Chinese New Year will be on January 31st this year, and Chinese families will gather en masse to feast on groaning tables of food and loudly wish each other good wishes for the coming year. This is the busiest time of the year for Chinese Restaurants and places like Kirin, will have special menus with auspicious dishes, priced with lot’s of 8’s (ie $388 menus for a table of 10). It will be boisterous and fun, and if you have not booked a table yet, you better do so soon.
But what if you don’t have a large group of people to dine with or you have been slow to make a reservation? There is nothing quite as sad as being left out of celebratory dinner, your nose pressed against the glass.
Well fear not! I give my take on how you can celebrate the spirit of Chinese New Year without stepping into Chinese restaurants.
All Together Now
One of the key themes of a Chinese New Year dinner is togetherness and family. To represent completeness and leaving no one out – the traditional dish to order is a whole chicken with the head intact. Having a whole chicken also represents good beginnings and happy endings. Though I am not sure if you can get the chicken head, the Homer Street Cafe serves a whole rotisserie chicken, gloriously golden from their ovens, carved and split for easy eating.
And though it may seem like a bit of stretch – but what promotes togetherness more than a whole pizza. I mean – really! I don’t think it gets much better than the fantastic pies from Via Tevere Pizzeria – real Napoletana style, a toasty crust with a wheaty chew and a touch of smoke, and a lively neighbourhood vibe.
And though I am generally not a superstitious guy, you may want to skip anchovies for your Chinese New Year Pizza – “salted fish” is Hong Kong Police slang for a corpse.
Live Long and Prosper
Noodles are traditionally represent longevity at all celebratory dinners. I think the linguine with mussels at Ask For Luigi is just about perfect – bouyant noodles, lightly sauced, but rich with succulent local mussels. I hope to live long enough to enjoy this dish for decades to come.
Fish is ALWAYS present at Chinese New Year meal, ideally with the head intact for the same reasons as the whole chicken noted above. And increasingly important to all diners, is that the fish is locally and sustainably caught. Well, at the Fish Counter – you can be confident that all of the seafood sold is of the highest provenance. Currently, they don’t have fish with heads as there is no local salmon run happening – but they have had lots of enquiries from Chinese shoppers. I say, don’t worry about the head – and just get best fish you can at the Fish Counter.
As a bonus you can sample their golden (see a theme here?) fried fish and chips. Another Chinese New Year etiquette pointer, if you serve whole fish, as you finish eating one side of the fish, don’t flip over the fish, but remove the fish bone to get at the flesh on the other side. Flipping over the fish is considered bad luck as it represents a fishing boat flipping over.
Good, Gooder, Goodest
Foods with lucky names feature prominently in Chinese New Years meals. Oysters represent good fortune and business opportunities, and their Chinese name “ho” also sounds like the same Chinese word for “good”. Well, Longtail Kitchen’s deep fried oysters are not just good, but completely fantastic – crispy skinned, super sweet and succulent, with a sharp fragrant dipping sauce you’ll want to pour over everything.
Dumplings, or jaozi are very traditional in Northern China, where families gather to make mountains of dumplings – and so the dumplings represent togetherness, their shape suggest full purses, and the name echoes the old Chinese name for coins. My favourite Italian “jaozi” are the awesome ravioli made by the team at La Quercia.
If are lucky, you’ll be there on a night when Adam Pegg serves his fantastic ravioli with a softly set egg yolk. It’s phenomenal.
During the Chinese New Year, a really popular dish are cakes of any sort. The Chinese word for “cake” also means high or higher. My mother will spend the next two days, churning out savoury steamed daikon cakes, to be given out to loved ones as gifts. Sweet cakes are called “dan go” – which to me – sounds like to bounce higher – that is to achieve better and better things. Any excuse for a slice a good cake, and I love the super rich homestyle cakes at Butter Baked Goods.
And finally – lots of little sweet bites are left out for visitors and guests, sugar dipped nuts and seeds or deep fried pastries. Well, my favourite little bite is Beaucoup Bakery’s baby pain au chocolate – golden ingots filled with dark bittersweet chocolate. The perfect little bit of lucky buttery richness..
And there you have it – my little list of good things to help usher in a happy Chinese New Year. It’s a Chinese tradition to give the servers at your favourite hangouts and restaurants a little red envelope of money to express your appreciation of their hard work all work – so tip a little extra if you can.
But really, like Christmas, though I may obsess about all the great food, what gives me real joy are the people at the table with me, rather than what’s on the table.
Gung Hei Fat Choy everyone! May you and your loved ones have a healthy and wealthy new year.
Canucklehead pays for all of his own food and drinks. A word of warning, think twice when he tells you that your red envelope is in his front pocket and for you to reach in and get it.