If you ask Alex Chan about Lunar New Year, he invariably thinks about firecrackers.
“For New Year’s you would get new clothing,” says the Hong Kong-born, now Canada-based graphic designer. “So my mom bought me a jacket, and I put a bunch of firecrackers in one pocket. I would have been about 10, and at the time they were legal in Hong Kong. We were throwing them randomly around, not at each other, but somehow one got right inside my pocket and began to burn up. That was definitely a memorable Chinese New Year.”
For Chan and over 2 billion people scattered across the globe, Lunar New Year (which falls on Jan. 22 in 2023) is indeed a very memorable occasion. Not just for the new clothes, but also for the many traditions that have developed alongside the festival, which commemorates the last day of the year according to the Chinese lunisolar calendar. There’s the ritual house cleaning, incense burning, ceremonies, offerings to ancestors and deities, and perhaps most importantly, there’s the food.
The list is extensive. Dumplings, spring rolls, nian gao (a sweet rice cake), fish, and steamed chicken are among the many options to be found depending on where you go. Braised shiitake mushrooms, hot pot, and a variety of steamed vegetables can also be seen on many tables during this time.
“There’s a lot of dishes,” notes Edmonton Alberta chef Sonny Sung. “Sticky rice and noodles, for instance. Especially the Longevity Noodles.”
Made of egg noodles and often flavoured with vegetable broth, sesame oil, and soy sauce, Longevity (or Yi Mein) Noodles aren’t particularly exotic, but tradition dictates that they’re present at New Years and birthday celebrations. They’ve been around for thousands of years, ritually eaten as a metaphor for longevity. In China they’re ever present, also often served as a side dish at weddings or to celebrate the birth of a child.
Sung also points to BBQ pork, duck with glutinous rice, and striped bass as other dishes that make their way on to most people’s Lunar New Year menus, whether at home or a restaurant.
“Most restaurants have a New Year’s menu,” says Sung. “You have to special order that and something will be made for you. Most people in the west are unfamiliar with that kind of food, though. A Chinese family can come in and say ‘we want a 10 course dinner for New Year.’ Then they have the sticky rice, the noodles, and all of the various dishes for the evening.”
Unlike the Western version, Lunar New Year lasts for over two weeks, marked on the other end by the Lantern Festival, which celebrates the first full moon of the year. The food and fun continue over a 16-day period, but Chan says that New Years is when the bulk of the action takes place in terms of family feasting.
“That’s actually the day when we eat vegetarian food,” says Chan, referring to a longstanding Buddhist custom. “I believe the reason is because the Chinese are traditionally a farming culture, and so it’s kind of a day in which we grant the animals a period in which they’re not eaten,” he chuckles.
For Chan and his family, Lunar New Year is still an important part of their lives and not just for the food. As a bachelor, Chan is also still often a recipient of red envelopes, the traditional gift of money inserted in ornate red envelopes and given to friends, relatives, or to kids and grown up children by their parents.
“Since I’m not married I still get them from my siblings and my parents,” Chan notes “but as a kid that was often your income during the year. You could save it, but you could also gamble; where I grew up, Chinese New Year was the only time that kids would be allowed to gamble. For a lot of us this was the first taste of gambling we had.”
The following recipes provided by Chef Sonny Sung are part of what his family will have on their table for this Lunar New Year.
Striped Bass (or BC Rock fish)
1 piece 16 oz striped bass fillet or BC Rock fish
1 tbsp sliced fresh ginger
1 tbsp sliced green onion
2 oz Chinese white wine
½ tsp sea salt
5 oz fresh pork belly diced small pieces
2 tbsp rock sugar
2 tbsp red chilli sliced small
3 oz light soy sauce
2 tbsp black bean
3 oz vegetable stock or cold water if you don’t have vegetable stock,
1 tbsp corn-starch mixed in 1 tbsp cold water
Cut the pork belly into small pieces.
Heat frying pan, add oil to sauteed the pork belly.
After a couple of minutes add wine, soy, ginger, rock sugar, black bean, and vegetable stock, then bring to simmer for about 2 or 3 minutes.
Check that the seasoning is to your liking, then thicken with corn-starch and pour into the sauce.
Bring to a boil, and make sure to coat your spoon nicely. Remove and put to the side.
Heat the wok or frying pan with canola oil at 375 F.
Fry the bass until golden brown.
Arrange the fish on the center of a plate, pour the pork sauce on top the fish and garnish with julienned green and red chilli.
Duck with Glutinous Rice
Marinate the duck with:
1 tbsp five spice
2 oz light soy
1 tbsp garlic
1 tbsp ginger powder
2 oz canola oil
2 oz Chinese wine
2 oz peppercorn
Keep the duck marinated in this mixture for about 45 minutes at room temperature
Place the duck in an oiled wok at 375 F.
Deep fry the duck until just about crisp, roughly 7 to 10 minutes, and then remove and put to the side.
2 oz sliced thin ginger,
2 oz Chinese wine,
2 oz rock sugar,
2 oz cinnamon stick,
6 or 8 bay leaves,
1 oz peppercorn
8 oz light soy sauce
3 liters of chicken stock
Put all ingredients together in the wok and bring to boil.
Cover the wok and simmer with the duck on the stove or baked in oven for 3 hours, until the duck is tender.
When done, remove the side, cut the shoulder and remove the wing bone, body bone, then open butterfly style, put it down and remove the thigh and leg bone one at a time. Make sure to keep it together! Let sit until the sticky rice is finished.
Prep the glutinous rice:
1 kg of glutinous rice soaked in hot water for 5 hours, or you can soak the rice the day before.
2 liters cold water
Heat the steamer or stock pot with 1 liter water
Place the glutinous rice in ramekin and make sure it’s dried in the steamer or stock pot.
Cover the lid, steam and simmer about 45 minutes.
While this is happening prep all ingredients for the glutinous rice
3 oz lotus seed soaked in hot water
3 oz of chestnut
3 oz dried shrimp soaked in hot water
3 oz canola oil
3 soy sauce
2 tbsp dried shallots
Fill a stock pot with 1 liter of water.
Boil lotus seed and chestnut until soft.
Place in steel bowl and add soy, canola oil, shrimp, and shallot.
Add the steamed rice and mix well.
Put the rice on top of the duck and put back in the steamer and cover for about 1 hour.
Turn the duck upside down with glutinous rice on the bottom and serve ASAP.