As an Australian-born Chinese, I love this time of year: with the Year of The Monkey almost upon us, it’s all about family, festivities and a quirkily expressed food culture.
The food consumed around Chinese New Year – especially on its eve, which this year falls on February 7 – reflects the proactive approach that the Chinese take to attracting a 12-month supply of good fortune and prosperity. Every dish, snack and decoration that makes the New Year cut is selected for its ability to look like, sound like or somehow attract something lucky.
Hence the way orange fruits begin to materialise around my parents’ home in the lead-up to the main event. Not only are citrus fruits, particularly tangerines and oranges, excellent scurvy deterrents, but their Chinese names sound like the words for luck and wealth; plus they symbolise gold. My dad – retired accountant that he is – takes no chances with this tradition. Courtesy of a massive cumquat bush in the backyard (take heed, financial planners), he festoons the house with fruit for at least a week before New Year’s Day. He’ll sneak them into cars, sheds, sock drawers and handbags for luck. Inevitably we forget about them and find petrified cumquats everywhere for months after.
Another harbinger of Chinese New Year is the box of lollies that appears on the dining room table. This ‘tray of togetherness’ contains eight compartments (the Chinese word for ‘eight’ is a homonym for the word for prosperity) that are filled with treats to encourage a sweet beginning to the year. As a child, the sense of anticipation I used to feel before lifting the lid to this magical box was unfailingly met with disappointment when, instead of the longed-for Cadbury Favourites and sherbet bombs, the compartments revealed delights such as candied lotus root and melon that were far too exotic for my delicate Australian-born-Chinese tastebuds.
New Year’s Eve is the big one both for socialising and gourmandising. On this day, every Chinese family will be crazed by the challenge of preparing the evening’s festivities, and my own clan is no exception. In a kitchen so narrow as to guarantee conflict, Mum and Dad stage the ultimate wok-off, jostling for precious stove space and brandishing offensive utensils. The noise of a domestic kitchen charged with producing a banquet for 30 is astonishing: the clang of the wok; the sizzle of garlic meeting hot oil; and the overhead extractor working overtime to suck up the smog of ginger and chilli. As rich in drama as any reality cooking show, there’ll be tears, death stares and triumph ultimately wrested from despair, as a procession of homophone-rich, look-a-likey-lucky dishes – dumplings, spring rolls, prawns, chicken, fish, vegetables and noodles – are produced in preparation for the evening’s banquet.
In the late afternoon Dad will retreat to the patio where, squatting over his makeshift deep fryer, he produces dozens of ham sieu gok, crescent-shaped, pork-filled dumplings that resemble gold ingots (if you have an excellent imagination or have recently ingested hallucinogenic drugs) and symbolise good fortune for the year ahead.
Come dinner time, the dishes are finally ready and rellies from every branch of the family tree turn up, often accompanied by nervous-looking plus-ones. Lucky red packets, filled with money, will be flying around and Dad will proudly flourish his ham sieu goks, their pastry being so glutinous that “how are you going?” conversation is reduced to a chorus of sticky honks.
The plus-ones (particularly those who are not of Chinese extraction and/or are vegan/vegetarian) will behold the banquet of protein on offer with trepidation. Virtually no animal from land, sea or sky is spared. There must be fish as it sounds like the word ‘abundance’ and it must be served whole – head to tail – to ensure a good start and end to the year. Dad takes this imperative very seriously and purchases a Moby-Dick-sized specimen that is too massive for any pot we have. To circumnavigate this, he’ll cook the beast in two parts: holding the tail out of the pot while immersing the fish’s head and middle, then holding the head out while the tail end cooks. When eventually cooked, the fish is topped with shredded ginger, spring onion, coriander and a bewitching sweet soy sauce that turns a humble bowl of rice into a symphony of yum. As Mother warns everyone to “watch for the bones”, the plus-ones’ gazes fix in horror on the fish’s thick lips and glassy eyes. At that exact moment, my grandfather will plunge his chopsticks into the eye socket, extract the eyeball and eat it. The plus-ones are openly repulsed and as they turn an even whiter shade of white, my cousins and I scream out “grossssss!” while being secretly amused.
Another confronting (but lucky) dish is the ‘white-cooked’ chicken that’s served with a punch-you-in-the-mouth ginger and spring onion condiment. Again, the creature must arrive on the table whole – beady eyes, cockscomb, beak, claws and tail included – to signify family unity. Inevitably, its beak will point towards the most squeamish guest in a “you’re next” prediction from beyond the grave. Thank goodness for the inoffensive plate of Chinese broccoli and bok choy, whose consumption heralds a long life for parents.
Ho See Fat Choi is a dish I’ve poetically renamed ‘human hair’ as the black moss it’s comprised of looks disturbingly like the slimy furballs I periodically yank from the shower drain. This dish is busy with lucky foods: sea moss for prosperity, lotus seeds for children, noodles for longevity (just don’t cut them in half) and Chinese black mushrooms for wish fulfilment. If any couples are looking, in my Mother’s opinion, like they should be having children, she will thrust the lotus seeds closer and closer towards them, eventually abandoning discretion and taking it upon herself to pile their plates high. The Chinese equivalent of giving a couple a knowing wink.
When the bogging in is in full swing, conversation becomes redundant. All you can hear is soup slurping, chopsticks clacking, pork belly skin crackling under tooth and the whoosh of rice being swept into eager mouths at warp speed. Post feeding frenzy, the toothpicks come out and everyone slumps comatose in their seats, attempting to digest a month’s worth of protein in one go. The tradition is to stay up till midnight, when firecrackers will be set off to scare away any bad demons that may be lurking around. A better and less well-known tradition that I favour is to retire to my boudoir, thus avoiding any demons and dirty dishes.
Happy New Year to you all. Whatever your background, Chinese New Year is a great excuse to go ape: eat spring rolls and dumplings, see your family, buy new red clothes and attract all the good luck you deserve. People born in the Year of the Monkey are thought to be lively, fun and mischievous creatures so no doubt 2016 will be a year of happiness, optimism and bum-reddeningly good luck. Gong Hei Fat Choi!
It's really easy to make restaurant-quality spring rolls at home, and these crispy pork and mushroom beauties are no exception. Serve these crowd-pleasers with your favourite Asian dipping sauce.
This style of briefly poaching chicken and allowing it to cool in the stock ensures the chicken remains juicy and tender. Don’t remove the chicken from the stockpot for at least one hour. Serve hot or cold with steamed Chinese greens and rice for a complete and utterly delicious meal.