chinese new year eats
Today is already the 6th day of the Year of the Rat, so there’s obviously been lots and lots of eating going on. I haven’t been able to celebrate CNY with my family for three years because of uni, but thankfully I had the time to come back this time! So many things I’ve forgotten about – all the noise, the jubilous new year songs (which become rather irritating after the first day), red red everywhere, and of course, the sheer amount of food that is consumed. I have something of a bottomless stomach, but lately the eating has caught up to me. I am stuffed to the brim, every single day. Click under the cut for more about the fooooood.
Since the holiday comes with the obligatory visits to various family homes (how else will you get your lucky lai see?), of course no home is complete without a Tray of Togetherness (全盒 – ‘chuen hup’). Filled with lots of sweet treats and various kinds of seeds (we had pumpkin, sunflower and watermelon), each item represents some form of prosperity (the gold ingots are self explanatory I think!) or fortune. Everyone always seems to have the obligatory White Rabbit Creamy Candies as well as Sugus sweets (similar to Starbursts, or Opal Fruits for you old-timers!). We used to have dried iced coconut strips, but the sweetness has become a bit too much, so we didn’t get any this year. I think I’m getting old.
Pre-New Year’s was spent grating loads of radishes for that all-important CNY food, turnip cake (and I have no idea why the ingredient and the dish name are two different things!). Made with grated Chinese radish, rice flour, and with fillings like dried Chinese sausage, shiitake mushrooms and dried shrimp, it’s eaten either simply steamed or pan-fried. I prefer the latter because of the crisp outer layer and the soft, gooey radish innards. So that’s what I had on the morning of New Year, with copious amounts of Dragon Well tea – ultra fortifying for the long day of bai neen (拜年) trips (visits to family members to bring good new year wishes). Scrumptious. Of course, we hadn’t planned that our rather hospitable Great Grandmother insisted on stuffing us with even more turnip cake when we arrived in the middle of the afternoon, as well as water chestnut cake AND sweet neen go (年糕) on our visit! Soon we were off to another family’s home in Lau Fau Shan (流浮山), in the New Territories – ie one of the farthest flung areas from central Hong Kong) for the big new year’s feast!
The star of the evening was the 盆菜 (poon choi, literally ‘basin meal’), which is basically a massive vessel filled with layers and layers of every food conceivable. At the bottom there’s usually chunks of radish (one of my favourites) and slices of pig’s skin, which everyone is eager to go for because it’s been soaking up all the glorious juices and flavours from all the ingredients that have been braising in the ‘basin’. It’s actually a tradition that stems from the walled village communities (especially Hakka, I think), where getting together to eat this massive meal was a huge event. It’s actually quite a big deal in Hong Kong too, where some places will set up outdoor seating with massive communal tables, each with its own poon choi in the middle for everyone to dig in. We ate ours in the comfort of my Aunt and Uncle’s shiny new home, which I have to say while good, wouldn’t be as good as roughing it outdoors with hundreds of other people, à la dai pai dong style!
Our poon choi had roast duck, chicken, pig’s trotters, beancurd, prawns, dried oysters, shiitake mushrooms, fishballs, pig’s tongue, abalone slices, taro, and probably loads of other things I can’t remember! It’s all braised mainly with salted red beancurd paste (usually used for Buddhist vegetarian meals), some form of miso, and oyster sauce. I think the 12 or so of us hardly made a dent in the massive poon choi before we were stuffed to the brim, because we also had other delicious things:
A must-have for Chinese New Year dinner is a fish – because we have this old adage that goes ‘年年有餘’ (neen neen yau yuu), which is a wish for ‘abundance year after year’. However, since the word for abundance sounds the same as the word for fish, it can also be read as 年年有魚 (fish, year after year!). It’s also traditional for the fish to remain a bit uneaten, to ensure that the family has excess in the coming year, but I think it was so delicious we just cleared it all off (stomachs rule over superstition in my family, I swear!).
And we also had my Uncle Ken’s homemade loh hon jai (羅漢齋), a traditional Buddhist vegetarian dish that’s usually served on the first day of the new year. Black moss seaweed is a big component, because its name, fat choi, sounds like ‘getting rich’. I used to be grossed out by it as a child, because it really does look like wet hair, but it’s delicious and supremely healthy for you! And so so good in the rich oyster sauce.
There were also other dishes, such as a yellow chicken curry (not traditional, obviously, but very good), a special dish of braised shiitake mushrooms which I couldn’t get enough of (nothing better than a nice, juicy shiitake!), and of course, lettuce (its name is ‘sang choi’, which kinda sounds like ‘growing wealth’) though any vegetable would do since the umbrella term for vegetables is ‘choi’ – fortune!
A fantastic time of year to be home, and I can only wonder when is the next time I’ll be able to celebrate CNY in Hong Kong.