With Chinese New Year starting next week, we look at what each popular dish to be devoured at this time signifies for the coming year.
Dragon food: how to celebrate Chinese New Year in culinary style
According to Chinese astrology, January 23 signifies the beginning of the Year of the Dragon - the fifth in the cycle of the 12 creatures of the Zodiac. In ancient China the dragon was associated with power, and today the sign is still regarded as an auspicious one, with links to success and happiness.
By contrast with the preceding Year of the Rabbit, which is said to be characterised by calm and tranquillity, the Year of the Dragon brings with it a sense of unpredictability, drama, exhilaration and intensity. Those born under the fiery dragon are believed to exhibit similar characteristics and are known for their passionate, self-assured natures.
Based on a combination of both lunar and solar movements, Chinese New Year (also known as the Spring Festival) starts with the new moon (January 23) and ends 15 days later, when the moon is full.
There is a whole host of long observed traditions and rituals associated with the event; it is a time for giving thanks and reuniting with family.
The mood on Chinese New Year's Day is thought to set the tone for the entire year; consequently, references to the old year are avoided, as are bad language, ghost stories and any mention of death. Debts are supposed to be paid off in advance and lending money is discouraged; lend money at New Year and you will do so all year long.
People buy new clothes - most often red ones, as the colour signifies prosperity and is thought to help ward off evil spirits - while children and the unmarried are given lai see (little red envelopes) containing money. The night before, doors and windows are flung open to allow the old year to escape and firecrackers welcome the new one in.
Lee Kok Hua is from Malaysia and is the head chef at the high-end Cantonese restaurant Hakkasan in Abu Dhabi. He explains a little about the significance of the celebration: "Chinese New Year is the biggest traditional festival for us and it is an important time to reflect on the past year and look forward to the coming year. We unite with our families and friends, feast together, enjoy each other's company and look forward to the coming year."
Food plays an integral role in the festivities. Families gather to enjoy specific ingredients and dishes that signify good wishes for the year ahead. Wu Kin Man, the executive chef at Shang Palace in the Shangri-La hotel, Abu Dhabi, will be spending this new year back in Hong Kong with his family. "During our reunion dinner on Chinese New Year's Eve, it is essential to put together a menu consisting of foods that symbolise wealth, happiness, togetherness, harmony, growth, prosperity and luck," he says. Wu explains that because of this symbolism, one is in effect "cooking up" good wishes for one's family.
He adds that during the celebrations, animals are often served whole: a chicken with its head, tail and feet intact suggests prosperity, togetherness and the completeness of the family. "Another example is fish, which is symbolic in many ways - in Cantonese it sounds like 'wish' and 'abundance'. Moreover, when fish is served whole for the reunion dinner, it signifies good luck as its head and tail point to a positive beginning and ending of the year."
This significance extends beyond the family and was taken into consideration when he designed Shang Palace's New Year menu. If you are celebrating the festival, it might be worth bearing the following in mind: "The prosperity clay pot with sea moss and assorted seafood symbolises a pot full of wealth and happiness. Sea moss in Cantonese sounds like 'wealth', while prawn sounds like 'happiness', and fish like 'abundance'. Meanwhile, our golden brown Peking duck rolls and seafood spring rolls resemble gold bars and therefore point to wealth."
Cakes also play an important role in the New Year celebrations, as sugar is believed to add sweetness to the year ahead. The cakes are often formed into round shapes, to signify family unity, and are served eight at a time (eight being a lucky number) on a round tray, known as the "Tray of Togetherness".
Zhang Bing Qing, the chef at The Noble House, Raffles, Dubai, says that for him this is a very important time. "The Chinese New Year's Eve is the last day of the year where we remember and share with each other what main events happened during the past year. The first day of the new year is when we set personal goals and resolutions that we hope to achieve in that year."
Zhang looks forward to eating fish, dumplings and chicken most and has incorporated this idea into the menu at the restaurant. "Traditionally, the family dinner is usually a feast of seafood and dumplings, symbolising prosperity and good wishes. Chicken means fortune and luck," he says.
One of the most famous dishes served at this time of year, and one mentioned by almost all the chefs to whom I spoke, is a salad made from raw fish, crunchy vegetables and sweet plum sauce, called Yu Sheng (also known as Lo Hei and Prosperity Toss). Each of its ingredients has an auspicious meaning attached to it and the dish is associated with prosperity, abundance and vigour. The version made by Jeff Low (the executive chef at Chi'Zen restaurant in the Mall of the Emirates, Dubai) is shown on the cover.
The dish is traditionally eaten on renri ("every person's birthday"), which falls on the seventh day of the festivities. The salad is piled on to a plate, which is placed in the middle of the table. Then, each member of the group takes up his or her chopsticks and, on cue, tosses the ingredients high into the air to mix them, while wishing everybody else a prosperous new year.
The dish can contain up to 27 different ingredients, some of which - red pickled ginger, daikon (white radish), preserved green peach and winter melon - are quite difficult to source. If the idea appeals though, the many restaurants in the region will be serving a variation of the dish on their Chinese New Year menus. Just remember: the higher in the air you toss the ingredients, the greater your fortune.
Shang Palace, Shangri-La, Abu Dhabi: Enjoy a prosperous start to the year with the Shang Palace’s clay pot with sea moss and assorted vegetables followed by broccoli with garlic (designed to look like a tree studded with gold) or sample the chef’s recommendation: fortune salad yee sang. Dh388 per person; for reservations call 02 509 8888.
The Noble House, Raffles, Dubai: (From January 23 to 28), The Noble House is offering a special set menu, featuring dishes such as Shanghai-style smoked sea bass (pictured right), braised abalone with roasted oyster and shiitake mushrooms and sliced raw salmon with pickled vegetables. Dh388 per person; to make a reservation, call 04 324 8888.
Hakkasan, Abu Dhabi: The chef Lee Kok Hua’s special menu includes the restaurant’s Hakka steamed dim sum platter, which he say is “symbolic of Chinese blessings, with each dumpling representing one of the four seasons”, stewed lobster in supreme stock and steamed Chilean sea bass, among other dishes. Dh468 per person; for reservations call 02 690 7999.