Tracey Tong/metro ottawa


Mekong owner and chef Dennis Luc, left, serves a kung pao dish at the Somerset Street restaurant as chef Chu See Hoi looks on. Ottawa’s Chinese community is preparing to celebrate Chinese New Year — the Year of the Rat — tomorrow.

Growing up Chinese-Canadian in Burlington, Ont., the extent of my Asian-ness consisted of occasional broken Cantonese banter with my family.

That is, until Chinese New Year rolled around. That’s when Mom and Dad busted out the traditions.

The day before Lunar New Year, my mother would clean the house from top to bottom and hang scrolls with Chinese proverbs on the walls.

On the actual New Year’s Day, we’d all wear new clothes and receive red envelopes of money from our elders. Under no circumstances was anyone allowed to wash his or her hair, sweep the floor or argue, because it meant the loss of good luck.

But even with their efforts, I felt I’d gotten the Coles Notes version of the holiday.

As Ottawa’s Chinese population — which numbers approximately 150,000 — gears up to celebrate the Year of the Rat on Lunar New Year tomorrow, I ventured out to see how the community celebrates.

With a growing number of immigrants from China, the list of events to celebrate the holiday is growing by the year, said Ottawa resident Ruby Cheng.

"There are festivals where they serve different types of food and treats, performances and Lion dances," said Cheng.

Food is one of the easiest and most accessible ways that the Chinese population can introduce its traditions to the rest of the population, said Ottawa resident Dennis Luc. He remembers Chinese New Year’s to be a gathering of friends and good food.

"During New Year’s, the Chinese serve special dishes that are only eaten during the holiday, including sesame ball pastries, deep fried pastries with peanut and sugar and platters of candies," said Luc.

I asked Luc, a self-taught chef and owner of Ottawa’s Mekong Restaurant, to teach me how to make something typically Asian for the New Year.

In the Mekong kitchen, chefs bustle around in preparation for the lunch hour rush while Luc dons his chef’s coat. He’s teaching me how to make kung pao, a Szechwan-style dish commonly eaten around the holiday.

We toss handfuls of red pepper, snow peas and celery and chicken breast pieces into a bowl. He heats oil and dried chilis in the wok and we dump the mix in, tossing in white vinegar, soy sauce and cornstarch.

Food is typically involved in New Year gatherings, said Ottawa resident and Fujian native Chuan Ying Xu. She’s already made plans to celebrate the holiday with her husband’s family.

"Back in China, it was the most important day of the year," she said.