Posted 16th February 2015 by Martha Burton
Chinese New Year is the biggest, brightest and most food-filled celebration on the Chinese calendar. Steeped in heritage, the annual celebration is crammed with traditions that largely focus on gathering friends and family, and enjoying wonderful food to mark the beginning of the lunar calendar. As we prepare to welcome the year of the sheep, we spoke to celebrity chef, Ken Hom, to find out more about this spectacular event.
New Year’s Day falls on 19 February and kicks off a fortnight of celebrations. Ken, who was born in America but is of Chinese descent, describes the festivities as, ‘Christmas, New Year and Easter, all rolled into one long holiday.’ Sounds pretty perfect, right? Ken continues, ‘It’s our most auspicious holiday because it’s a celebration of spring; it’s the renewal of life and a time when people return home to their family and friends.’ People travel far and wide to spend the holiday with their loved ones, and what better way to celebrate than with delicious food.
But before the feasting can begin, the cleaning must be done. All cleaning takes place before New Year’s Day, as it’s believed any cleaning done at the beginning of the new lunar year may sweep out the good luck. As family and friends gather, children wish their elders ‘Kung hei fat choy!’, which means ‘Happy New Year!’, and are rewarded with a red envelope with money inside. Ken reflects fondly on Chinese New Year as a child: ‘The gifts are something we looked forward to, and we also looked forward to the meals because that’s a time when we eat things we wouldn’t normally – ordinarily we don’t splurge.’
Chinese New Year is certainly a time for decadent, sophisticated dishes that make the most of symbolic ingredients. The type of foods eaten often reflect Chinese superstitions, and as Ken says, ‘Fish is eaten because the word in Chinese sounds very much like prosperity, and we all want prosperity.’ Ken thinks simple steamed fish really is ‘the most wonderful thing in the world, as steaming brings out all of its virtues.’ Regardless of how it is cooked, fish must be served whole, and the placement of the fish on the dinner table is very important. Ken tells us, ‘The fish will be pointed at the oldest person at the table because that’s a sign of respect.’ The youngest members of the family will then offer the cheek of the fish to the oldest person because it is considered to be the most delicate and delicious part of the fish. If you’re putting together a Chinese New Year feast, why not try this straightforward Steamed Cantonese style fish for your table?
Noodles are eaten as a symbol of long life and mustn’t be cut as it’s believed this will cut your life. These delicious Broccoli noodles with soy, lime and chilli dressing are really easy to prepare and are packed with flavour, sure to go down well with friends and family. Similarly, rice is enjoyed during the feasting as it brings fertility and wealth. This simple Steamed rice with toasted sesame seeds and coriander is the perfect addition to the banquet table. As a sign of the Buddhist tradition, vegetarian dishes are often eaten during this time of year, to help cleanse the body. Why not add this light and refreshing Stir fried cucumber with hot spices to your spread.
Chinese New Year isn’t only celebrated across China, but is also enjoyed globally throughout the international Chinese community and beyond. Ken says there is a variance in the dishes served regionally throughout China, largely dependent on what is available in each different region. For example, in north China, dumplings are one of the most important New Year dishes, as they resemble gold ingots and will bring you good fortune. If you fancy giving dumplings a go, try out these Char siew dumplings, which take a while to make, but are totally worth it. Ken tells us that in south China, the most popular dishes are seafood dishes and stir fries, in the west they love spicy dishes, and in the east they prefer dishes made with rice wine, such as drunken chicken, which involves cooking a whole chicken in a spiced broth.
One of Ken’s favourite traditions as a child involved a poster of a Kitchen God. Children rub a little honey on the lips of the Kitchen God so he speaks well of you when he reports back to heaven. These traditions make for a fun foodie holiday that’s sure to keep all entertained and deliciously full. Ken finishes by saying, ‘Even if you don’t believe in the symbolism, the celebrations are fun, especially if you’re a child!’
Let us know what you plan on including in your Chinese New Year feast in the comments below.