Feast your way through Chinese New Year in Vancouver
Around this time of the year, my mom used to prepare a schedule consisting of a grocery shopping list and a cooking timetable, which she followed religiously.
“Deep-frying is necessary,” she told us, “for oil is the lubricant that could smooth out any frictions and mishaps in the New Year.”
By the time Chinese New Year rolled in, tins of deep-fried pastries and arrays of viands would be well in stock.
Behold, Chinese New Year is the utmost important festival and still is the longest block of public holidays in Mainland China today. Friends and relatives are expected to visit each other to re-acquaint and share their blessings while munching on home-made holiday treats.
Sweetened and golden-brown are the deep-fried pastries; brined, seasoned and hung-dried are strips of pork bellies and whole pressed chicken or duck, which will be steamed on rice, sliced and served. Confectionery in shimmering wraps, baked seeds and candied roots will fill the round lacquered offering box placed on the tea table. Each item either has an auspicious name or a symbolic meaning to felicitate the festival delight. We recognize the deep-fried dumplings stuffed with sugar and crushed peanuts as gold pieces, and candied winter melon slices as silver coins. As a kid, I dove in as soon as they were ready.
Nowadays, city folks’ busy lives may rob them of the time needed to put together a home-cooked, traditional New Year dinner. Fortunately for Vancouverites, the easy accessibility of authentic Chinese restaurants provides a delicious way to embrace this annual joyous celebration. It is a common scene to see families gather at big round tables on New Year’s Eve in neighbourhood Chinese restaurants.
Over on W. Broadway, Chef Zhang of Sen Bistro started working on the New Year menu weeks ago to ensure guests get a true holiday feast experience. His tableful of New Year dishes, known as Nen-chai, are indeed cornucopias of lucky charms. Chai is vegetables in Mandarin, the exact pronunciation as ‘fortune’ and therefore a must have. A pot of ‘jai’ in which assortments of roots, mushrooms and vegetables are braised in bean or soy paste can often be found on the dinner table amongst other meat and seafood dishes.
Prawns, known as ‘ha’ in Cantonese, resemble laughter. Chef Zhang prepares them two ways — golden honey prawns for the pleasing crunchiness and crispy prawns sauté shaped like a crown with black bean sauce. Fish and chicken, all birds for that matter, are supposed to be served whole, with heads and tails, to emphasize unity.
Rice, noodles and steamed plain baozi (buns), are staples for Chinese meals. Noodles represent longevity, baozi are wholesome goodness, and a bowl of rice is well, you may have guessed it, a bowl of gems!
A popular Northern Chinese pasta dish called Lenn Gao is made with rice flour, sliced thin to resemble silver coins. Chef Zhang spices up the pile of Lenn Gao by wok-frying them with his own version of kimchi.
Anything sweet is believed to carry the harmonizing effect; anything round represents completeness and everlasting. One of the desserts Chef Zhang crafts is a rice pudding with eight ingredients of fruits and nuts known as ‘Ba-Bao-Fann’, or eight-treasure sweet rice. Steamed till tender and moist, then drenched in a floral juice, it is a perfect way to wrap up the flavourful celebrative feast.
Bear in mind that Nen-chai does not have to be a compilation of extravagant courses made with expensive ingredients or unique provisions. The dishes can simply be day-to-day vegetables and seafood and meat items sourced from local markets. But all are prepared and served with special thoughts and meanings. Given symbolic names, they become festive dishes with which to commend the arrival of a new year.
While not everyone knows the meaning of the 12 Chinese animal signs representing the Lunar Calendar, we do know that the Year of the Snake will soon be upon us. Interestingly, the feast of Nen-chai has nothing to do with the animal signs at all but everything to do with the blessings of good fortune, good health and prosperity. However, to welcome the New Year, why not have some fun? Many restaurants capture the spirit of the New Year bliss and take advantage of the symbolic meaning of Nen-chai by creating intriguing and seasonal dishes.
Don’t be surprised to walk into a Chinese restaurant and be offered a bowl of “Snake Soup.” If that is too exotic, go check out Wild Rice. Both locations (one in Gastown, one in New Westminster) grasp this notion with a witty menu. With eel as the snake to do the greeting, there’s also glass noodles for longevity and cabbage rolls as stuffed packets of gold ingots. Chef Todd Bright’s home-made fortune cookies deliver the sweet blessings.
SenChineseBistro.com | 1788 W. Broadway | 604-558-3989
WildRiceVancouver.com | 117 W. Pender | 604-642-2882