Fishing for lucky fare on holiday
Spring Festival eve dinners are all about abundance and prosperity. Mike Peters reports.
The Year of the Rooster arrives this year on Jan 28, but when families gather for their annual eve of Chinese New Year feast, the star of the dinner table is more likely to be fish than fowl.
In Chinese, fish ( yu) sounds like surplus. It’s always good to have a surplus at year’s end: If you have managed to save something at the end of the year, Chinese tradition says you can make more in the next year.
Like many dishes that make their way to the Spring Festival celebration, auspicious symbolism is based both on the way a food’s name is pronounced and what it looks like. Fish, dumplings, spring rolls and niangao are among the most common dishes for Chinese New Year both in the mother country and around the world.
“When I’m at home, I like to have very simple Cantonese food with my family, such as a Chinese steamed fish, which is one of my favorite dishes,” says Kwong Wai Keung, T’ang Court’s executive chef for Chinese cuisine. His Hong Kong restaurant in the Langham hotel is one of only four Cantonese restaurants in the world with three Michelin stars.
A fancier yu awaits his restaurant guests: Steamed Sliced Garoupa Head and Brisket with Dried Barbary Wolfberry Fruit and Tangerine Peel. The garoupa fish symbolizes abundance or surplus and contains plenty of protein but has a low calorie count.
“I wanted to create a healthconscious Chinese New Year menu using seasonal Chinese ingredients,” the chef says. “Considering that the wolfberry fruit is a superfood, which has been used in traditional Chinese medicine for many years, I decided to use it as the theme of the menu.”
Ritual is important: The head should be placed toward distinguished guests or elders, representing respect. Other guests can enjoy the fish only after the one who faces the fish head eats first. Finally, the fish shouldn’t be moved. The two people who face the head and tail of fish should drink together for luck.
Chinese dumplings ( jiaozi) are another important holiday dish, a tradition to eat on Chinese New Year’s eve, especially in North China. With a history dating back more than 1,800 years, dumplings can be made to look like boat-shaped Chinese silver ingots. If you are a newcomer to China, don’t be surprised if folks seem gluttonous as they eat them. The more dumplings you eat during Spring Festival celebrations, according to legend, the more money you can make in the New Year.
Minced meat and finely chopped vegetables, unsurprisingly, are popular fillings. Cabbage and radish fillings are favorites for New Year’s Eve, so that one’s skin will become fair and one’s mood will become gentle. But Chinese sauerkraut filling is avoided at this time; it suggests a poor or difficult future.
The idea of wealth is behind many dumpling traditions. Whether you boil, steam, fry or bake them, there must be a good number of pleats: A junction that is too flat portends poverty. Also, dumplings should be arranged in lines, not circles, or your life will go round and round, never going anywhere.
Spring rolls ( chunjuan) got their name because they are traditionally eaten during the Spring Festival. These Cantonese dim sum cylinders are filled with vegetables, meat or something sweet. The fact that fried spring rolls look like gold bars makes eating them a wish for prosperity.
Niangao are glutinous rice cakes made from sticky rice, sugar, chestnuts, Chinese dates and lotus leaves. Tangyuan or sweet rice balls are similarly popular at this time. The pronunciation and round shape of tangyuan are associated with reunion and being together, an important aspect of the New Year celebrations. In China’s north, longevity noodles — longer than normal noodles and uncut — symbolize the eater’s life.
Tangerines, oranges and pomelos offer a roundness and “golden” color that symbolizes fullness and wealth. In another audio omen, the Chinese for orange ( cheng) sounds the same as the Chinese for ‘success’.
The New Year would not be complete without homemade puddings. These desserts bring good luck and satisfy sweet and salty cravings. Festive flavors include turnip with preserved meat and taro pudding filled with conpoy and dried shrimp. Such puddings make popular gifts at this time.
Clockwise from top: Steamed big fish head in two kinds of chilli sauce at Jing Yaa Tang in Opposite House Beijing; dumplings in silver and golden colors in Rosewood Beijing’s Country Kitchen; T’ang Court’s New Year pudding and turnip pudding; T’ang Court’s double boiled sea whelk and fish maw with chicken, ham and dried barbary wolfberry fruit soup.
Kwong Wai Keung, T’ang Court’s executive chef for Chinese cuisine.