TOP 5! TOP 5! TOP 5! ESSENTIAL CHINESE NEW YEAR DISHES
Chinese New Year, a time when your Chinese homies seems to be busy with family dinners every other day. A time of the year where some of your local asian malls become flooded with people to the point where you might think you landed in Asia (Aberdeen, anyone?). A time when some of the best Chinese dishes are the reason why you opted out of going for drinks. We have all heard of the annual traditions such as red pocket money, but have you ever given much thought as to why certain food dishes are religiously served during Chinese New Year? Chinese culture has always been about symbolism – where nothing is left without meaning – so we have decided to present our Top 5 Essential Chinese New Year Dishes. We have deciphered each dish and discovered why they meant so much to our ancestors in Asia, and why we should also celebrate with our families right here in our beautiful city. Hopefully after this you will have a better understanding of the dishes you see around the table without having to solve a jigsaw puzzle.
I personally love dumplings. They have that flavourful, juicy meat sealed in a tender, delicate skin that can barely hold everything together. Chinese dumplings are one of the most common dishes that you will see during Chinese New Year – and for good reason I might add. In addition to their obvious deliciousness, they are also made to resemble a piece of Chinese history dating back to over 1,000 years ago. Chinese silver ingots were the currency used in imperial China and their boat-shaped appearance is replicated in Chinese dumplings to bring wealth to those eating them. Legend has it that the more dumplings you eat during Chinese New Year, the more money you will make the coming year. Think about this the next time you push your plate away!
Chef of Dumplings (Aberdeen Centre) – Richmond BC
Turnip Cake (Lo bak goh)
Commonly prepared with shredded radish, mushroom, Chinese sausage and dried shrimp, lo bak goh is one dish that even the most westernized of Chinese people would recognize. My fondest memory of this particular dish was formed one Chinese New Year morning over 10 years ago when my mom was up early to prepare it for breakfast. I was never one to really enjoy radishes but after this experience, my mom certainly converted me. The deep flavour is just so consistent throughout the crispy, pan-seared surface and right down to the soft, succulent centre. The symbolism behind lo bak goh being at the table during new year is because radish is a homophone for good fortune in Chinese. Here’s a tip: there’s no shame in enjoying your lo bak goh with a few condiments to elevate the flavour. Hoisin sauce, anyone?
The name of this dish says it all – the key to longevity. Digging a little bit deeper, longevity noodles are uncut and longer than your usual noodles to be representative of the eater’s wish for a long, healthy life. Noodles prepared this way actually have a history of being served on someone’s birthday to symbolize continual youth and happiness. Longevity noodles themselves are traditionally prepared by hand with a similar recipe to egg noodles; if preparing noodle dough is not something that fits your schedule, longevity noodles can also be bought pre-prepared. Although be careful, your happiness and longevity could be at risk if your noodles are not authentic!
Szechuan House (Aberdeen Centre) – Richmond BC
Rice Balls (Tong tyun)
Chinese New Year is all about bringing families closer, connecting with loved ones and celebrating the history of Chinese culture. So what does this have to do with these deliciously chewy rice balls? Well, beyond being a tasty dessert, rice balls are actually quite symbolic during new year festivities. Similar to Chinese dumplings, their shape dictates the meaning behind their importance at the dinner table. Tong tyun is round in shape, which represents family connection, togetherness and reunion. Preparing this dessert consists of a simple boil until the balls become tender and soft. To add variations in flavour, these glutinous rice balls can also be filled with black sesame, red bean and even chocolate to add a little bit of texture and depth of flavour. Who knew that such a simple, delicious rice ball could mean so much?
Yuan’s Shanghai Serendipity Cuisine – Richmond, BC
BBQ Meats (chicken is a necessity)
This one is interesting. As I was researching these dishes, I felt a sense of pride in being Chinese myself because of how Chinese culture really tries to put meaning and symbolism into everything around us. As odd as it sounds to say that inanimate food items can shape your life, it really does open the door to new perspectives on the world and how symbolism can impact the way we interact with the world around us. At the very least, the food is delicious and it’s a great excuse to spend time with the family. Whole animals such as bbq chicken with the head and tail and entire roasted crispy pork serve represent the completeness one has when their family is connected. Just as the feet, tail and head are connected to the animal, all the individuals at the table are connected by family. In the case of the roasted crispy pork, the pig itself is also a symbol of strength for the eater. It’s no wonder why I feel so oddly empowered when I take a bite into a crispy, juicy piece of pork.
Parker Place Meat & B.B.Q – Richmond, BC
If you think we missed a few key Chinese New Year foods, here are some honourable mentions to give you some insight on their meanings:
Chinese Candy Box – Also known as the “box of harmony.” Candy represents money and the sweetness life brings. Gold chocolate coins mean good fortune. And for all you parents to be… lotus seeds represent fertility! Choose your treat based on what you wish for next year.
Mandarin Orange/ Tangerine (Gum) – Translates into “gold” which is a wish for wealth in the coming year.
Rice Cake (Nin goh) – Homonym for “higher year” to help you become taller and better than last year.
Fish (Yu) – My last name (kidding). Fish is served last and left unfinished to mean there will be a surplus for next year. The fish’s head should always point to the elders or distinguished guests at the table and they eat first before others can dig in.
I would also like to take the opportunity to remind everyone that this coming year is the year of the rooster. Perhaps grabbing a whole chicken on the way home for dinner might be even more beneficial this coming year! Happy Chinese New Year!
Photography: Rich Won