One of the traditional Chinese New Year (and celebratory occasion) dish which we had today is “hong bak”. Of Hokkien (Fujianese origin), it varies from state to state in Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia. Appearance-wise, it always comes across as an extremely dark-coloured dry meat stew. In Singapore and Malacca, a “hong bak” variant is known as “babi chin”, usually fatty cuts of pork (pork belly strips or pig’s trotters) cooked with lots of minced garlic, shallots and “taucheo” (fermented beanpaste) and thick dark soysauce, heavily-flavoured with coriander powder.
In Indonesia, the same dish, called “babi hong” (“babi” means pork in Indonesian) uses Chinese 5-spice in place of just coriander powder.
My family’s version is from Kelantan, a north-western state in Malaysia, mainly because my mother (who’s of Kelantanese descent) is in-charge of preparing the traditional Chinese New Year family reunion dinner, and also the ritual food offerings before that. My maternal grandmother used to cook an amazing rendition of the dish when she was still alive, but my mum does it pretty well, too. The Kelantan version is scented heavily using star anise. “Hong bak” (“hong” means “to cook slowly” in Hokkien, “bak” is meat) utilises both pork and chicken together, chopped into large pieces.
The star anise (usually 5-6 pieces) are toasted in a dry wok till fragrant, then pounded into powder. Copious amounts of garlic and shallots are then sauteed in oil, after which the star anise powder is added back. Pork and chicken meat are then added into the cooking pot, followed by the seasoning: fermented beanpaste, dark soysauce and palm sugar (the Kelantanese Chinese love their food sweet). Water is added and the whole concoction is stewed for about an hour, till the sauce turns thick and caramelly. The Kelantan “hong bak” is to-die for. I favoured it over Singaporean “babi chin” and even Penang’s famous “hong bak”, which is pale-brown in colour as the Penangites do not add dark soysauce to the dish.
Kelantanese-Chinese “hong bak”: