Every winter, a new Chinese calendar year begins and celebrations abound across the globe. The occasion is steeped in symbolism and ritual, most famously an animal to represent each cycle, and celebrations can last several days. As part of this, traditional Chinese food is served. To gain more insight into this captivating cuisine, we asked TV chef and author Ching-He Huang to talk us through her perfect celebration menu.
Talk us through a traditional celebration menu that might be enjoyed on Chinese New Year
For Chinese New Year [you can expect]:
- Cantonese steamed fish, because fish symbolise abundance.
- Pan fried golden postickers, because golden dumplings symbolise ingots of gold ie. wealth and prosperity.
- Sticky rice cake, or “nian gao”, which means you will “rise the ranks” in your career.
- Moss seaweed, because black moss seaweed is a homonym for prosperity.
- Roast duck
- Roast chicken
- Roast pig (traditionally the animal is served whole because it symbolises completeness and unity).
Other foods include apples, which symbolise “peace” and tangerines, which symbolise “sons”. So there is much symbolism behind the food.
What core ingredients would you recommend buying to achieve authentic Chinese cuisine?
Sichuan pepper, cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, star anise, fennel, tangerine peel, rock sugar, tofu, dried Chinese mushrooms, light soy sauce, dark soy sauce, toasted sesame oil, peanut oil, black rice vinegar, chilli bean paste, yellow bean paste, Shaoxing rice wine, dried chillies, woodear mushrooms, fermented salted black beans, hoisin sauce, oyster sauce, ground white pepper, dried shrimps…..thats quite a bit!
If you could pick one dish to sum up Chinese New Year, what would it be?
Steamed sea bass with sizzling oil – because it is a symbol of abundance, completeness and unity. It was rare to have fresh, steamed fish and it was always a treat. But personally, my grandmother’s posticker dumplings were a treat as well as her “nian gao” sticky rice cake dipped in batter and fried dipped in sugar, which were like doughnuts to us. Both were heavenly.
Apart from banqueting, how else do you celebrate Chinese New Year?
We celebrate by visiting friends, only speaking kind words to all we encounter in the celebrations and live the start of the year as we mean to go on. We also decorate the homes with plenty of flowers that exude positive energy.
How would you throw a modern spin on a traditional Chinese New Year menu?
I would still serve traditional Chinese New Year foods but the presentation of them would get a makeover. For example, turnip cake would be cut into small cubes and presented with a spicy sauce dip as opposed to served in large pieces. I also like to serve duck, five ways – bones in a soup with gingko nuts, the legs roasted and served Peking duck style, the breast meat sliced and stir fried with runner beans, the skin sliced and served with star anise sugar and the head served for the elder on a small plate decorated with seasonal edible flowers – lucky elder!
What’s your earliest memory of Chinese New Year?
I remember my grandmother giving me my “red envelope with money” and taking me to the temple in my new dress. I kept my red envelope in my pocket which I lost at the temple. I was so sad but when we returned to the house she made me her posticker dumplings which made me feel better again!