Dried mushrooms and seafood are a roaring trade during the festive season.
10 February 2018
Every Chinese household is abuzz as the Lunar New Year approaches. There are auspicious couplets and decorations to be put up, spring cleaning to be done, and preparations will surely be underway to prepare the ingredients and food for the season of family reunions and feasting, including the purchasing of traditional Chinese dried goods and seafood.
At the old Albert Centre in Singapore, Mdm Yeo Hoon Yee has been incredibly busy since the beginning of of the year. She is the founder of Geck Huat Trading Pte Ltd, and a purveyor of these sought-after dried goods for the last 40 years. "Although prices have gone up since last year, and business isn't as good as it was before, it has still been very brisk," she says. She has had to lengthen her opening hours to keep up with the demand since January, closing daily after 8pm.
Mdm Yeo Hoon Yee (Left) has been in the dried goods business for more than 40 years. (Pic: Chen Ngee Ann)
Of all her products, it is abalone that has seen the greatest surge in prices this year. "There is a lower supply of larger canned abalone this year. There is almost none coming from Mexico because they are producing less and most of it is going to China, and very little coming from Australia as well," she says. "While the price of dried mushrooms has remained stable, the price of dried scallops has gone up because Japan is exporting less and the demand from China for all of these goods has increased greatly. It's affected the prices a lot."
We take a look at some of the dried goods and canned delicacies consumed during the Lunar New Year, what they're used for, and how to prepare them.
Most of the dried mushrooms on the market are from China or Japan. Of these, flower mushrooms (identified by the 'flowering' cracks on their caps) are considered the highest quality, followed by thick mushrooms and then winter mushrooms. Flower mushrooms and thick mushrooms are more suited to long cooking techniques like braising, while the lighter winter mushrooms serve well to accompany Teochew steamed fish without overpowering the dish. Farmed mushrooms are grown indoors and tend to look prettier, with a more intact underside, whereas wild mushrooms are darker, sometimes black or dark brown.
Flower mushrooms are identified by the flowering cracks on their caps.
Fish Maw is made from the dehydrated swim bladder of large fish like croaker or sturgeon. To get the light, spongy consistency of fish maw that we are used to seeing in soups, the swim bladders are first fried in oil. Although this breaks down its collagen and nutrition, the resulting texture is more sought-after.
Fish maw can be used in any number of dishes: the Cantonese traditionally use it in soups or in a steamboat, while the Teochew might steam the fish maw and stuff it with a meat filling, using a higher quality fish maw that won't disintegrate while steaming at high heat.
Few people use dried abalone these days, opting instead for the more convenient canned abalone, the varieties of which are endless: from large palm sized abalone to tiny baby abalone, and abalone from all over the world, Australia, Mexico, Chile, South Africa, just to name a few.
When choosing canned abalone, it is important to look at the label and consider these things: the country of origin, its production number, expiry date and weight. The net weight is the weight of the abalone and its brine, and would typically be about 425g, while the drained weight will vary from about 100g to 360g, depending on the size of the abalone.
Read the labels carefully when buying canned abalone.
Generally, there are two types of sea cucumber: the bald sea cucumber and the prickly sea cucumber. The prickly ones are thicker and hardier and can withstand long hours cooking in methods like braising without disintegrating; these usually come from countries like Australia, Indonesia and Africa and are paler in appearance.
Bald sea cucumbers (left) look different from spiny sea cucumbers (right).
Bald sea cucumbers, which come from Australia, Africa and the Middle East, rehydrate quicker, are softer in texture and do not hold up well to long cooking times. Appearance-wise, they are thicker in girth with an ashy grey colour. When purchasing these, be sure to avoid the ones that are too white, for these may have been treated with bleaching agents.
Dried scallop are often used in soup for the sweet taste it imparts, as well as its nutritional benefits. Dried scallops should have the hue of malted candy; avoid those that are too dark or blackish, which might indicate that the scallops may have not been fresh when dehydrated.
Dried scallops add a lot of umami to soups
To select good conpoy, you might want to pick those that are from Hokkaido, Japan, which produces the highest quality of dried scallop. Good conpoy should have a vibrant colour and be firm to the touch, not sticky, and not falling apart when you give it a gentle squeeze. Good conpoy should also smell fresh and sweet like the sea.
Quintessential Dried Goods For Chinese New Year
This article was written by Chen Ngee Ann and translated by Rachel Tan. Click here to read the original version of this story.