Re-create tastes of Lunar New Year in your kitchen

Thai Golden Bags With Sweet Chili Dipping Sauce makes an ideal family project that can involve young kitchen helpers.
(Courtesy of Pechanga Resort Casino)

Annual Lunar New Year festivities begin on Feb. 12, a time when millions of people in China and most other Asian countries would typically journey to their hometowns to celebrate with family. With the pandemic once again curtailing plans for gatherings, celebrations this year are on a smaller scale — at home — but still filled with delicious bites.

Two chefs at Pechanga Resort Casino in Temecula see it as a golden opportunity to share their family recipes and help others build new memories of Lunar New Year traditions. A crispy, surprise-filled dumpling makes for a crave-worthy appetizer, and clay pot chicken bathed in soy sauce brings sweetness and spice to an extra-special main course.

For Chef Marie Surakul, who is originally from Thailand, these Thai Golden Bags With Sweet Chili Dipping Sauce re-create the savory appetizers that she made as a child with her mom. Surakul is head chef at Bamboo, an Asian fusion restaurant inside Pechanga Resort Casino in Temecula, and has fond memories of making the fun-to-look-at bundles.

“Making these for the Lunar New Year gave my mom and me time to talk,” Surakul said. “Getting the ingredients ready for assembly takes a little time, depending on how good you are at chopping veggies and meat. But we had fun, and it always helped me get more familiar with how to handle things in the kitchen.”

While most of Thailand does not celebrate Lunar New Year, Surakul and her family do because of their Chinese heritage — they are Thai Chinese.

“The name for the golden bag dumplings translates to ‘bag of money’ in Thai,” she said. “They look like little bags, and you’ll find a delicious surprise inside. The nice thing about these is you can vary the filling with whatever you prefer. Keep them vegetarian, choose a different meat, only meat and no vegetables, it’s up to you. My mom would recommend including some vegetables.”

For Chef Tim Che, executive sous chef at Pechanga and in charge of the Blazing Noodles restaurant, Clay Pot Soy Sauce Chicken is a staple for households celebrating the Lunar New Year. Originally from Macau, China, Che often makes this dish for his family for the occasion.

“Whole chicken signifies wholeness and prosperity for the new year,” he said. The recipe also immediately offers money savings, he said, because it produces enough stock to make even more chicken in the days ahead.

“My family back home would cook big, elaborate meals for Lunar New Year,” Che said. “It’s kind of like Thanksgiving here in America.

“Lunar New Year is celebrated with rich and colorful foods that are also deep in meaning and significance. I started helping my mom and my older brother in the kitchen when I was a teenager, but they had me start out cutting vegetables. I did that for a long time before I graduated to making more of the dishes for the new year.”

Che said the Clay Pot Chicken recipe works so well because its leftover can be used in a variety of ways. Home cooks can also store the soy sauce base for more than a week in the refrigerator, or freeze it for up to six months.

“You can make more soy sauce chicken this way and get the most out of your ingredients.”

Thai Golden Bags With Sweet Chili Dipping Sauce

Makes 10-12 pieces

3 ½ cups sugar
½ tablespoon salt
1 ¼ cups vinegar
½ to ¾ cup ground garlic chile paste (sambal oelek)
¼ cup chopped garlic

1 teaspoon oyster sauce
1 teaspoon sugar
½ teaspoon black pepper
1 teaspoon cornstarch
¼ pound ground chicken
3 to 4 cloves garlic (chopped)
2 tablespoons cilantro stems
3 chopped fresh shiitake mushrooms
¼ cup carrot(finely chopped)
¼ cup peas
¼ cup sweet potato (cubed to 1¼ inch)

Vegetable oil
20 sheets spring roll wrapper (square or round, 8 by 8 inches)
20 Chinese chives (also known as garlic chives) or the green part of scallions

Ground chicken is mixed with vegetables, then sautéed until golden.
(Courtesy of Pechanga Resort Casino)

Make Sweet Chili Dipping Sauce: Combine all ingredients in a sauce pan. Heat to a boil and cook for 15 minutes. Remove from heat and allow to cool before serving. (Pre-made sauce is also available at Asian markets and most well-stocked grocery stores.)

The cooled chicken mixture is set on a layered spring roll wrapper.
(Courtesy of Pechanga Resort Casino)

Make the filling: Combine oyster sauce, sugar, black pepper and cornstarch in a bowl. Stir until well combined and set aside.

In a food processor, add ground chicken, garlic, cilantro stems and 2 tablespoons of the sauce mixture that you just made. Blend together and remove to a bowl; add shiitake mushrooms, carrots, peas and sweet potato to the chicken mixture. Blend well. Cover and keep in the refrigerator for 1 hour.

After 1 hour, add about 1 tablespoon of vegetable oil to a sauté pan. Heat to medium-high. Gently sauté the chicken mixture in the pan until it is a golden color. Take it off the heat and allow to fully cool.

The gathered “bags” are tied with softened Chinese chive stems.
(Courtesy of Pechanga Resort Casino)

Assemble the bags: Boil 2 cups of water and add a pinch of salt. Put chives (or onions) in for a couple of seconds and remove. Submerge them in ice-cold water, then remove after 10 seconds and squeeze out excess water. Set aside.

Once assembled, the bags are fried until golden brown, then drained.
(Courtesy of Pechanga Resort Casino)

Once chicken mixture is cooled, take spring roll wrapper and put 1 teaspoon of mixture in the middle of the wrapper. I like to add half of another wrapper underneath the mixture as a reinforcement. With the mixture placed, grab the edges together like a bag and loop a chive strand around it twice, then tie. Trim off overly long chive ends. Continue until all the filling is used up.

In a pot, add enough oil to cover the bags and heat to 350 degrees. Add the bags and fry until golden brown, then remove. Set on a cooling rack for a couple of minutes to let the oil drain off. Serve with the dipping sauce.

Recipe provided by Chef Marie Surakul.

Clay Pot Soy Sauce Chicken includes ample sauce for use with several more whole chickens in the days ahead.
(Courtesy of Pechanga Resort Casino)

Clay Pot Soy Sauce Chicken

Although this recipe uses 1 whole chicken, the soy sauce base could be used for up to 3 chickens for those who want to get the most out of the ingredients.

Serves 5-6 people

1 tablespoon star anise seed
1 tablespoon dried licorice (See Ingredient note)
1 tablespoon grated cinnamon stick, or 4 whole cinnamon sticks
5 bay leaves
2 tablespoons or 6 pieces dried ginger
2 tablespoons or two small pieces dried orange peel
4 tablespoons or 4 to 6 slices fresh ginger
4 tablespoons green onions, chopped

10 cups chicken broth
5 pounds rock sugar (Rock sugar is usually found in the market in 1-pound boxes. See Ingredient note)
6 cups soy sauce
4 tablespoons chicken bouillon powder (or cubes or paste)
4 tablespoons Chinese rose wine (found at Asian grocers. See Ingredient note)
3 cups dark soy sauce

1 whole chicken, 4-5 pounds
4 tablespoons green onions, julienned
4 tablespoons red bell peppers, julienned

Add all spice packet ingredients to a small skillet and lightly toast. Remove from heat, let cool and place ingredients into a spice bag (found at gourmet or Asian grocers). Set aside.

Lightly toast the spice ingredients in a pan.
(Courtesy of Pechanga Resort Casino)

Add chicken broth to a very large stock pot on medium-low heat. Add rock sugar, 1 pound at a time, until dissolved. Add the filled spice bag, regular soy sauce, bouillon and wine; combine well. Increase heat to medium-high and add the dark soy sauce, then bring it to a boil. Once it boils, turn down the heat to low and let it simmer for about 2 hours. This will be the soy sauce chicken water base.

Add the rock sugar 1 pound at a time into the sauce until it dissolves.
(Courtesy of Pechanga Resort Casino)

While soy sauce base is cooking, clean chicken by taking out extra fat and giblets from inside. Thoroughly rinse inside and out, then set it aside to let it dry.

"Dunk" the entire chicken 5 or 6 times in the soy sauce base so the sauce can reach the inside and it can cook evenly.
Be sure to “dunk” the entire chicken 5 or 6 times in the soy sauce base so the sauce can reach the inside and it can cook evenly.
(Courtesy of Pechanga Resort Casino)

After the soy sauce chicken water base is ready and still boiling, put the chicken into the sauce, grabbing by the neck and “dunking” it into the sauce up to the neck so the sauce can get inside the chicken. This ensures that it will cook evenly. Do this process for 5 to 6 times. Leave chicken inside soy sauce make sure it is all submerged and turn off the heat for about 40 to 45 minutes. After that time is up, take out the chicken and put it aside to cool. Once it’s cooled, cut it in small pieces.

Once the chicken has cooled, cut it into pieces.
(Courtesy of Pechanga Resort Casino)

Put cut chicken inside an 8-inch clay pot, then baste it with about ¾ cup soy sauce water base and add in julienned green onion and red peppers on top of the chicken. Put the clay pot cover on and bring it to a boil over medium heat for about 2 to 3 minutes.

You can also use a cast iron pot if you do not have a clay pot. Serve.

Ingredient notes:

  • Home chefs can leave out the dried licorice if they do not have it or cannot find it. Instead, add 1 additional tablespoon of the anise seed, as the flavor profiles of the two spices are similar)
  • The taste will come out a bit different without the rose wine because the flavor is stronger than other wines. If you do not have access to an Asian market nearby, you can substitute Shaoxing Cooking Wine (also known as rice cooking wine). This is available with the oils and vinegars or in the alcoholic beverage section (near sherry and other cooking wines) of the grocery store, and is also available on Amazon.
  • Cane sugar results in a much different taste than rock sugar and is not recommended as a substitution.

Recipe provided by Chef Tim Che.