Fish­ing for lucky fare on hol­i­day

Spring Fes­ti­val eve din­ners are all about abun­dance and pros­per­ity. Mike Peters re­ports.

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - FRONT PAGE - Con­tact the writer at michaelpeters@ chi­

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.

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