What Chinese people ate on Chinese New Year (in my case)

*This post is way overdue… It was meant to be posted up around the time of Chinese New Year which was two weeks ago on the 30th of January, however, I have simply been extremely busy. Nevertheless, there is no restriction on when one can admire images of yummy food and learn a bit more about the Chinese New Year food traditions. So here it is (meanwhile, I will work on putting up new posts on restaurant reviews and also interesting Thai fresh produce I have encountered on a recent trip to a fresh produce market)

 

There is no exact formula for “Chinese New Year” food. Christmas dishes in Western countries tend to be themed around the collection of: turkey/chicken/ham, mashed sweet potatoes, and desserts like Christmas pudding, however, for a celebration like Chinese New Year, the dishes tend to vary a lot.

I’m not being biased, but I feel there are a lot more dimensions in Asian cuisine than Western – whether it would be the method of cooking or ingredients used.

As regards to Chinese New Year, of course, there are a couple of dishes widely present on the dining tables all across Asian (or in countries that celebrate Chinese New Year, other than in China) countries. A sample of Asian countries who also celebrate Chinese New Year other than China include: Singapore, Malaysia, and of course, Thailand. It is usually people of Chinese descents who truly celebrate Chinese New Year i.e. follow the customs (like wearing certain coloured clothes).

The essential components for a Chinese New Year meal which I had mentioned include: a fish dish, roasted duck or chicken, and oranges, just to name a few.

I wanted to share what ‘Chinese families’ eat to celebrate Chinese New Year, so here is the menu of what I ate on the 30th of January.

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Here is an impressive tower of Chinese-style filled buns. The buns were shaped like peaches because in Chinese culture and ancient tales, peaches are thought of as “heaven foods” i.e. fruits found in heaven. Therefore, those who eat the peaches will have a long-life (remember the sacred peach tree in Kungfu Panda?) The buns were not bad at all despite looking really hard on the outside. However, once steamed, the buns became cotton soft, and the fillings were.. well, not that special. They include the typical: taro, custard cream (no actual cream used) and black beans.

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Here was the menu of our order at the restaurant.

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A selection of Chinese-style snacks as hors d’oeurves. The tiny balls are sugar-coated peanuts (super sweet!), next to the balls are “tuo-tad” which in my previous post I had shown the making of. “Tuo-tad” is basically a very crispy and sweet bar made from caramel and nuts. The one next to “Tuo-tad” is “kor-ped-nga” a similar sort of sweet but uses mostly sesame seeds, chewier and less sweet. Beside the sesame seeds are something I had never tried: crystallized winter melon. Winter melon are known for their blandness, and high water content, similar to radish. Extremely low in calories but when boiled in syrup, there is no doubt they would absorb a lot of the sugar. To the left of the “crystallized winter melon” were “rice puffs” style snacks, which taste basically like the Western-style “rice pop bars”.

Onto ‘savoury hors d’oeurves’:

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Clockwise from upper left hand corner: wine-soaked chicken. This is a popular ‘upper-scale’ Chinese dish. The chicken has been roasted or steamed, then soaked in rice wine. The taste is of slight tinges of alcoholic sweetness and the texture is very soft, melt in your mouth. The texture of wine-soaked chicken ranges from slightly chewy to really soft, such as this one. Most people would like the soft, almost creamy texture, but this would mean that the chicken has been soaked for a very long time in alcohol, which would have killed off a lot of the vitamins present in chicken i.e. vitamin B’s or omega 6 fatty acids. To the upper right hand corner is one of my favourite Chinese dishes (because it is not so oily and heavy as others) spicy jellyfish. The jellyfish has been tossed in a ‘spicy salad sauce’ of Chinese vinegar, soy sauce, a bit of chili, sesame oil and garnished with chopped spring onions. The taste is sweet, sour and slightly spicy. At the bottom are pork ribs with red wine. The pork ribs are also on the sweet, but mostly salty side. In the middle of the plate is “calamari” or oven roasted battered squid.  Personally, this non-fried calamari was not very properly prepared: the batter was too thick and tough, and there were only pieces of squid the thickness of straws. The deep fried squid were served in an elaborate deep fried taro shell which was slightly bland. The squid was sprinkled on top with fried garlic pieces, shallot, salt and chili.

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Next we have one of the most famous Chinese New Year dishes, ‘Peking duck’. In Thailand, Peking ducks are normally only eaten with the skin, whereas traditionally in Beijing, the duck meat pieces that have been carved out from the roasted duck are also taken with the pastry. The method of eating Peking duck is taking a piece of duck skin, cucumber and spring onion, then wrap all of this with a thin piece of pastry (basically pancake with no egg). Before rolling the entire mix up into a sizeable wrap, top the arrangement off with a thick, sweet soysauce.

Personally, I prefer the traditional way of eating Peking duck, with the meat because I don’t find much point with eating tasteless albeit crispy duck skin. In Thailand, the duck meat not eaten with the pancakes is then stir-fried with a bit of salt, garlic, and lots of oil which I feel is already too much for a type of meat that is already quite fatty. However, Peking duck (roasted type only) is not the most fatty dish out there despite the oily appearance of the super shiny skin: because the roasted duck are normally squeezed off as possible of oil (hung up-side-down), to achieve the extreme crispy skin.

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Stir-fried prawns with garlic and asparagus.  The flavour of garlic is actually quite undertoned in this dish. It was not too oily for a Chinese stir-fry (unlike the dishes I’ve had in New Zealand… Thai Chinese restaurants are much healthier). The shrimps seemed to have been initially lightly boiled to achieve a soft texture then quickly stir-fried with extreme heat to achieve a slight crispy exterior yet tender inside. I also liked the fact that this restaurant actually put the effort into shelling their asparagus! (finally I can eat asparagus at a restaurant! Instead of leaving them as chewed up mush on the side of the plate) The sauce which the prawns were cooked in was possibly a mixture of soybean sauce, garlic and flour for a slightly gooey feel.

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This was one of my favourite dishes of the night – Braised duck with gingko nuts in oyster sauce – because it was not so oily. Within the dish were melt-in-your-mouth slices of abalone (I find that Asian abalones which are whitish in colour, as compared to slightly blue tinges of New Zealand abalones slightly softer), luscious pieces of boychoy, and a few kinds of mushrooms which include ‘white fungus’ (texture like seaweed) and juicy shiitake. I loved the generous portions of veggies in a not-so-oily gravy. The soft texture of abalone and its sophisticated, seafood flavour went really well with the mushrooms. However, I realized the rule of thumb with seafood is that the harder and more rubbery the texture, the fresher the produce. Therefore, the yummy abalone was in fact about to go off.

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Deep-fried soft shell crab with salt and chili. This dish was pretty impressive. The saltiness and pepperiness of the batter was just right, and the flavours of the crab went very well with the crunchy garlic pieces, chili and chopped spring onions. Sure, the batter was thick, but the pieces of soft-shell crabs were pretty generous as well. Thanks crab for sacrificing yourself!

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A random image of my mum’s vegan/vegetarian option. The restaurant were super professional about preparing a “orengi” mushroom stir fry with a side of broccoli, and rice noodles with veggies in gravy for my mum’s special dietary requirement.

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Steamed seabass with chili and lemon sauce. This was definitely a dish I was waiting for. Fish dishes are one of the healthiest options you can choose at a Chinese restaurant. They are normally cooked with minimal oil, and seasoned with lots of good herbs like…. However, this steamed fish was rather disappointing. It was undercooked, when served, the flesh within was still slightly pink! I could kind of tell from just looking at the scales and skin of the fish, that it has not been well cooked. The inside of the eyes were also still slimy. We did send the fish back, only to receive it back upon the reason that if cooked longer, the fish would become too mushy (and also some weak argument about the lighting causing the flesh to appear pink). I suppose the fish was quite fresh, because none of us got diarrhea after eating it! The sauce was not bad: garlicky, herby and slightly spicy and sour. It was however, a bit too sweet to be Chinese! I feel like the restaurant was going a bit too Thai-fusiony with their dishes.

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This was what they have done to perfectly juicy roasted duck. Thai people prefer the flavours and chewy texture of fried duck in garlic. This can be eaten with fried rice.

Other than the foods pictured, there were also the “shark fin soup” (dun, dun, dun!) that came after the hors d’oeuvres, hokkien-style noodles that came before dessert which nearly everyone had to take home because they had already eaten so much (which is a shame because they have an auspicious meaning of ‘long-life’. Oh well, we already ate fish meaning having a surplus for the year). And also the dessert which was chilled sweet tapioca and cantaloupe in coconut milk.

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This was one of the desserts exchanged by family members at the restaurant. A Thai dessert called “Look-choop” shaped into orannges, for a Chinese New Year twist. “Look-choop” was also a childhood favourite of mine, because the mung beans mixture which are later encased in jelly (to hold shape) can be molded into a variety of delicious-looking, colourful mini fruits. But I remember I did not like the taste much which was rather “beany” (as a friend’s friend from Australia whom I took around had accurately described, “just like eating beans”) and not so sweet.

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Stay in tune for my next post about my “Chinese New Year holiday” in Thai’s beach district, Huahin!

– Izzy