Wandering Gourmand: The Tray Of Togetherness – Sweet Blessings For Lunar New Year

Original article written for The Vancouver Sun: Wandering Gourmand.

In the late seventies, my loving mother probably read some article about the evils of sugar on children’s brain development, and vowed to protect me from all sweet dangers. And so she did with fierce piety. From the iron fist that fed, there was no intake of Gobstoppers or gummy worms, no mouths stained in Freezie-coloured hues, and no room on my food pyramid for sugar highs or lows. One might wonder how this kind of restriction affects a child’s development into adulthood. Well, if I am a case study, the pendulum swings far and the child eventually opens a bakery. Sweet revenge.

As a young child, I often accompanied my mother to the butcher, fiddling longingly at the chocolate coins displayed in baskets alongside canned artichokes and anchovies. While she paid for our week’s worth of luncheon meats, the cashier would carefully place in my hand a single candy with patterns of bright fruits printed on its wrapper. As I closed my fingers around this treasure, my mother would pluck it from my palm to return it. This devastation forced me to be wise beyond my very few years, jaded by “the one that got away”.

My sister didn’t have much more luck than I did. After sharing stories of sugar deprivation, like piecing together a common alien abduction experience, we realized that we had individually – and separately – scrounged through the pantry drinking vanilla extract in desperation for anything that might taste like candy. In case you didn’t know, these kinds of experiences bond people together for life.

To be fair, there were a few exceptions to this sugar-free, aspartame-laced rule. One of which was the “Tray of Togetherness”. Every Lunar New Year, my mother would fill a black and gold lacquered box spinning on a lazy susan with curious candies, none of which looked like a chocolate bar, but were sweet nonetheless.

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Inside the box were eight separate compartments – the number a homonym for prosperity –each with a different candy symbolizing various auspicious blessings: candied coconut for family harmony, candied lotus seeds for fertility, kumquats for abundance, peanuts for longevity and candied winter melon for health. And like a cease-fire in the war against sugar, I was able to take freely from the tray, gorging as I pleased.

For two whole weeks, the box sat on our living room table to welcome visitors as they celebrated with pockets full of lucky money and traditional meals, each representing the blessings we hoped for in the coming year. Dishes of whole steamed fish, its name sounding similar to “surplus”, meant to bring abundance from the head of the year to its tail end; dumplings in the shapes of ingots as a supplication for prosperity; or turnip cakes and nian gao with their names playing on words for fortune and amelioration.

My parents also have intimate childhood memories of picking at the tray of togetherness, a time of year that they were also lucky enough to taste candy, but for reasons very different than mine. During scarcer seasons, my mother’s preferred White Rabbit candy was considered a luxury, and savouring an exotic bite of candied coconut was rare and sweet.

In understanding the gratitude they felt for seemingly so little, I, too, am thankful this tradition of precious exceptions was passed on to me. Coincidence or not, it seems these candies did bring the very blessings they symbolize. Above and beyond a sweet tooth, they’ve given me an appreciation of abundance, family and togetherness.

RECIPES

Vanilla Bean Lotus Seeds

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In honour of my sister, a vanilla-infused version of the traditional Chinese candy. Often in the shadows of showier candies, for mature palates, the candied lotus seed has an irresistible depth reminiscent of a candied chestnut.

227g dried lotus seeds
½ cup (125ml) granulated sugar
1 cup (250ml) water
2 tsp (10ml) salt
2 vanilla beans, split lengthwise
1 cup (250ml) powdered sugar for coating

Rinse the lotus seeds in a colander under cold water. Place the seeds in a medium pot and cover with water. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat to a simmer and cook for 5 minutes. Turn off the burner and let the seeds steep for 15 minutes in a covered pot.

Poke each seed in the pointier end with a toothpick to extract the bitter seedling and rinse under cold water.

Bring the sugar and water to a boil, dissolving the sugar granules. Add the salt, vanilla beans and lotus seeds to the boiling sugar and bring to a boil. Reduce to a simmer and cook for 10 minutes in a covered pot. Turn off the burner and let the seeds steep overnight, covered.

The following day, bring to a boil and turn off the heat to steep for 10 minutes. Strain the seeds in a colander and allow to dry on a baking sheet lined with paper towel until dry.

Place the dry seeds into a bowl with icing sugar and toss to coat. Remove from the sugar to rest and repeat up to twice more as the sugar absorbs the residual moisture. Store in an airtight container and serve in your tray of togetherness.

Makes about 4 cups of candied lotus seeds

Candied Kumquats with Sichuan Peppercorn

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The fragrant bitterness of the kumquats stand up to the sweetness. And after the citrus flavour dispates the heat of the peppercorns still linger on the tongue.

1 cup (250ml) granulated sugar
½ cup (125ml) water
1 tbsp (15ml) Sichuan peppercorns
3 whole star anise
1 tsp (5ml) salt
350g kumquats, sliced crosswise into 4
2 cups (500ml) granulated sugar
Zest of one lemon

Bring the sugar and water to a boil in a medium pot. Add the peppercorns, star anise, salt and sliced kumquats and simmer for 3-5 minutes or until the kumquats just begin to turn translucent. Remove from the heat and allow to steep in the syrup overnight. Drain the kumquats in a colander and place the slices on a baking rack over a sheet pan. Allow to the syrup to drain and kumquats to dry.

Mix the sugar and zest in a medium bowl and toss the candied kumquats in the sugar to coat. Store in an airtight container and serve in your tray of togetherness.

Makes about 40 candied kumquats

Five Spice Black Sesame Candy

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A play on the classic sesame candy, intensifying the black sesame flavours with warm, savoury five spice.

7 tbsp (105ml) butter, softened
1/3 cup (83ml) raw cane sugar
¼ cup (63ml) light corn syrup
¼ cup + 1 tbsp (78g) all purpose flour
180g black sesame seeds, Japanese brands are more fragrant
2 tsp (10ml) five spice powder
1 tsp (5ml) salt

Preheat the oven to 350F (176C).

Place all the ingredients in a large mixing bowl or the bowl of a stand mixer and mix until well incorporated.

Pour the batter into a parchment-lined 8 x 8 inch pan and flatten with a spoon or offset spatula. Bake for 25-30 minutes, rotating at 15 minutes. Allow to cool.

Remove the candy from the pan and cut into squares, dividing the pan into 6 rows across and 6 rows down to create 36 candies. Store in an airtight container and serve in your tray of togetherness.

Makes 36 candies

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