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Year of the monkey

Categories: News and previews

Ching He Huang, one of Britain’s foremost guides to oriental cooking, on Chinese New Year

This is the year of the monkey. The monkey is witty, full of fun and laughter, but can also be naughty and tricky. Monkeys overcome obstacles with their speed and clever mind and work well in groups, so this is a year for sharing and togetherness.

Traditional Chinese New Year dishes tend to be the same every year rather than based on the annual totem, but in honour of the monkey, my personal Chinese New Year menu at home will include more fun, plant-based recipes as the monkey is a fun-loving vegan!

A traditional celebration includes a very involved but wonderful feast, welcoming in the New Year with a series of dishes that represent all of the good wishes you have for the family in the coming year.

Golden ingots
Typically, the feast will include a noodle dish, which symbolises longevity, vegetable dishes as 'cai'—a moss with a very fine texture—which stands for prosperity, and golden, pan-fried dumplings as a symbol of wealth, because they look like golden ingots.

We also have stir fried prawns which represent laughter and happiness; whole steamed fish to symbolise abundance; a roasted duck as a symbol for fidelity; a whole roast suckling pig as a symbol for completeness; nian kao, a sticky rice cake, for 'rising the ranks'; and spring rolls for prosperity. It sounds like a lot, but the idea is to get the extended family together and the feast goes on for hours.

We also gather all this food together at New Year because for many Chinese people, these ingredients were expensive and hard to come by, so they became traditional festival foods used at different celebrations throughout the year. You don’t have to have them all at your own celebrations, but it would be fun to include a couple in your dinner knowing what they represent.

A hidden coin
My favourite part of the whole evening is the moment everyone tucks into all the food. There are also lots of games during dinner: I always find it amusing when someone cracks their tooth on a hidden coin and they're told they're lucky!

I will be spending this New Year at lots of foodie gatherings with the people I love, family and friends. Traditionally Chinese New Year celebrations last two weeks. My father-in-law kicks off with his annual Chinese New Year lunch this year then on New Year's Day, I'm hosting a hotpot at mine in the evening. It is going to be an enjoyable, but very busy, two weeks.

I usually spend the two weeks before Chinese New Year with my family in Taiwan as for the last few years, I have always been busy working at New Year itself. This year I do get to go back for a few days on the tail end of the celebrations. Chinese New Year there is crazy—full of firecrackers, fireworks and fun. A real festival atmosphere.

Red envelopes
Growing up my favourite memory is of my grandmother dressing me in my red dress, giving me a hong bao and sending me out with my grandfather to the market to pick up supplies.

We regard red as the symbol of good luck and ‘hong bao’ are the red envelopes containing money given to children as New Year gifts. One year I lost my hong bao at the market and was so upset, but she gave me Chinese New Year candy—I was alright after that!

For an easy, elegant Chinese New Year starter, try my ginger, chilli and soy steamed scallops—they're fresh, fragrant and sweet.