Preparing for the new lunar year is a busy time for many Cantonese households. There are homes to clean, debts to pay, children to instruct – use kind words and be polite, particularly on new year’s day, so that the year will be filled with happiness and abundance. As the holiday gets closer, the flurry intensifies in the kitchen. Traditional dishes take time to plan and prepare as the celebration, filled with family and friends, continues for two weeks.
I can still see my mom and aunties chattering around the kitchen table making fried bow-tie shaped dahn-sahn and filled flakey pastries as the young ones played outside. The women all had differing versions of their favorites and like many experienced cooks, none of the recipes were written down. If you wanted to learn how, they’d put you to work.
One of the popular treats made around the lunar new year are Open Mouth Laughs, called seel-hoe-joe’ in Cantonese, balls of lightly sweetened dough coated with sesame seeds that crack open when fried. The dough is quickly mixed by hand, then shaped into balls, coated in sesame seeds and deep-fried. The Laughs exterior is crunchy from the sesame seeds and the tender inside is reminiscent of cake donuts. Packaged bite-size versions of the Laughs are sold as snacks year round.
Many Cantonese dishes, particularly sweets, are deep-fried. The stove top was sometimes the only mode for indoor food cooking in rural kitchens during earlier times. Ovens were rare in simple country kitchens as the fuel to keep small ovens fired was often scarce. The Village Baker was not only important for the goods that were baked but also for the “oven time” that the villagers coveted. Even in today’s world when the Village Baker is finished for the day, villagers line up to bake the night’s dinner and other dishes in the waning but still hot oven.
Recipe: Open Mouth Laughs
Key to the success of this recipe is maintaining an oil temperature that’s not too hot. Testing a ball first helps you adjust the oil’s temperature and gauge the length of time to fry the balls so that the centers are cooked.
- 1 1/2 cups minus 1 Tablespoon unbleached all-purpose flour
- 2 teaspoons baking powder
- 1/3 cup granulated sugar
- 1 Tablespoon non-hydrogenated shortening or lard, melted
- 6 Tablespoons water at room temperature
- small bowl of water at room temperature
- 2/3 cup sesame seeds, untoasted
- 8 cups or more vegetable oil for frying
- Make dough: in a small bowl, whisk together flour and baking powder. In a medium bowl combine sugar, melted fat and 6 tablespoons water; mix well. Add flour mixture and mix, stirring with a wooden spoon to make a soft dough. Gather the dough into a ball and cover dough with a damp cloth or plastic wrap and rest dough for 30 minutes.
- Divide the dough into pieces and roll each piece into a ball. Have nearby a large flat plate or small baking sheet, the small bowl of water, and another small bowl filled with sesame seeds. Using one hand, quickly dip a dough ball it into the bowl of water and place the ball into the sesame seed bowl. Using your other hand, roll the ball in sesame seeds to coat. Place ball onto the plate or baking sheet with the second hand. Repeat with remaining balls.
- Fry on stove top: in a wok, Dutch oven, large saucepan or deep skillet, add vegetable oil to so that it is about 2″ deep. Over medium high heat, heat oil to 350º F and then reduce it to 325º F. Test the oil with one of the balls by gently adding it to the oil using a slotted spoon. The ball will sit on the bottom of the pan for 10-15 seconds; carefully nudge it from the bottom of the pan to prevent scorching. After the ball floats to the surface of the oil, constantly turn the ball so that it fries evenly. Cracks should appear as the ball cooks. If the oil is not hot enough, the ball will disintegrate.
- When the ball is deep golden brown – it takes a 1 1/4″ ball about 2-3 minutes to get there – remove with a slotted spoon onto a paper towel-lined pan and let cool. Break open the ball to test for doneness and let the results guide your remaining batches. Repeat with remaining balls; reshaping balls first by rolling them between your palms. Fry the balls in 2-3 batches, adjusting the heat upwards between batches. Careful to not overcrowd the pan so that there is enough room to continuously turn the balls while they are cracking open with laughs.
Makes twenty-four 1 1/4″ pieces. The balls are best on the day made.