Auspicious treats for Chinese New Year feasts
Chinese New Year begins on February 16th, and as billions of people across China and around the world welcome in the Year of the Dog, Maws offer a little inspiration for creating an authentic banquet from our oriental store cupboard.
Alongside the firecrackers, lion dances and little red enveloped filled with cash, enjoying an extravagant meal with family and friends is an essential part of traditional Chinese New Year celebrations.
2018 is the year of the dog, eleventh of the twelve signs that comprise the Chinese Zodiac, officially identified during the Han Dynasty over 2000 years ago. The dog is said to represent loyalty, honesty and above all friendship; the ideal symbol for encouraging social gatherings, and if you want to celebrate in true Chinese fashion, every platter you serve should come loaded with as much auspicious meaning as mouth-watering flavour.
Wishes make dishes
Unlike in the west, nearly all food items in Chinese cuisine have some form of symbolic meaning, usually derived from homonyms found in the Cantonese and Mandarin languages.
For example sang choi, the Cantonese word for lettuce sounds much like the phrase meaning ‘growing wealth’, which is why the traditional New Year’s Eve lion dance sees the creature roaming the streets searching for the crispy greens, which are suspended over the doorways homes and businesses.
Similarly, oranges and tangerines (known as ‘good fortune fruit’) are eaten in abundance over New Year, as their Chinese name cheng sounds the same as the word for success.
Aside from propitious fruit and veg there are a host of complex dishes and recipes all associated with fortuitous dining, and even though we’re now familiar with many of them in the west, their origins and hidden meanings may surprise you.
Spring if you’re winning!
Chinese New Year is better know to the Chinese as Spring Festival, and spring rolls (chun juan), the delicate savoury pancakes now enjoyed the world over, are the original dish created to mark the occasion. Thought to have originated during the Eastern Jin dynasty (265 – 420 AD) as thin pancakes filled with the new season vegetables eaten to mark the first day of spring, the dish evolved over the centuries to become elegant rolls filled with everything from shredded vegetables such as cabbage, carrot and beansprout to shitake mushrooms and minced pork, traditionally served with a dipping sauce made from Shaoxing wine, oyster sauce and ginger.
Once fried crisp to rich golden colour they are thought to resemble ingots of gold, and are therefore eaten to encourage wealth and prosperity.
Use your noodle
Even more popular than spring rolls, the origins of noodles (collectively known as mien) are even older, and today you’ll find thousands of regional variations throughout Asia and beyond.
As many Italian families still prepare fresh pasta, so many Chinese families still make their own noodles especially for special festive occasions.
Noodles generally fall into three main categories, rice noodles simply made with rice flour and water, egg noodles made with eggs wheat flour and water (distinguished by their pale yellow colour), and cellophane noodles, a slightly translucent thin noodle made using mung bean starch.
Noodles dishes are consumed on birthdays and at New Year, and the homemade ‘hand-pulled’ noodles must never be cut or trimmed, but always cooked at their original length as they signify longevity and wellbeing.
The big bamboo
It could be argued that bamboo shoots have been consumed for even longer than both the aforementioned foodstuffs, eaten by humans in the regions where they grow since prehistory.
In feng shui, the Chinese philosophical system for harmonising with the surrounding environment, bamboo is traditionally used to attract whatever you might need more of, be it love, money, or just luck.
No surprise then that succulent bamboo shoots feature prominently in New Year dishes - the Chinese for them also sounds similar to the term “wishing that everything would be well’, and few dishes fulfil the wish of wellness better than Buddha’s Delight, a cleansing vegetarian meal traditionally served on New Year’s Day comprised of stir fried bamboo shoots, snow peas, mushrooms and pak-choi.
Hungry like the wolf
If these Chinese treats have left you salivating for the forthcoming Year of the Dog, then why not visit the Chinese section of our World Foods category for further inspiration.