If 2017 hasn’t treated you kindly so far, or vice versa, here’s your second chance: It’s the turn of the lunar calendar, the official Chinese New Year. Celebrations started on the eve of the lunar year, 27th of January, New Year’s day was 28th January and celebrations continue until the Lantern Festival on 11th February, 15 days from New Year.
And the best way to celebrate it is to eat. That’s my kind of party!
It’s said to bring bad luck if you have a quiet night in on your tod on Chinese New Year’s eve. It is supposed to be spent with the whole family instead.
China has a strong migrant working culture. Family members often live, study or work far away from one another or even abroad. So for many Chinese families, New Year’s Eve dinner is the most important dinner of the year. It’s a real family reunion, that rare occasion when everyone gets together to bond, reconnect and celebrate.
The celebratory banquet usually takes place at home rather than in a restaurant. Tables are laden with home cooked dishes and everyone just digs in. The above is an exemplary spread from Kuching, Malaysia, courtesy of a friend who lives in England, but who returned “home” to celebrate the Year of the Rooster with her family.
It’s customary to cook too much, not just to show your wealth and generosity, but leftovers symbolise savings in the coming year. Unsurprisingly, leftover hotpots are widely eaten over the course of the next days.
Shou Sui is another great tradition. It means “after the New Year’s eve dinner”, when some family members stay awake all night to ward off the “Year”, a mythical beast that comes out to spread harm and evil. Legend has it that the “Year” is scared of the colour red, fire, and loud noise. That’s why splendid fireworks and ear-shattering noise accompany the Chinese New Year celebrations.
Although food features heavily in the proceedings, the dishes served aren’t set in stone like the British turkey for Christmas, or the American Thanksgiving dinner. Instead they focus on century-old symbolism of hope and well-wishes for prosperity and good fortune.
Fish is one of the typical dishes served as a symbol of prosperity. A whole fish is placed towards the elders or “VIP” guests as a sign of respect. Others are not allowed to eat until the person that faces the head has started eating. Serving the fish whole signifies “wholeness”, but also that there is a beginning (the head) and an end (the tail). Double whammy. If other symbols of prosperity such as spring rolls or potstickers also grace your table: triple whammy.
Other lucky foods are glutinous rice cakes, symbolising an improved income or status and sweet rice balls to finish, symbolising family closeness.
Oranges, mandarins and tangerines also commonly feature. Their golden roundness represents fullness and wealth. Apparently the Chinese pronunciation of oranges sounds like the word for “luck” too.
The colour red is particularly prevalent as well, either on the table, in the food, as decoration or in traditional outfits. Preferably all of the above, as red is a “must have”, symbolising luck and fortune. It is traditional to give out Red Packages to the elderly and to children. These are envelopes with money (it doesn’t have to be much), a bit like the traditional fiver in a birthday card for the Brits. Though I must say, it’s been a long time since I’ve seen one of the latter pop up in real life. Maybe that’s just me. Hint.
The money in the red envelopes is not about wealth. It is thought to ward off evil (the “Year”, remember him?) and intends to keep those receiving it healthy and to give them a long life.
Long noodles symbolise happiness and longevity too, so never cut noodles into short strands! They could be served as a side or as a feature on their own in a broth or a stew. Due to their symbolism, they are a popular birthday dish as well.
Similar to not cutting the noodles, it is supposed to be unlucky to have your hair cut (or even washed) on Chinese New Year. Oops… I just did. They washed it too.
I live in hope that gathering a number of lucky foods and colours in my Chinese New Year celebratory supper makes up for that. Red, long noodles and tangerine covered. And Nam Yue braised pork is supposed to symbolise joy, renewed life and prosperity. Fingers crossed.
Just in case, I went for some Shou Sui, including the noise, after dinner. Sorry, neighbours.
恭喜发财 / 恭喜發財 Gōngxǐ fācái – Happiness and prosperity!
Nam Yue Braised Spare Ribs, Eggs and Tangerine (serves 4 – DF LC RSF)
Chinese Spare Ribs are often deep fried, but braising keeps the meat extra moist and imparts an intense depth of flavour.
This dish features red fermented bean curd (Nam Yue or Nam Yee). It’s a preserved bean curd (tofu – made from soy beans), fermented in red rice, rice wine, salt and seasonings such as Chinese five spice, sesame oil or vinegar.
It’s a rather pungent condiment and definitely an acquired taste. But then it’s not intended to be eaten on its own by the uninitiated. Instead, use it in marinades for meat, fish or poultry for BBQ’s or roasting, in stir fries, hotpots or slow braises. It adds a complex, slightly smokey, savoury umami that you just can’t get from anything else.
Red fermented bean curd is available in Chinese supermarkets in tins or jars, or you can buy it online (thank you Amazon). If you don’t like it or can’t find it, leave it out and add some extra salt or soy sauce instead. Else use a 1-2 tbsp of Szechuan chilli bean paste. It won’t be the same, but it will still be delicious.
Watch out, there’s a white fermented bean curd out there too, which is also great, but quite different from the red one and not what you need for this recipe.
This dish is adapted from a wonderful recipe by fellow foodblogger Maggie. Well, her Chinese mum to be fair. I’ve been experimenting with it for while in terms of preparation method, flavours and textures.
I’m off-setting the saltiness of the Nam Yue with the zesty sweetness of dried tangerine peel. You can buy this online (thank you again, Amazon) or you can make your own. It’s is an optional ingredient, so leave it out if you can’t find it. You may want to add a little more vinegar and sugar in that case.
The eggs are optionaI too, but braising eggs in the sauce allows them to absorb the wonderful flavours, which adds yet another dimension to the dish. This technique is often used in Indonesian dishes like Sambal Goreng Telor as well.
I served the braised ribs with black bean thread noodles and quick-braised bok choi. But you could serve it with plain white rice to soak up the juices instead.
1-1.2 kg separated pork spare ribs, preferably halved as it’s easier for braising
1/2 tbsp coconut oil or a rapeseed oil
1 good thumb of ginger, peeled and finely chopped or grated
2 plump garlic cloves, peeled and finely chopped or crushed
4 spring onions, roughly chopped
a healthy grating of fresh nutmeg
3 star anise
1 tsp Chinese five spice powder
5 whole cloves
2 tbsp Chinese Shaoxing cooking wine
1 tablespoon Chinkiang black rice vinegar
3 tbsp light soy sauce
1 tbsp dark soy sauce
2 tbsp coconut palm sugar or other unrefined sugar
1-2 pieces of red fermented bean curd (or 2 tbsp Scechuan chilli bean paste)
2 tbsp chopped dried mandarin or tangerine peel, or 2 tsp ground peel (optional)
4 eggs, hard-boiled and peeled (optional)
1/2 tbsp sesame oil
salt to taste (only if needed. I usually don’t add any as the bean curd is salty enough for me)
fresh coriander or sesame seeds to garnish (optional)
Thoroughly wash the spare ribs.
Add the spare ribs to a large pan and cover with water, about 500 ml. Bring to the boil over medium high heat, then turn the heat down to a simmer. Cook the pork for 3-4 minutes, skimming off the rising scum.
Remove the pork with a slotted spoon and set aside. Strain the cooking liquid through a sieve lined with a clean j-cloth or kitchen paper. If the strained liquid is quite clear, you can use it in the next cooking stage. If not, discard it.
Heat the oil in a wok or large pan over medium high heat. Add the ginger, garlic, spring onion, nutmeg, star anise and cloves. Stir fry the aromatics briefly until they are fragrant. Be careful not to burn them.
Add the ribs and stir-fry for a minute or two. Add enough cooking liquid or, if you had to discard it, hand-warm water to cover the ribs.
Add the cooking wine and the dried peel (if using). Bring to the boil, then turn the heat down. Cover and simmer for 40-50 mins, stirring occasionally to ensure nothing is catching at the bottom. Top up with extra water if and when needed so to the pork remains covered. Skim off any further scum or foam as it rises.
Meantime, mix together both soy sauces, the sugar, the vinegar and the bean curd. I use a mini-food processor for this, but a bowl and a fork or spoon will do. Stir the mixture through the ribs and simmer for another 30 mins.
If using eggs, make a few incisions length-ways into each egg towards the yolk, keeping the egg whole. This helps them soak up the sauce and thicken it. Add the eggs to the wok.
Season the sauce with salt if needed and adjust the flavour balance with vinegar, cooking wine or sugar, again if needed.
Simmer for a further 20-30 mins (uncovered if the sauce is too thin), or until the pork is tender. Stir occasionally, carefully so as not to break up the eggs. Turn the eggs over once in a while, so they get an even colour all around.
If the sauce remains too thin, remove some of it to a separate sauce pan and vigorously boil to reduce. Then stir it back into the rest of the sauce. You can also mash one of the egg’s yolks and add it to the sauce to help it to thicken.
Check the seasoning again and add the sesame oil just before serving.
Serve with rice or noodles and the eggs on the side, or with a vegetable stir fry or my quick braised bok choy. Fortune cookie optional.
Quick-Braised Bok Choy (serves 4 – GF V Vg LC DF RSF)
Double or triple the recipe if serving on its own with rice or noodles.
400 gr bok choy or pak choi, halved length-ways (I used baby ones)
1/2 tbsp coconut oil or rapeseed oil
2 garlic cloves, peeled and finely chopped or crushed
a thumb of ginger, peeled and finely chopped or grated
1/2 or 1 fresh chilli, seeds in or out (I used a green finger chilli, seeds in)
3 tbsp Chinese Shaoxing cooking wine
1/2 tbsp Chinkiang black rice vinegar
2 tbsp light (GF) soy sauce or tamari
3 spring onions, finely chopped
1tbsp toasted sesame oil
Heat the oil in a wok or large saute pan on medium high heat. Add the bok choy cut side down. Turn the heat down to medium and let the bok choy start to colour for a few minutes.
Add the garlic, ginger and chilli, and toss around with the bok choy. Turn the bok choy back onto the cut side.
Add the cooking wine, vinegar and soy. Cover immediately to create a steam effect and simmer over low heat for a couple of minutes until the bak choy has wilted but is still al dente.
Toss through the toasted sesame oil just before serving.
Sprinkle with the spring onions to serve.