Chinese New Year’s dinner is about a lot of things — it’s a celebration of family, of the year to come and an invocation of luck, and every one of these things is hinted at in a meal richly steeped in symbols.
Denise Yan, event manager of Toronto’s Chinese Cultural Centre, tells me that the Chinese New Year dinner was once nearly the only regular occasion that would bring a family together, though in the age of e-mails, text messages and webcams, the sense of occasion has been diminished somewhat.
Still, young Chinese-Canadians looking for ways to maintain their identity are often “more Chinese than the Chinese in Hong Kong,” and traditions like the New Year banquet remain popular, though deep-fried dishes, massive portions and rich sauces have been falling out of favour.
Ken Tam, executive chef at Lai Wah Heen, the five star Chinese dining room at Toronto’s Metropolitan Hotel, insists that the symbolic element remains paramount, no matter what innovations a chef might bring to traditional cuisine.
“Essential dishes for a Chinese New Year menu include chicken, fish, dried oyster and dried seaweed,” Tam says. “This is because the dishes symbolize important Chinese meanings. For example, chicken and fish equals good fortune, dried oyster means good event, dried seaweed is associated with wealth and shrimp with laughter.”
The New Year is the year of the ox, and Tam is acknowledging this with a special dessert — ox-shaped pastries. Meanwhile, in Vancouver, chef Stuart Irving of Gastown’s popular Wild Rice restaurant is preparing a special three-course meal with the ox at its head. The first course is a steamed oxtail half-moon dumpling with a ceviche made of local B.C. shrimp, and the main course is a braised Pemberton beef shank, deboned and stuffed with Asian herbs and served with Five Treasure Rice — a twist on the traditional lotus leaf-wrapped package, and filled with water chestnut, cashews, sweet Chinese sausage, pea shoots and shallots.
Dessert is another dumpling, deep fried and filled with red bean paste and white chocolate, and served with star anise caramel tofu ice cream.
“The five treasure rise I’ve chosen to promote good luck,” Irving says. “The dumplings are very traditional as well — I’ve chosen dumplings for the first and last course, and I’ve tried to keep within tradition, but not stick with it too much. We want to keep it there, but we’re not strict — we want to play it loosely.”
“A lot of our customers are young — they’re Canadian-Chinese. They like to see the mixture. We do a good play on dumplings. We like to put some western ingredients in there. A lot of our customers love it — it’s something different. The old traditional flavours are there, but it’s a bit of a twist.”
• “It is important to present extremely high quality seafoods, such as Abolone,” says Ken Tam of Lai Wah Heen, “to recognize and celebrate the year that has gone by.” To that end, he has provided this luxurious entrée with abalone at its centre.
• Click here for the Braised Abalone in Oyster Sauce recipe