For the Cantonese, good-sounding dishes are important to start the new lunar year. Dried oysters and fatt choi are two must-eat food during Chinese New Year (CNY) because dried oysters, called hoe see in Cantonese, sounds like 'good things' if you pitch the 'see' a little lower and fatt choi sounds like 'to prosper, to grow rich'.
I usually get my dried oysters from Chew Thai Seng near Kian Kok High but the traffic jams there this time of the year is just too crazy so this year I bought the oysters from Man Cheong, an old Chinese grocers now located at Taman Mesra in Penampang. They didn't have high grade dried oysters so I had to settle for the cheaper, smaller Korean ones.
The Hakka lady who sold me the dried oysters said that the smaller oysters are perfect for a dish she usually cooks for the most important dinner of the year, the CNY reunion dinner, which will fall on next Tuesday. The oysters are sauteed briefly in oil, wrapped with a minced meat paste and bundled in fatt choi, a rare moss that grows in Mongolia, and steamed. A sauce is poured over the steamed oysters before serving.
I attempted the dish last week, adding extra seasonings to my taste. The feedback was very good but sometimes I wonder if it's because my guests are being polite. I couldn't tell because I was sick and my taste buds were too. I think the dish was rather light so it should be a good contrast to the rich CNY dishes. What it needed was a bit more flavoring in the oysters, so that's what I did the second time and I think the results are good enough to share with you.
When choosing dried oysters, pick the big, plump unbroken ones. Flat oysters are usually not as fresh and tasty. The greenish oysters are superior to the dark brown ones in flavor. Fatt choi has received bad press for being adulterated and colored. Real fatt choi is a khaki-black color and the soaking water should stay clear and uncolored or you've got the fake stuff. It looks crazily similar to black human body hair and doesn't have any flavor but has a nice, soft, slightly el dente bite. Good fatt choi stays firm after cooking while the fake ones will disintegrate. How do you tell? Peer into the packet of fatt choi, looking for hints of khaki-brown color. The price usually will tell too. Good fatt choi is about RM400 per kg.
Kind of strange-looking, but black sea moss is a CNY delicacy.
Dried Oysters Fatt Choi
12 dried oysters, soaked for 2 hours
2 slices of fresh ginger
a small handful of dried black moss (fatt choi), soaked and rinsed until grit-free
200 gram ground pork* seasoned with salt and white pepper
3 t oyster sauce
1 t light soy sauce
1/2 T cornflour + 3/4 cup chicken stock
1/2 t salt, or more to taste
1 t sesame oil
1/2 t caster sugar (optional)
1/2 kg spinach or young pea sprouts or other greens**
red chili or pepper strips
* if making a lot of wrapped oysters, I would buy 1 packet of ground pork from the market (choose the reddish mince over the whitish ones; less fat) and chop about 2 cups of fresh pork, season it with salt and white pepper, spin it around in a bowl with my hands until it is sticky and bouncy, and mix in the bought mince. YOu can use prawns or fish mince if like.
** you can blanch the greens or serve the oysters on lettuce, something we call 'bau sung', sung sounding like life or alive.
1. Clean the dried oysters well. Pat dry. Put 1 t veg oil in a frying pan/wok and fry the oysters with the ginger and 1/2 t light soy sauce (remember dried oysters are slightly salty even after soaking) for about 3 minutes until the oysters are dry. Remove from heat to cool.
2. Wrap each oyster with the meat paste and then wrap the fatt choi around the middle of the meat-covered oyster. Add a strip of red chili for color. Put oysters on an oiled steaming plate and steam 15 minutes.
3. Heat a pot of water, add 1 T veg oil (preferably 'cooked' peanut oil i.e. heated until hot & then cooled--it'll give a better flavor) and 1/2 t salt to the water. When water boils, add the greens and blanch until just wilted. Remove quickly and run cold water over to stop the cooking. (Sometimes I under-cook and don't run cold water; saves a step and keeps the veg from cooling.) Drain well (must do that or the liquid from the veg will dilute the sauce) and arrange on a serving plate.
Or, you can just arrange lettuce on the serving plate. Each person serves herself by wrapping an oyster on a lettuce leaf.
4. Arrange the steamed oysters on the veg-lined serving plate.
5. Put the 1 t oyster sauce, light soy sauce, sesame oil and sugar into a small saucepan and heat. Season to taste. Add the cornstarch solution, stirring well, until the sauce turns clear and shiny. If too thick or thin, add more stock or cornstarch solution.
6. Pour the sauce over the oysters and serve immediately.