regular stash of crackers.
As ubiquitous as salted egg yolk is the crispy fish skin; a union of the two is a no-brainer. And East Ocean Teochew Restaurant did a pretty good job of it with its Crispy Fish Skin with Salted Egg Yolk ($19). The fish skin is of just the right thickness (yes it matters!), and it sports the right balance of salty and sweet with just a smidgen of spice.
For a lighter but no less gratifying version, we would go for Haos Sea Salt Jumbo Fish Skin ($23.90, from Teochew Restaurant Huat Kee). It is light and delicately crisp – a refined rendition of a hearty snack.
Another snazzy snack that caught our attention is Antoinette’s Mala Chips ($15). Paper-thin, it is fiery at the first bite (and it gets more intense), thanks to the seven types of peppers that go into making it. And it’s golden with specks of red – suitably auspicious too.
Not at all traditional but so pretty that kids will love it, is Provisions’ Lychee and Earl Grey Meringues ($13.80). Pop a dainty swirl in the mouth and enjoy the melting sweetness. Mini in stature but not in flavour, the fruity and tea flavours are surprisingly prominent.
Amongst the new fangled this and that, old-school snacks are in the minority. HarriAnns’ Chicken Floss Samosa ($19.90) is one of the few homely finds that children will enjoy. With sweetish strands of chicken floss encased in crisp triangular wonton wraps, it is a throwback to the days when melon seeds and candied coconut strips in eight-compartment serving trays grace tables during Chinese New Year.
Another traditional find is Hakka Muah Chee ($15 for about 800g, from Pang’s Hakka Delicacies, whatsapp 9021-7507 to order and for collection details). It’s communal and great for bonding – we would buy it in advance (it keeps chilled for up to four days) and steam it for about 20 minutes just before the clan arrives. Kids can snip and mix it with the grated peanut packs that come with it. Just remember use an oiled steaming plate and greased scissors, for we struggled with sticky dough when we did not.
KUEH LAPIS AND CAKES
The arduous task of making kueh lapis makes this the last confectionary we would attempt, if we ever get around to dusting out our baking pans. Fortunately, there is no need for that trouble, when Ollella’s aced the recipe and technique for this notoriously hard-to-master layered cake.
Moist and buttery, and laced with cinnamon, the Original Spiced Lapis (from $21, 350g) and Prune Rum Lapis (from $24, 350g) are glorious. And it outdid itself with the Salted Egg Yolk Lapis (from $24, 350g), a union that turned out surprisingly well. Instead of complicating the flavours, crumbly salted egg yolk permeated the sweetness and added a punch to it. The layered cake can be kept chilled for up to three weeks; thaw at room temperature for 30 minutes to an hour before serving.
We are not usually fans of pound cakes, but the Lychee Pound Cake from Provisions elicited second helpings with its arresting lychee flavour in a rather dense loaf. While it is neither gourmet nor fancy, its Asian contemporary take on a humble bake secures it a place on our list.
My dad’s annual habit of buying a chiffon cake for guests deserves an upgrade this year – I am getting him Cedele’s Pandan Ogura Cake ($22, 400g). The tasting panelists swooned over this minimalist, dairy-free cake that scored highly with its light-as-feather, pillowy texture. Fluffier than a chiffon cake, each slice wobbles and falls to its side when cut. And its pandan flavour … it truly shines – so fresh like it’s made with juice that came straight from pandan garden. Young and old will enjoy this. And Dad will be glad.
Other than at their respective stores, goodies from these brands are available at the Takashimaya Chinese New Year Bazaar at basement 2 of the shopping centre, from now until 3 February 2019: Baker’s Well, East Ocean Teochew Restaurant, Haos, HarriAnns, Little Nonya’s Cookies, Ollella and Provisions.