Heaven Leigh, the owner of Sydney's vegan Bodhi Restaurant Bar, is known for recreating classic yum cha dishes with a vegan spin. But each year, one of her biggest culinary challenges remains hosting her family's annual New Year feast.
"We have a very large extended family. About 30 to 40 of us would get together on the day…I had a dining table especially designed at my house just for the food, and sometimes we have another table for desserts," Leigh laughs.
In most Asian cultures, eating for prosperity also means having a line up of meat-heavy dishes — since new year staples like whole chickens and steamed fish (a homonym for 'surplus') are often seen as symbols of good luck. For vegans and vegetarians, all this makes hosting a plant-based Lunar New Year a logistically challenging feat.
"I come from a mixed dietary family. One of my kids is vegetarian, the other is a light meat eater, my husband isn't vegetarian, my mother is vegan. So I've had to learn to be very flexible [over the years]," says Leigh.
If you would like to prepare a vegan feast for Lunar New Year, Leigh recommends that you first establish what you're comfortable with. "If your boundaries are no meat products in your home, then set those expectations and let people decide if they are…willing to attend regardless. If you are unable to cook meat, [but are OK with others doing so], ask them to bring a dish."
Once you have sorted your dietary code, you need to stock up on condiments. "Your sauces are your foundation. A lot of Asian dishes can easily become vegan or vegetarian — since plenty of things are already [carbohydrates or vegetable-based]. If you've got your sauces down, you can throw anything together."
Leigh advocates for a good quality vegan fish sauce, hoisin, a plant-based oyster sauce, and using fried onion and mushroom floss as easy ways to boost umami and add texture.
A good Lunar New Year feast is all about interactive, so-called 'auspicious' dishes. At Leigh's household, this means bringing out the hot pots for mee hoon cuh (or mee hoon kueh) — Malaysian style hand-torn noodles that are cooked at the table in a simmering broth. While the dish is conventionally made with a meat-based stock, she swaps hers for a vegetarian broth using aromatics and root vegetables.
"You would come into our house and see four or five of us at a table, preparing the dough and throwing it all into a pot and dishing it up for everybody," says Leigh.
An equally hands-on centrepiece is the eight treasure salad bowl. Modelled after yee sang — or the 'prosperity toss salad' — it's an all-veg version of a technicolour raw fish dish. The idea is for everyone to mix together the different components with their chopsticks to 'lo hei', which translates to 'tossing up good fortune' in Chinese.
"There's something nostalgic that I miss about being able to participate in that dish…It evokes such positive memories of bringing people together, which is why we came up with the vegan version [at Bodhi]," says Leigh.
In any sprawling Asian-style feast, noodles can act as the common ground for both vegetarians and omnivores.
"Long life noodles is a must. These handmade noodles are kept as long as possible to signify longevity," says Leigh.
It's easy to split the noodles into batches and layer on protein for meat-eaters at the last minute. For a low-prep version, use packaged yi mein, which are available at your local Asian grocery store.
"Long life noodles is a must. These handmade noodles are kept as long as possible to signify longevity,"
Another thing to consider is setting up different 'eating zones' around the house. Rather than a formal sit-down affair, dishes can be laid out on separate banquet tables, and guests are invited to take a plate and choose from sections that suit their dietary needs.
"Traditionally in my family, everyone brings a dish. The kitchen will be overtaken by a gaggle of aunties and we'll all fight over how to do what. The best things are always picked out for grandma and grandpa out of respect, then everyone else would join in."
In years past, Leigh's uncles would also set up their own 'char kway teow station' in the backyard, serving up the customised, just-fried noodles on giant gas burners. The moveable feast approach adds an element of fun and takes the pressure off a single cook in larger family gatherings.
"Lunar New Year really takes you back to the roots of comfort food, the little things that your grandparents or parents made that took effort and time," says Leigh. One of these things is desserts — intricate 'tang yuan' or glutinous rice dumplings, filled with a sweet black sesame paste or peanuts that are vegan-friendly and embody the festive spirit.
"Lunar New Year really takes you back to the roots of comfort food, the little things that your grandparents or parents made that took effort and time."
And does she make her own these days? "My yum cha chefs are always giggling at the way I make things," she laughs. For those who don't have the time (or a grandmother's dumpling-making skills), there's nothing wrong with getting frozen or store-bought tang yuan.
"When Mum first became vegetarian, it was much harder…These days there is a lot more understanding, respect and acceptance in my family. Gone are the wisecracks about eating like a rabbit and now I get more questions around 'What are you substituting this with? How are you making this'?" Just like any family feast, brace yourself for a healthy amount of chaos and get ready to share your recipes.
Eight Treasures salad bowl
By Bodhi Restaurant Bar
Serving size 1-2
- 100 g vermicelli noodles
- 30 g cucumber
- 30 g daikon
- 30 g red cabbage
- 30 g carrot
- 30 g tofu
- 1 tsp cooking vegetable oil
- 20 g bean sprouts
- 20 g enoki mushroom
- 30 g roasted peanuts (to sprinkle)
- ⅓ cup rice vinegar
- ⅓ cup water
- ⅓ tbsp palm sugar
- 1 tbsp rice wine
- 1-2 tsp dried red chilli flakes
- 1 tsp minced ginger
- 1 tsp soy sauce
- 2 makrut lime leaves (optional)
- 2 tsp cornstarch (add 1 tbsp of water and mix until dissolved)
1. Cook vermicelli noodles according to the instructions on the packet.
2. Shred cucumber, daikon, red cabbage and carrot. Rinse in water and drain.
3. Cut tofu into bite sized pieces. Heat oil in a small pan and pan fry tofu until golden brown.
4. To make the sauce, mix rice vinegar water, palm sugar, rice wine, chilli flakes, ginger, soy sauce and makrut lime leaves in a small saucepan and bring to the boil.
5. Stir regularly until sugar is dissolved. Then add in cornstarch mixture, stirring continually until thickened (about 1-2 minutes).
6. Let the sauce cool completely, then pour into a jar or small jug and set aside.
7. To assemble the dish, place the cooked vermicelli at the centre of a large round plate, then arrange the rest of the ingredients (shredded cabbage, tofu, mushrooms, bean sprouts, peanuts) around the vermicelli.