Lunar New Year's easy with Chinese takeout

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      The Chinese Year of the Sheep begins Thursday (February 19). Xīn Nián Kuài Lè! Happy New Year!

      Amid the abundant well-wishing, at the heart of it all, Chinese New Year is simply the best annual excuse for families and friends to get together and “eat rice”.

      If you choose to eat out, nearly all Chinese restaurants across Metro Vancouver will be featuring special New Year’s set menus over the next 15 days of the spring festival. But this busy time of year may mean long waits for tables and a less than optimal experience.

      Cooking Chinese food at home can be no less daunting. The time-consuming cutting and chopping, not to mention the stress of timing multiple dishes for the table, can leave a person too exhausted to enjoy the meal and the company.

      The answer? Pan cai takeout.

      Best translated as “food in a tub”, pan cai is the all-in-one dish popular at open-air banquets on the rural coast of Guangdong province and in the walled villages of Hong Kong’s New Territories. Boasting a storied history of several hundred years, the dish was traditionally presented in a shallow wooden tub. A host of meats, seafood, and vegetables are cooked separately, then layered in the tub and brought to the table to be shared among diners. While prized for its artful combinations and rich, complex flavours, it’s a great way to ensure no one’s left out of the party, including the cooks, since it’s assembled in advance. That’s probably why this erstwhile simple village feast is now trending in Vancouver as the go-to take-away option this Chinese New Year season. Depending on your appetite, this one dish is usually enough to feed the number of diners specified, but if you’re extra-hungry or allowing for last-minute drop-ins, stretch it with noodles and greens on the side.

      At JC Kitchen (103–11782 Hammersmith Way, Richmond, 778-297-6113), the pan cai includes a potpourri of crispy-skinned pork, steamed chicken, salt and chili prawns, red tofu, braised goose web in oyster sauce, fried cod, braised pork belly, braised duck with taro, dried oysters with hair moss, lotus root, mushrooms, daikon, and vegetables. It costs $108 and feeds up to eight people; order at least a day in advance. It’s on offer until March 5.

      At Parklane Chinese Restaurant (7997 Westminster Highway, Richmond, 604-273-0888), pan cai takeaway, served in a clay pot that you can keep, costs $78 or $98 for six people, and $108 or $138 for 10 people, depending on the components. You can expect braised dried scallops, prawns, pork tongue, and soy chicken, to name a few. Reserve a day ahead for pickup at noon and 5 p.m. each day until Sunday (February 22).

      At Floata Seafood Restaurant (180 Keefer Street, 604-602-0368), the $238 pan cai for 10 people includes premium ingredients such as braised abalone, rockfish fillets, and more. Call for details and availability.

      If you prefer to celebrate with a more personal touch by doing part of the cooking, you can always add pizzazz to your meal with a precooked item or two such as a barbecued duck. For one of the best in town ($23 whole, $13.95 half), head to Daisy Garden (142 East Pender Street, 604-683-3822). The restaurant also offers an excellent crispy-skinned roast pork belly ($9.50 per pound) and a fabulous steamed specialty chicken ($8.50 per pound for the whole chicken and $9 per pound for a half). Check their online party menu for other takeout items.

      Last but not least, you can always count on T & T Supermarket (various locations) for New Year’s take-away convenience. While these stores have several varieties of pan cai at very reasonable prices, you’ll need to act fast, as you must order them three days in advance, and the promotion ends this Sunday (February 22).

      Even if you miss the ordering cutoff, the regular deli department has plenty to offer. Start with a collection of Taiwanese-style appetizers such as marinated bean curd with veggies, garlicky seaweed, and fish tofu with veggies (each $2.19 per 100 grams). Pick out a steamed whole tilapia with ginger and green onions ($6.99), and/or half a smoked duck ($19.16 per kilogram). Then go home and make yourself some rice and stir-fried gai lan, and dinner is served.

      Even if you’re not hungry, drop into T & T’s Chinatown store to be dazzled by the variety of Chinese New Year housewares and gifts on offer. These include decorations for the table such as a tray of flowering narcissus, a pair of bronze kirin statues, and Chinese New Year couplet posters, as well as edible gifts like honey pomelos and chocolate mahjong tiles. Or how about a Chinese New Year pork gift set containing a pig trotter, liver, and tongue? (All are symbols of prosperity.)