The little "fishy" on my plate, one of 10 little fishies posed heads in, tails out on the platter in the middle of the table, has enough cutes to land it a major role in The Little Mermaid. It's pink and plump, with green-pea eyes and a smattering of tobiko-roe freckles on its round little back. Together, the shoal is known as Happy Jumping Shrimp, and it's a traditional dish for Chinese New Year, which, this year, starts next Sunday (January 29): the Year of the Dog.
As an umpteenth-generation Brit, I appropriate the festivities of other cultures whenever possible. Where all we get is lumps of coal, champagne, and hangovers within 12 hours and hard on the heels of Christmas, Chinese folk wait till everyone is deeply mired in the winter doldrums and then-gung hay fat choy, two entire weeks of fun, mahjong, and groaning tables laden with time-honoured dishes with evocative names connected to hopes for the year ahead. Some families do still make these complex recipes from scratch, but with mom often working outside the home, many go to restaurants, says Melina Hung, marketing manager for T&T Supermarket, which, this year, is offering a half-dozen celebratory dishes for takeout.
I'm a long-time fan of this growing chain. There are seven in the Lower Mainland to date, with an eighth opening this March in Surrey and eyes already on locations elsewhere (in my neighbourhood, with any luck). Research at my local Safeway last night showed that, yup, all meat is still prepackaged so you can't investigate its underside; the fish selection is dispiriting, to say the least; and the takeout counter-with its fried chicken, potato salad, and coleslaw-only needs Doris Day to cart Rock Hudson off to a box picnic for a truly retro experience.
At T&T (which at least two other food journalists frequent like I do) there is packaged meat and fish if you want it, but at the rear of the store, cheerful butchers wait to cut you one pork chop or many. Inside the main entrance, you can pick out mussels and clams individually (very handy when you're making paella), poke around with tongs for the perfect Dungeness crab, or ask staff to net you a pound of live prawns.
Those used for the Happy Jumping Shrimp on my plate have been bracketed with squid paste and prawn paste. You tackle them, Hung demonstrates, by cutting them in two with your chopsticks. Delicious. Next up at this media tasting is Good Fortune Honey Ham, which comes with a separate platter of thinly sliced white bread for sandwich-making. Sweet and salty, the ham is reminiscent of barbecued pork, and its slight chewiness contrasts well with the soft bread.
Buddha Jumped Over the Wall is what, allegedly, the deity felt compelled to do when he tasted this thick, restorative, and deeply tasty soup made with dried scallops, chicken, pork, and dried mushrooms. (It's sometimes known as Supreme Buddha Temptations.) As with a lot of Chinese cooking, mouth feel is up there with flavour.
A Palm Full of Goodies (aka Sea Cucumber with Goose Web) combines goose webs (the "palms" still attached to goose toes) with sea cucumber, squishy, leaf-green baby bok choy, and chewy mushrooms. Tastes are understated; here, texture rules. Like chicken feet, goose webs are an acquired taste but worth trying at least once. They're not rubbery: they're tender, fiddly to eat (all those bones), and very sticky from all that gelatin. Make a soup stock from goose feet and it would set solid. More familiar to western palates is Pearly Crab With Glutinous Rice, a big crimson-shelled Dungeness sprawling on a bed of grains confetti-dotted with dried shrimp, pork, and mushrooms.
On and on we eat. Chinese New Year feasts always have an even number of dishes, and we're now into the final round. Originally, the numerous ingredients in Layers of Good Wishes would have been stacked in a barrel for the whole village to dip into. These days, the dish is served in a pottery casserole that brims with chunky shrimp, unctuous pieces of pork, mushrooms, black-moss seaweed (its Chinese name sounds like "wealth"), and other goodies.
Meant to serve 10, dishes start at $15.88 for Happy Jumping Shrimp and all are under $20, except for Layers of Good Wishes at $26.88, which includes the cooking pot.
Order in person at T&T Supermarkets (various locations) or on the T&T hot line at 1-888-228-8855 now through January 28 (two days' notice required) for pickup between January 21 and 30.