Growing up many years ago in Sydney, Chinese New Year had very little impact on me as there were hardly any festivities about, plus all the family we have lived overseas. Mother had drummed the cultural importance of it into me but, with it being as much a celebration of family union as it is the new (northern hemisphere) spring season as well as the new year, well, it was somewhat lacking in atmosphere and excitement which made it hard to appreciate the significance.
Then we spent it in Hong Kong one year when I was around the age of 7. It was a complete revelation – celebratory foods which I had never seen, smelt or tasted graced storefronts and markets in colourful packaging which could be purchased by the pound. Hong Kong is a place steeped in Chinese culture with Western influences and relics of British colonial rule; pre-packaged goods appear in metric units, but fresh goods at markets or older style grocery stores are still purchased by the pound or by the “gun” (斤) which is equivalent to around 600 grams.
The days leading up to the new year saw a flurry of activity I had never witnessed beyond my own household – cleaning the home, having hair cut and buying new clothes all to welcome the new year and a fresh start in the best possible way. There is also the practical reason of making sure your home and its people are presentable for receiving visitors during the new year period. We either had family visiting us or we ourselves were off to various relatives’ places which made it seem like a party which stretched on for several days. For the very first time, I laid eyes on a “chuen hup” (全盒) – a Chinese candy box used to present sweets to guests who visit your home during Chinese New Year. Us kids, of course, looked forward not to the traditional Chinese sweets such as dried and sugared coconut and winter melon or lotus seeds, but rather the inclusions of chocolates and fruit lollies. And now, with Monsieur Poisson and I married and with our own home, a Chinese candy box is one of things I’d like to add to our household inventory.
That trip also marked the first time where I was surrounded by family on the eve of Chinese New Year for “tuen nin fahn” (團年飯) – a family reunion dinner where togetherness, completeness and abundance are celebrated. Our dinner this year was held at Fook Yuen (馥苑) with the feast officially beginning when ‘Ginger and spring onion crab on a bed of e-fu noodles’ (薑蔥蟹伊麵底) is brought to the table; its lengthy noodles symbolising longevity. A whole steamed parrot fish with ginger and spring onions soon follows and the head is offered to my mother-in-law out of respect as she is most senior at our table. Fish cheeks happen to be prized as there is so little of it per fish and are incredibly smooth in texture.
‘Crispy skin chicken’ is a favourite of my mother-in-law’s, and especially on occasions like this as chickens mean eggs and eggs mean further chickens – it’s all about offspring and the continuation of family in Chinese terms. The water spinach stir-fried with chilli and fermented bean curd (椒絲腐乳通菜) is much less symbolic and purely for the purposes of us needing some vegetables as part of the meal!
A dish which has graced our family dinners in recent times is deep-fried milk (炸鮮奶) – cubes of milk with eggwhite coated in batter and deep-fried. A plateful of these are usually served with white sugar for dipping but, on this occasion, acts as a side to stir-fried prawns. Not Cantonese in origin and not found on menus all that often, I urge you to try it if you come across it.
An eggplant hotpot offers more vegetable relief (aubergine!) as do stir-fried garlic shoots with wood ear fungus and pork strips. “Hoi tong tofu” (海棠豆腐) is a textural delight with a steamed soybean milk and eggwhite base topped with a jumble of prawns, dried shiitake mushrooms, pork and sliced Chinese broccoli ‘gai larn’ stems.
Complimentary red bean soup (紅豆沙) rounds off our meal along with a fruit platter (unpictured), as well as the new year’s addition of deep-fried sesame balls (笑口棗). Crispy on the outside, they have a bready-biscuity centre and their burst open appearance are said to resemble smiling mouths.
This year heralded the introduction of a few new year traditions to the Délicieuse/Poisson household. The first involved buying a Chinese new year’s cake “nin go/nian gao” (年糕) as it’s something my mother has always done. The second was the making of peanut cookies, but I’m afraid the deep-fried glutinous rice balls (below) were store-bought. The third involved a vegetarian meal on the first day of the new year – something which is done to appease the gods and also to cleanse the body following heavy eating on the eve of the new year, as well as prior to the feasting which follows.
Hairy melon/gourd (節瓜) which had been scraped of seeds and poached in stock were topped with stir-fried vegetables and wood ear fungus. The poaching liquid then became the base for a light soup with tofu, ‘choy sum’ and konjac/konnyaku jelly threads.
Regardless of whether the meal appeased the gods or not, hopefully it will become a part of our own yearly ritual and something that can be passed onto our future children to deepen their understanding of Chinese New Year.
Fook Yuen (馥苑)
Level 1, 7 Help St, Chatswood NSW
Tel: (02) 9413 2688
Opening Hours: 7 days around 10am-3pm (yum cha lunch)
around 5pm-11pm (dinner)
happy chinese new year & happy eating!