Saturday, January 2, 2010

Hauoli Makahiki Hou

For many years, New Years dinner in my family was simply a repeat of Thanksgiving and Christmas.  We tried to find ways to make it a little more distinguishable, but somehow didn't succeed too well.  That isn't to say that it wasn't good, but with a big feast just one week prior, it was a little less special.   I always wanted to have a goose instead of turkey for Christmas, as seen in all the old English stories, but while whole turkeys go on sale from Thanksgiving, finding a whole goose on island is nearly impossible and quite costly if you do.   I remember when my mom would make a turkey for Christmas and a big crown roast for New Year's.   Her crown roasts, were so succulent, and festive looking with the shiny foil atop each bone.   But unfortunately, when less lucritive times hit after the 80's were done, mom's superstition kicked in saying that the crown roasts didn't bring in enough good luck for us and stopped making them.  

So we continued to try to find a way to distinguish New Year's from Christmas, when my dad saw a special on an Italian American holiday tradition called, "The Feast of the Seven Fishes", where every dish at the meal is a seafood dish.   As soon as he mentioned it, it was classic "eureka" moment for my family.  For one thing, pretty much every member of my family is a big seafood fan, one of the few foods we all really agree upon.  For another, it coincided with the Japanese tradition of sashimi that is so prevalent in the islands.  It's also highly symbolic to the Chinese, as the word for "fish", yuu, is a homonym for the word for "abundance" (also yuu).  So having a feast where each of us contributed one fish dish, seemed highly appropriate, and a fantastic way of welcoming in the new year that we've adhered to ever since.

My Mom's Lobster, Scallop and Shrimp Platter
As the matriarch of my family, my mom's dish is usually the centerpiece of our meal, even if it isn't a turkey or a crown roast.  What she came up with this year was spectacularly mouth watering, in both appearance, aroma, and taste.   Her preparation was actually quite simple, with some basic broiled lobster and seared scallops and shrimp.   The cooking time, technique, and seasoning were all quite minimal, as she wanted the natural flavors of these highly prized seafood items to speak for themselves.   However, everything was in her gorgeous presentation, which just screamed festive and abundance.  Unfortunately, the lobster I had, had a horribly mushy texture almost like mashed potatoes.  As my mom's preparation is typically flawless, I can only assume that she got a bad lobster from Costco.  It was a little inauspicious for me, but as we had so much food, it really didn't matter.  Conversely, her scallops and shrimp were both totally sweet and crisp. 

My Mom's Oyster Sauce Asparagus & Mushrooms
My mom also felt that we needed to have some vegetation on the table.  While not strictly a seafood dish, she did stir fry it with Chinese oyster sauce (hau yau).  So it still retained some of that concentrated oyster flavor in the dish.

My Aunty's Chinese Style Braised Uhu
My aunty also went with a classical approach to seafood.  In her case, probably the quintessential classic Chinese preparation for a whole fish, steamed with shoyu, green onions, and ginger.   Just for fun she added some shiitake mushrooms to the mix as well, and instead of steaming, she kind of braised the fish, but it essentially tasted the same.  The fish she picked was, a local Hawaiian uhu, or parrot fish (so named because of its beak-like mouth).   This fish when done right, like my aunty did, has an especially smooth texture.  Chinese refer to this ideal texture as waat (or "slippery"), and it is considered by the Chinese to be the most desired texture a fish can have.  My aunty's was just perfect in this regard.  Of course on an uhu, the best bite, the most waat part, are the cheeks and forehead.

My Lup Cheong & Oyster Sauce Mayonnaise Stuffed Salmon
My own contribution to this fish extraganza was a more modern, local Chinese, classic, a baked salmon stuffed with lup cheong and oyster sauce mayonnaise.  This is the dish that when Anthony Bourdain tried it, he said he didn't even want to guess at its geneology, he only knew that it was good.   Of course, its mixed up cultural heritage is so representative of what we're all about in the islands.  My aunty had almost made a salmon as well, but luckily found out what I was doing and switched at the last minute.  But what I especially liked was the contrast between my aunty's classical approach and my modern one.   It was like you could taste the evolution of Chinese flavors in Hawaii, right on our table.  

My Wife's Shake-n-Bake Catfish
My wife decided to go with another classic flavor for her fish, but one from the heart of Dixie.   She made a Shake-n-Bake catfish.   While Shake-n-Bake is usually done with chicken or pork, catfish is perhaps the favorite fish of the South, and the Southern style seasonings in Shake-n-Bake went perfectly with the catfish.   The only problem was, after she baked it, it was nearly an hour before we got to eat (waiting for Mom and Aunty to finish their last minute preparations).  So her normally crunchy Shake-n-Bake got soggy on the bottom.   Unfortunately, since all fish dishes are very quick, and should be done right before serving, the timing on this meal was just terribly difficult.  But while it lost its crunch, it lost none of its flavor, which was like eating Southern comfort.

My Uncle's Fishcake Stuffed Shiitake Mushrooms
Instead of making a dessert, like he usually does, my uncle opted to contribute a fish dish of his own  In his case, he stuffed big black shiitake mushrooms with fish cake.   I remember my Po Po making this dish ages ago, and it was like a reminder of times gone past for me.   The texture difference between the fish cake and the mushroom was interesting, as they didn't totally blend nor did they totally contrast.  

My Dad's Barbie's Special Tuna Salad
As this whole Feast of the Seven Fishes was his idea, even my dad likes to contribute something to this meal.  Of course, his cooking ability is really limited to mixing and plating, kind of akin to what my 4-year old son can do.  So he usually just arranges something pretty with canned fish and crackers.  But this time he went all out, and looked up something from the Internet called Barbie's Tuna Salad, which he said had really excellent user reviews.   However, he left out the ingredient which made the tuna salad really unique, the curry powder, as he was afraid that my son wouldn't be able to eat it.   To me, this really took out the heart of what made Barbie's so unique and interesting to begin with.  Without it, I think I preferred the tuna macaroni salad my son made last week more.  Thankfully, he added some of that curry powder back in to spice up the leftovers, and the difference was like night and day.

My Son's Ikura & Konbu Basmati Rice
In keeping up with his training in the culinary arts, I again had my son wash and cook rice.   This time, however, it wasn't as a sous chef for my dish, but to help him mix one of his own.   My son adores ikura (salmon roe).   Whenever we have sushi, the one thing he always wants to have is the ikura.  At first, the connotation that all my little boy wanted to eat was caviar was a little disturbing.  But apparently this isn't so uncommon, as we attended one of my friend's weddings, as they introduced the young ring bearer we found out that his favorite food is ikura as well.  As much as he adores ikura, my wife loves konbu (the sweet salty sea kelp).  It's probably from all the little toothpick samples we used to enjoy as kids from Shirokiya.   So this New Year's, I decided that they should both have a treat, and pick up some trays of ikura and konbu from Daiei (Don Quixote).  Then I let my son complete his dish by mixing it all together.   The basmati rice we used was far less sticky than the white calrose you would normally use, but then this made it easier for him to mix well.  Additionally, the fragrance of the basmati rice seemed to give more complexity to the relatively simple dish.   Simple but a real treat for my family.

My Son's Sardines En Croute
While I was dreaming up things for my son to cook, I came up with something else that I thought it would be fun for him to make.  Thinking back on the Italian roots of this meal, it dawned on me that sardines (which my wife also loves), would be something easy and tasty.  But how to serve it?  He could place it on crackers, but that would be a little too simplistic, even for him.  Then I thought of "pigs-in-a-blanket", and it dawned on me that instead of vienna sausages, we could wrap the sardines in Pillbury cresent rolls.   Just to add a little more Italian kick, and a little color, we decided to roll in some sun dried tomatoes as well.  The result was like a miniature sardines en croute.   My son actually had more fun rolling up his sardines, than mixing his rice, and the resulting little morsels were just delightful.

The only thing that seemed to be omitted from our fantastic seafood meal was sashimi or at least some local style poke, but with all that variety it really wasn't missed.  What we really did miss was my sister, who had already gone back to the mainland.  As much as we love and miss her, she's gotta have her own adventures without us cramping her style.

New Year's Dinner 2009
It is always really interesting to see the range of interpretations my family comes up with, even when focusing on a single ingredient like fish.  It is a factor of both our great kapakahi heritage and the spectrum of our own personal styles.   The other great thing is that we came up with a total of 9 dishes, and 9 (gau) is another homonym in Chinese for abundance and longevity.  Although it's based on the feast of the 7 fishes, having 9 dishes was even more auspicious for us, and hopefully will be reflective of the upcoming year.

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