The Chinese New Year Eve meal is a family dinner called Tuen Nin Fan, which means you round up the family to round up the year with a meal. We are fortunate that Chinese New Year Eve falls on a weekend, and my children can all come home for dinner. The menu is fairly standard, at least among the people I know. Whether we buy or cook the food, the ingredients are also left to the tradition of individual households. Either the names of the dish or the ingredients are symbolic of some auspicious concepts in Chinese culture or the names are homophones of things good. This could indeed become quite an obsession.
I always start the preparation with my mixed vegetables dish, because it is the most complicated and takes the longest time to get ready. The base is made with dried ingredients that I use for daily cooking except that I normally do not assemble them all in one dish. Chinese New Year is special. Here are the ingredients. (I shall put in parentheses the symbolic meaning of the food.)
I soak my dry ingredients: Chinese mushrooms (implying success in both the East and the West); hairy fungi (as in the greeting Kung Hei Fat Choy, which means congratulation on making a fortune, the fungi is a homophone of Fat Choy–making lots of money); black, yellow and white fungi, dried lining of bamboo shoot (for life), dried oysters (another homophone for good business), golden needle plant, lotus seeds (a homophone of having a son every year), dried daffodil petals (implying perfect match in romance). You must think by now that the Chinese is the most money craving culture in this world,
The ingredients look quite different when they are soaked. I have to clean, trim, or break them up into smaller piece as required.
I stir fry the ingredients lightly and braise it with water, seasoned with red bean curd, oyster sauce, soya sauce, salt and pepper. I assemble it with iceberg lettuce (homophone for life and making money), and snap sugar peas. Some green colour helps brighten the dish.
Roast pork is a must, because the skin is red, which is the lucky colour in Chinese culture. There is always a long line-up at the supermarkets for roast pork at this time of the year. I make my own with belly pork. All these years living in a small Canadian bedroom town has trained me to be self-sufficient in many aspects of Chinese cooking. The skin of my roast pork is as good and crunchy as any store-bought one.
We always have a chicken in this meal. This year, I have chosen to make a roast chicken with shallots.
Chinese sausages–pork sausages and liver sausage, preserved belly pork, marinaded pig’s tongue and pig’s spleen form another dish. The sausages and belly pork are symbols of affluence (think fat and grease) and the tongue is a homophone of profit while the spleen, a homophone for making gains in gambling or your lottery tickets.
I also make fried prawns with a tomato and chili sauce. The prawns (pronounced as Ha in Cantonese, and the meaning is self-explanatory–you want to being laughing a lot, don’t you?)
The soup comes from a traditional recipe with a soup base made from pork, dried squid, and lotus roots. I like to enhance the stock with dried mushroom and dried scallops. The lotus roots has an auspicious meaning of having a thoroughfare or no obstacles, because the holes of the root run through the entire segment. The pieces here are the cross-sections. We serve the ingredients as well.
This is a big meal for our family, and during dinner we always like to talk about the symbolism associated with the food. When the children were young, this was a way to impart in them some aspects of Chinese culture. Now that they are all grown up, we are able to talk about symbolism in broader perspectives. During dinner, we also make a point to have a second helping of rice, It is always good and important to have left overs to imply that there is plenty. Nobody wants to run out of food or supplies at Chinese New Year.
When we lived in Hong Kong, we liked to go to the outdoor New Year Market after the meal. It was very crowded and the excitement and festive atmosphere was palpable. Now that we live in Canada, it is too far to drive to the nearest indoor market. Out version is to enjoy a glass of wine and start nibbling on the sugar rings and other goodies in the house.