As we bid farewell to the Year of the Monkey, we can also get ready to welcome the Year of the Rooster.
There’s no better way to kick off Lunar New Year than indulging in a great feast. Chinese restaurants are often categorized as one entity, but there are 34 provincial-level districts in China. With each region possessing unique flavours and foods, that brings plenty of variety to Chinese cuisine.
We spoke with chefs from various region-specific Chinese restaurants (not just your average dim sum joint), and each had his or her opinions on what makes Chinese dishes so distinctive for Lunar New Year.
“Not all Szechuan food is spicy,” Guo Min, executive chef of Golden Sichuan Restaurant (3631 No. 3 Road, Richmond), said with a laugh.
That is one of the long-standing beliefs about Szechuan cuisine—that it’s so spicy that most people who grew up eating western food won’t be able to take the heat.
“Our restaurant’s flavours can accommodate children, seniors, and adults,” explained Guo to the Straight in an interview at the restaurant. “Basically, everyone can eat our Szechuan-style dishes because they are not overtly spicy.”
She is originally from China’s Szechuan province and has been creating tasty Szechuan-style menu items in the Lower Mainland for many years.
To celebrate Lunar New Year, she points out a few traditional Szechuan items on the menu, one of which is named Seafood Assorted Family Portrait, which symbolizes an auspicious start to the New Year. Its ingredients include sea cucumber, mushrooms, pork meatballs, and asparagus lettuce.
Another item that Guo recommends is spicy red-chili steamed barramundi, which is essentially an Asian sea bass. “Fish” in Chinese, yu, alludes to the favourable phrase “Fortune is upon you”—a reason why so many Chinese people like to order this type of seafood for Lunar New Year dinners.
There is one special dish that is only available during the New Year season—the deluxe Szechuan-style charcuterie platter (Chinese sausage, pork, and pork tongue). It’s considered a delicacy among Chinese people, and the platter symbolizes prosperity and good fortune for the incoming year.
“Essentially, there are no special or extraordinary dishes that we create just for Chinese New Year,” explained Zhu Xiao Yang, executive chef of Yuan’s Shanghai Serendipity Cuisine (180–4260 No. 3 Road, Richmond), in an interview at the restaurant. “We like to serve foods that people may not necessarily eat on regular nights but will definitely order them for Chinese New Year because it may have prosperous meanings or lucky connotations to them.”
Zhu hails from Shanghai, and although he doesn’t have any favourite Lunar New Year dishes, he understands why it’s so important to have a large family gathering with culinary creations for the occasion.
“In the past, the majority of people could not eat these delicious items such as meat and seafood because they couldn’t afford it,” said Zhu. “So it would be extra-special when they consume these things for Chinese New Year.…It’s about being able to gather with your family and enjoy a tasty meal.”
One Shanghai-style dish that he suggests for Lunar New Year is a seafood pork-and-vegetable clay pot, which is made with shrimp, vermicelli, and various veggies. It is known as a “family portrait” and symbolizes prosperity and auspiciousness.
Slow-braised pork hock is another Shanghai dish consumed during the New Year because its name, yuan ti, sounds similar to the Chinese for “family gathering”—which is important because a united family brings happiness and good fortune.
Northern Chinese cuisine
Chang’An Restaurant (1661 Granville Street) is a fine-dining restaurant popular among Mainland Chinese guests in Vancouver. It serves dishes in the traditional style of Xi’an (the capital of Shaanxi province in northern China) that are intricately crafted by a skilled executive chef, Wang Zong Gui.
Like other high-end Chinese restaurants, Chang’An will be offering special set menus for Lunar New Year for those who want to have a large meal out with their families.
“Chinese people like to order dishes during the Chinese New Year season that come with a positive and favourable meaning,” said Wang to the Straight in an interview at the waterside eatery.
He explained that dumplings are a must-eat food during Lunar New Year for people from northern China because of their lucky connotations. Another popular item is freshly baked red-bean cake, because its Chinese name, nian gao, sounds similar to the positive phrase “Reaching higher every year”.
Besides dishes with auspicious meanings, Wang explained that Chang’An’s signature dish, roasted duck, will also be in high demand. It will be hand-carved next to your table and is to be eaten two ways: the crispy skin dipped in raw sugar and, with sliced pieces of meat, wrapped in handmade flour wrappers with assorted condiments; and with noodles in duck soup.
For many Cantonese-speaking people, consuming a dish with favourable and lucky connotations is the most important part of Lunar New Year.
Besides offering special set menus for parties of four or more, Dynasty Seafood Restaurant (108–777 West Broadway) has organized a list of 11 culinary creations that come with promising meanings.
“We will be offering a variety of special dishes with auspicious names and meanings for Lunar New Year,” Dynasty’s executive chef Sam Leung explained to the Straight at the restaurant.
One such dish on its seasonal menu is made with dried oysters, dried black moss, and vegetables. Its name in Cantonese, fat choi ho see dai lei, translates as “Have a prosperous year in the market”—music to the ears for those who work in the financial realm or run their own business.
“We have another unique dish that is made from shrimp paste and wrapped in vermicelli before being fried, which creates a beautiful golden sphere-shaped item,” Leung said.
The Cantonese name of this golden dish, wong gum gwun gwun loi, translates as “Wealth will constantly be in your path”, and this culinary creation looks like little golden nuggets.
Leung explained that while consuming dishes with connotations of prosperity is important for Chinese people during the New Year, the most important aspect is being able to spend time with your entire family.