Dim Sum Chef is Busy for the Lunar New Year

Dim sum chef Lunjian Yee preparing "golden crispy crumbs." (Photo by Jane Zhang via Sing Tao Daily)

Dim sum chef Lunjian Yee preparing “golden crispy crumbs.” (Photo by Jane Zhang via Sing Tao Daily)

[Editor’s note: The Lunar New Year begins on Feb. 19 this year, and the holiday traditionally lasts 15 days. The Chinese celebrate this most important holiday in their culture by attending family banquets and gatherings with friends. During the holiday, the Chinese like to dress in red or other bright colors and post calligraphy scrolls on the sides of their doors. Certain foods, including the dim sum dishes featured in the following story, are particular popular during the holiday because their names are phonetically close to some auspicious words or they appear similar to some auspicious symbols.

Dragon and lion dancing and New Year parades can also be seen in some neighborhoods:
Feb. 19: 11am, fireworks celebration at Roosevelt Park in Chinatown
Feb. 21: 11am, Flushing New Year parade (starting at the intersection of Union Street and 37th Avenue)
Feb. 22: 1pm, Chinatown New Year parade (starting at the intersection of Mott Street and Hester Street)]

For immigrants from Canton province, China, some traditional snacks are a must for the Lunar New Year banquets. These include the “sesame balls,” “rice cakes,” “steamed sponge cakes,” “golden crispy crumbs,” and “peony-shaped fried puffs.” Each one carries an auspicious message which represents a wish that most Chinese people want to fulfill in the new year. For Lunjian Yee, a dim sum chef who has been working in the kitchen for 42 years, the time around the Lunar New Year is always the busiest in a year. Recently he has been working extra hours to make the snacks, which are in high demand from customers preparing for the big holiday. On Feb. 8, a curious Sing Tao reporter visited Chef Yee’s kitchen to see how the delicious goodies are made.

Fried peony puffs (Photo by Jane Zhang via Sing Tao Daily)

Fried peony puffs (Photo by Jane Zhang via Sing Tao Daily)

Yee, 57, liked the taste of dim sum snacks when he was a kid. And this became the reason for him to choose making dim sum as his profession. At age 16, when he was thinking to learn a skill in order to make a living, dim sum was the first thing that came to mind. He became a disciple of a dim sum chef in Hong Kong, and then found a job at the Maxim Bakery there. Now working for the J. King Seafood Palace in Brooklyn, Yee has been working as a dim sum chef for more than four decades. Talking about the lessons he learns from work, Yee said being careful and responsible are always the most important thing when making dim sum.

It was only 10 days to the Lunar New Year, and Yee was as busy as at every year-end. Warren Chan, the owner of the restaurant said they had gotten orders for 2,000 boxes of the New Year snacks. Each box contains eight pieces. This means in the next three weeks, the restaurant would have to make 16,000 pieces. “I have to work 12 hours every day,” said Yee. “But it is like this every year. So I’ve gotten used to it.” Working extra hours during the New Year means he cannot celebrate with his family until he finishes work. But Yee said as a chef he has no other choice.

Yee cutting lines in dough to prepare peony puffs (Photo by Jane Zhang via Sing Tao Daily)

Yee cutting lines in dough to prepare peony puffs. (Photo by Jane Zhang via Sing Tao Daily)

Yee said sesame balls, rice cakes, steamed sponge cakes, golden crispy crumbs, and peony-shaped fried puffs are all traditional Cantonese dim sum dishes for the Lunar New Year because of their auspicious names and looks. For examples, sesame balls, when fried, will have cracks on the surface. So they look like they are smiling. Peony-shaped fried puffs look like peony blossoms, a flower representing fortune in the traditional culture. And golden crispy crumbs are thought to bring wealth because of their color. All of these are popular New Year wishes among Chinese.

Yee demonstrated how peony-shaped fried puffs and golden crispy crumbs are made in the kitchen of J. King Seafood Palace. From kneading the dough to matching it with perfectly set powder flour, heated oil and oven temperature, every step requires high skills and concentration. Yee said “being a perfectionist” is his secret to making delicious food.

Take peony-shaped fried puffs as an example. The dish looks like a garden full of peony blossoms on a banquet table. The layers of the dough look like thin flower petals. A drop of brown sugar caramel in the center of each blossom looks like the pistil. To maximize the possibilities of its appearance as well as its implication, perfectionism is necessary.

After he kneaded the dough, Yee made them into flat layers, then put one layer on top of another. Then he kneaded the layers into ball-shaped dough and left them in the freezer for two hours until they were frozen. He took them out and cut six radiant lines on the top of each ball. When the oil in the wok reached 180 degrees Celsius, he put the balls in. The “peonies” were now blossoming in the oil gradually.

“If the oil temperature is too high, the ‘petals’ won’t spread. There would be no blossoming, only buds. If the temperature is not high enough, the petals would fall off. They’d become falling petals,” Yee said as he was watching his “peonies” blossoming to their fullest.

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