Happy Chinese New Year!
A Follow Me Foodie look at the complexities, philosophy, meaning and symbolism behind Chinese food.
Oof. Big topic there Mijune. I know, but I’ll get my point across before tomorrow and it’s just a highlight. What was supposed to be a short, light, fun Friday read, turned out to be a typical Follow Me Foodie read. Let’s get started!
Gong Hay Fat Choy! Gong Xi Fa Cai! Or whatever other phonetic spellings there are for it! This Sunday February 10 is Chinese New Year, but most big celebrations and family dinners happen on Chinese New Year’s Eve. If you haven’t made reservations to your favourite Chinese restaurant than you’re likely out of luck… unless it’s a really bad one, then chances are you’ll still get your favourite table! It is 15 days of celebrations, superstitions, and do’s and don’ts, but to get your full attention let’s head to the dinner table. But before we start, let’s take a closer look at what Chinese food is really about.
Originally this was supposed to be “10 Lucky Things to Eat on Chinese New Year”, but after listing #1 I had to change the topic. There was just too much. I would rather focus on a couple dishes and go into essay like detail for each one than to give you a random list. Go figure. I’m all for culinary curiosity and people going on duck hunts to discover new or “best” foods, but I personally value the why. It’s important. Yes, I was and am that annoying kid that has to question everything and know what, where, when, how and why – especially when it comes to Chinese New Year Food.
Chinese food is one of the oldest and most complicated cuisines I have ever read and tried learning about. I will never know everything about it despite eating it all my life. It goes way beyond ingredient availability and matching what flavours go with what. Matching flavours is almost an afterthought for many traditional Chinese dishes.
The most common flavours are salty, sweet and sour, but rarely spicy when it comes to Cantonese cuisine. Bitter might even be more commonly found than spicy (eg. bitter melon, tea, the heart of a lotus root, pomelo skin, mandarin/orange peels, Chinese herbs etc.). Sweet and sour is also quite common and even Ketchup “cat-sup” was a Chinese invention – along with sushi and pasta.
Chicken feet at Lin Heung Tea House
When it comes to ingredients it is a “eat everything and waste nothing” culture. I said it in Follow Me Foodie to Hong Kong – Part 2, but China wasn’t rich (until recently) and with a billion people to feed they ate everything and still do. Nose to tail dining is nothing new.
Chicken wings, black cloud ear fungus and sea cucumber
As for texture, a traditional Chinese palate can appreciate gelatinous, chewy, slimy, and rubbery textures. All these textures are often undesired and terms used to describe food made poorly in a Western context. The fatty cuts of meat, pork hock, pig’s ear, beef tendons, pork’s blood, sea cucumber, geoduck, jelly-like mushrooms, and even various sweet and savoury cakes made with rice or tapioca flour all have textures that can be quite acquired for Western tastes.
Chinese Soy Milk & Doughnuts demonstrates the “yin and yang” philosophy.
There is also the whole “yin and yang” philosophy which is the belief that “cooling” foods need to be balanced with “heaty” foods, and then there is symbolism (which I’ll show an example of below). The culture has many superstitions and legends and it is hard to separate fact from fiction, but regardless it all plays an important role in Chinese cuisine and the development of a dish.
Sure, many Chinese dishes are not that appetizing because they are often presented family style; but finding “beauty” in a dish is also a cultural perspective that is personal. A high end Chinese restaurant might have the garde manger carving flowers and zodiac animals out of vegetables the whole night; however putting an inedible garnish on a plate would be a disgrace for a European or American trained chef. Traditionally Western chefs would also never serve inedible parts of the animal like the head of a chicken on a plate, but not serving the whole chicken including its head and tail would be insulting in a traditional Chinese context. These examples just scratch the surface.
Last but not least, there is the whole medicinal and herbal part which I can’t even get into because I know too little about. A Chinese “soup of the day” is never what was leftover (although it can be), but if it’s made with purpose there is so much more to consider beyond flavour. Everything from the ingredient to the person you are cooking for, and even the weather, plays an impact on what goes into the “soup of the day”.
Every cuisine has its history and complexities and I find all of them intriguing, but there is something about Chinese cuisine I find fascinating. French cuisine has its age old techniques and I’m not about to compare it to Chinese cuisine because it is completely different and I value each for what they are. I really just highlighted major subjects and there is so much more than what I’ve written.
If you are already set with your Chinese New Year dinner plans then I hope you enjoy, but if not, then I hope you explore. There are specialities that only make an appearance during this time of year, but regardless Chinese food is also interesting with or without the occasion.
Dried Oysters, Pork, Mushroom and Lettuce Dish
I have chosen one traditional Chinese New Year dish to further explain my points above. This is the Dried Oysters, Pork, Mushroom and Lettuce course that is typically part of a set Chinese New Year banquet dinner menu for 8-10 people.
From Fisherman’s Terrace
See! Appetizing or not? It’s okay. I’m born and raised in Vancouver and I’ve had this dish a lot, but I still think it looks unappetizing. It’s “50 Shades of Brown”… enough said. However to someone who identifies with traditional Chinese tastes this picture could have them salivating. It might even look beautiful. The dried oysters are arranged in a circular pattern, the bed of lettuce is laid out leaf by leaf underneath, and the mushroom was nicely placed in the centre. The dish is more or less neatly arranged. The visual is really just the beginning though. This dish might look like a pile of slop, but it is actually a delicacy and very well thought out dish. It is also very expensive and eaten especially during Chinese New Year and it figuratively has “good luck” all over it.
What is it?
It is braised dried oysters, Chinese Shiitake mushroom, abalone sauce, black moss (hidden underneath the black mushroom in the centre), lettuce and pork tongue. Sometimes it also comes with pieces of pork hock/pig’s feet.
What does it taste like?
The dried oysters can vary in quality, but they are soft and tender and not dry, hard or chewy. They are strong and pungent in cooked oyster flavour and can be a bit mushy or pasty.
The pork tongue is incredibly tender and soft and it tastes like super tender pulled pork. It requires very little chewing and the slices almost melt in your mouth if cooked properly.
The black moss (a type of photosynthetic bacteria) is very controversial and it is going extinct and destroying land as it gets harvested; so China has made the exporting of it illegal. This made it even more highly prized than it already was. It looks like very fine black hair and it melts in your mouth and tastes mushroomy. Most of what is sold and served these days is artificial black moss that is made to look and taste the same. The real black moss is actually dark green and extremely rare.
The abalone sauce can be a bit gluey depending on how much cornstarch is used, or sometimes it will thicken or get a bit gelatinous from the meat juices. It tastes like seafoody mushroom sauce for the most part and the higher the quality the more abalone you should taste.
The lettuce? Well, you know.
What is the significance?
This is the mother of all dishes when it comes to symbolism and every ingredient is a Chinese delicacy except for the lettuce.
Lettuce (called sang choy in Cantonese) – The literal translation is raw vegetable, but “sang” also means “to produce” and “choy” also means wealth. “Sang choy” said in a slightly different tone in Cantonese would imply “growing wealth”. This is why the lions during the lion dance eat the lettuce and find lucky red pockets with money inside.
Dried Oyster (called ho see in Cantonese) – It means dried oyster, but “ho” also means good and together “ho see” said in a slightly different tone means good things to come. The dried oyster eaten specifically with the black moss also holds significance. In Cantonese the ingredients together are “ho see fat choy”, but in a slightly different tone it would mean good business.
Chinese Shiitake Mushroom (called dong gu in Cantonese) – It is prized for its health benefits. It has been used for medicinal purposes in ancient Chinese history so it is symbolic for longevity. The bigger black Shiitake mushrooms are most valued in this dish.
Black Moss (called fat choy in Cantonese) – You should even know this one! “Gong Hay Fat Choy!” Get it?! “Fat Choy” means wealth and prosperity. Most places will only give a small pile to be shared amongst the table since it is very expensive.
Abalone Sauce (called bao yu jup in Cantonese) – “Bao yu” means abalone, but “bao” also means assurance and “yu” surplus so “bao yu” in a slightly different tone in Cantonese also means “assurance of surplus”. Abalone is a delicacy and very expensive so in this dish you only get the sauce. If you get actual abalone meat you are paying a lot for it.
Pork Tongue/Pork Hock (Pig’s feet) – The pig itself symbolizes strength, honesty, wealth and fertility and it is considered a very lucky animal. They are always well fed and they bring happiness and good fortune to the home and family. If your Chinese zodiac is a pig, then for once, being a pig is actually a very good thing! *Oink*. The reason for the pork tongue is because it sounds like the words for wealth. Sometimes the dish will also have pork hock or pigs hand/feet and this is the idea of giving money to the hands of people since the other ingredients represent wealth too. Sounds creepy, but it’s true!
Where to eat it?
In Metro Vancouver: Red Star Seafood, Kirin Seafood, Empire Seafood Restaurant, Top Gun J&C, Rainflower Restaurant, The Jade Seafood Restaurant, Fisherman’s Terrace, Sun Sui Wah Seafood Restaurant, VivaCity Seafood, Dragon’s View Chinese Cuisine, Dynasty, Grand Dynasty, Sea Harbour, Shiang Garden and many others!
By the way it’s the year of the snack… I mean snake! Water snack! All the cunning, business hungry, money making and wise children will be born! Let’s welcome the poisonous bread winner. That being said, any house hold with a snake in the family is said to never starve… with so much money I’m not surprised. Lucky you!
I just re-read your entire post word for word. Fantastically researched and presented. I never even knew (or really thought about) the figurative/symbolic significance of the abalone in this dish and in general, until now. I admit, in all my younger years experiencing this dish at family banquets I usually just kinda “meh’d” it and would only eat it out of trying to be polite, after someone (like an elder family member) plopped a piece or two of the ingredients in my bowl. The sauce I like, on rice 🙂 But as time goes by and now being a parent, I slowly understand, and appreciate, more of these cultural traditions and practices, regardless of their roots and meanings. At the end of the day, it’s not so much the specific dishes, ingredients or practices that we experienced during CNY that hold lasting meaning and value. But it’s the memories of family and friends gathering and re-uniting with warmth, acceptance, generosity, hope and in love that make these holidays and the associated traditions so special and eternal.
Thank you, Mijune
Happy Chinese New Year Mijune.
@LR – Wow! What a lovely comment and I’m so happy you enjoyed the article and were able to relate. I think you nailed it with your last few paragraphs and I completely agree. As a kid the last thing I wanted was Asian food and McDonald’s and White Spot were so much more appealing, but as I “grow up” as well I’ve taken a whole new appreciated for the food I once didn’t really care for. Thank you for writing it down for me. Happy New Year LR!
@Mijune – funny you mentioned caring for McD’s. Growing up, a cousin my age and I hung out quite a bit, we both being single childs made us kinda like brothers. We would often then tag along with our other much older cousins when they went out with their friends. And over meals (usually Chinese but not always), my cousin and I would somehow get McD takeouts and bring them to the restos with our older cousins. Ha, this was back when a Big Mac was $1.25 or so.
Happy New Year! I got a pile of orange peels at the end of my Chinese New Year meal so I guess I can expect more prosperity in 2013. Very good article with super flow and amazing content. Thank you very much!