Happy Chinese New Year everyone! Since the chinese follow the Lunar calendar, Chinese New Year falls on a different date each year on the Western calendar. This year, it is on February 3, 2011.

In chinese astrology, there are 12 different animal zodiac signs, with one sign for each year. This year is the year of the rabbit. In honor of the year of the rabbit, I tried making some sweet steamed rabbit buns.

I was trying to go for a simple design, and I envisioned for the long ears to be pulled back. They didn’t come out exactly as I had pictured, but I think they came out fairly cute. There are more details about the recipe and how to make these discussed below.

While Chinese New Year is technically only one day in the US and other parts of the world that don’t really celebrate it, in the parts of Asia that do celebrate it, it is a much bigger holiday, lasting several days.

Businesses and schools have many days off, sometimes up to a week, to properly celebrate the holiday. I’ve only experience Chinese New Year once in Taiwan, but I remember it well. The days leading up to New Year’s eve were full of frenzied cooking in preparation for the big feast. New Year’s Eve is traditionally celebrated with a large family feast, the idea being to bring and gather family together. It is also supposed to be bad luck to cook on New Year’s Day, so enough food must be made for leftovers the next day.

The days following New Year’s Eve were so much fun during the one time I celebrated in Taiwan. For once, no one had to work and my cousins didn’t have to go to school or go to their study prep classes. We spent days just playing games and the adults playing mahjong.

Another tradition is that kids are given red envelopes with money (hong bao) by the adults on New Year’s Day. This is something I miss getting.

The food eaten during New Year’s varies depending on where you are from. In northern China, it is tradition to make dumplings. The dumplings are folded to resemble the money from ancient China, to bring wealth in the New Year.

In Taiwan,one tradition is to eat around a pot, similar to hot pot, except there is a hole in the middle of the pot and the food is placed on the sides and already cooked.

Most of the traditional foods found during New Year’s revolves around symbolism for generating luck in the coming year. For instance, one common food is New Year’s Cake (nian gao), a simple cake made of brown sugar and glutinous rice flour which is then steamed. The cake is chewy, like mochi. After it is made, it is usually set to harden in order to easily transport and give to others. To let it be chewy again, it needs to be heated up, so it is usually cut into small squares, dipped in egg and then fried. There are other flavors of the new year’s cake such as red bean, taro, red yeast, but brown sugar is the most common one.  Nian gao literally means “year cake.” However the words sound the same as the chinese words for “year high,” or prosperous year, so it is eaten with the idea that it will bring luck and prosperity in the New Year.

Radish cake is also often made this time of year. It is shredded radish mixed with rice flour and then steamed, and is basically the savory version to New Year’s cake. It is then cut into squares and pan fried. The dish is often served at dim sum as well.

Fa gao, sometimes called Lucky cake or Prosperity cake, is a steamed flour cake that more resembles what we think of when we use the word cake. Fa means to be raised or leavened which describes what happens to this cake when steamed. However, it also mean to prosper, so eating this cake is also supposed to bring prosperity or luck.

You will often hear people greet with Gong Xi Fa Cai during New Year’s. This actually does not mean Happy New Year. Happy New Year in mandarin is Xin Nian Kuai Le, which is also used. Gong Xi Fa Cai actually means “Congratulations and wishing you a prosperous new year.”

So whether you celebrate Chinese New Year or not, here’s wishing everyone a happy and prosperous year!

For those interested in the bunny steamed buns, I actually started with a steamed bun mix for these. Even though I had successfully made my own steamed mantou buns, I was curious as to whether the mix would be easier or better tasting. There are several steamed bun flour mixes, sometimes called pao flour, available at asian grocery stores. At Ranch 99, I found them near all the other small flour packs like glutinous rice flour, tapioca flour, etc.

The mix wasn’t really any simpler than the mantou I made from scratch. I still had to add stuff to the flour mix, the only thing I didn’t have to add was yeast. I also still had to go through a lot of kneading on my stand mixer.

While the dough came out fine, I actually preferred the taste of the mantou recipe I made from scratch. So next time, I won’t buy the flour. If you do try the flour mix, it has directions on the back for what you need to add to the flour and how long you have to knead and let rise, etc.

After I was done kneading the dough, I gathered it into a ball and then broke it into about 16 dough balls. I took each dough ball and made a smooth circle and then let them rise for about 20 minutes. You can add filling inside these dough balls, the most traditional is red bean. I actually made my dough more sweet than what the flour mix called for because I didn’t want to add filling to these balls.

Once the balls were done rising, I took a pair of kitchen sheers and I snipped two pieces on the tops of the balls to form laid-back ears. I then put each dough bunny on a small square of parchment paper and stuck it in the steamer to steam for about 15 minutes. After they had cooled, I took a tiny paintbrush and red food coloring to make the eyes and nose. I chose red because a lot of the white bunnies I see usually have red eyes.

These are easy to make whether you make them from scratch such as using this recipe or from a flour mix. They make great gifts for friends and family too!

It’s been a while since we went back to Yum Cha for their cheap dim sum. (I believe the current prices are $1.39 for “A” dishes and $1.79 for “B” dishes.) Recently, mmm-yoso did a post about their 3 item bbq combo which made me want to go back.

As I recall, previously the bbq meats at Yum Cha were on the expensive side, which I thought was odd given how cheap the rest of the items are in the cafe.

Right now they have a special for $4.39 for bbq pork, chicken and roasted duck and rice. The portions are quite generous and enough for a few meals. Since we had so many people we got two orders. Interestingly, one order was a lot bigger than the other one. I thought the duck was really bland. The bbq pork was surprisingly not too salty. The best item was the bbq chicken.

We also picked up some dim sum items as well. I love that they serve dim sum all day long.

Steamed lucky cake.  I didn’t see this on my previous visits. It’s eaten during Chinese New Year so I’m not sure if it may be a seasonal item only. It was slightly on the dry side but still pretty good.

Fried chicken wings are also a new item. An order gives you 6 wings. The wings were just okay, nothing special.

Shrimp dumplings (this is two orders worth)

Egg tarts

Mochi

Radish cakes

Fried shrimp balls. These used to be filled with only shrimp. Now they have added corn kernels to the batter.

Steamed tripe

Honeycomb tripe

You can read my previous posts on Yum Cha here and here and here

Yum Cha Cafe
6933 Linda Vista Rd
San Diego, CA 92111
www.yumchacafe.com

Steamed buns are a pretty big staple of a chinese diet, kind of like the equivalent of eating toast in the US. Plain steamed buns are called mantou. There are many variations of these steamed buns, such as sweet ones filled with red bean paste, savory ones filled with bbq pork (cha siu), or ground pork and vegetables. There are also ones shaped like flowers and topped with scallions, swirled ones, fried ones.

The plain ones are often eaten as breakfast, either by itself, or accompanied with some dried pork. They are also eaten with porridge. I grew up eating these buns but I never tried making my own. They are readily available both fresh and frozen at chinese supermarkets and some american ones like Trader Joe’s and Costco, so I’ve never had much of a desire to make my own .

While browsing some other food blogs, I realized that these aren’t very hard to make at all, especially if you have a stand mixer to do the kneading for you. So for our little Chinese New Year celebration this weekend, I tried making my own. I looked at several recipe before trying one I found on Almost Bourdain.

My dough ended up being a bit too dry. I probably should have added more water, but since this was my first time, I didn’t want to play around with the recipe. Next time I’ll add more water. My dough had a hard time coming together because it was so dry and it was also hard to roll out. Luckily, it still tasted really good.

I am really proud of these. Once steamed, they were just like the ones I grew up eating. And they came out quite pretty too. While I know I can easily just buy these, they taste so much sweeter when you put in your own labor.

Steamed Buns (Mantou) (recipe found on Almost Bourdain with my notes and some changes in the directions)

Yields approx 8 steamed buns

Ingredients
5 g instant dried yeast
250 ml water (next time I will increase this because my dough was too dry)
500 g all purpose flour
25 g caster sugar
1 tsp vegetable oil

Directions
1. Dissolve dried yeast in water in a small bowl. (Since it is instant yeast, you don’t need to worry about the water being warm)
2. Mix all ingredients in the bowl of electric stand mixer. With the dough hook attached with low speed, knead the dough until it’s smooth, around 10 minutes. (If the dough does not come together, add more water.)
3. Gather dough up to ball and let the dough rest for 5 minutes and lay it on a slightly floured surface.
4. Roll out the dough to a 70 cm x 15 cm rectangle.
5. Take one of the long ends and fold up to meet the halfway point. Do the same with the other end. You should view Almost Bourdain‘s site for her good step by step photos.
6. Roll the dough out again to a 45 cm x 25 cm rectangle.
7. Brush the surface with water with a pastry brush.
8. Roll the dough tightly from the longer edge to form a log. Make sure it is very thin and tight so there are no spaces between the spirals.
9. Slice the dough into 8 pieces. My ends had some leftover dough which I cut off and didn’t use.
10. Cut small square slices of parchment paper to place dough on. Put dough on the paper.
11. Spread the buns on the steamer about 1 inch apart since the buns will spread and let them rise for about 20 minutes in a semi warm area. If your kitchen is too cold, you could try turning your steamer on warm to let them rise properly. Pour about 1 1/2 cups cold water in the bottom of the steamer. Cover the steamer, and let them cook for about 20 minutes. I steamed some in my rice cooker steamer and some in a bamboo steamer on the stove. I preferred the steamer on the stove only because my bamboo steamer had more room for the dough to rise and steam properly.


12. Serve while hot. You can reheat them later by sticking them in the steamer again.