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Enter the dragon

As we move into the year of the dragon, chef Jeremy Pang visits Borough Market to seek inspiration from the traders for his Lunar New Year feast


Words: Jeremy Pang / Images: RED Agency

Tradition, the transmission of customs or beliefs from generation to generation, supposedly makes my job of writing about Lunar New Year an easy one. Each year, families gather with a tableful of symbolic dishes to bring in the New Year full of prosperity, health, longevity and a general abundance of all things good. There might be dumplings and spring rolls folded in the shape of gold ingots or bouillons, signifying wealth; whole steamed fish, a symbol of abundance; oranges, seen as basketsful of good fortune; nian gao (the new year cake), an augury of a more prosperous future.

I’ve often found it a little perplexing that so many of these New Year dishes symbolise enhanced wealth over everything else – our exhausting yearning for money seems to override the very humble nature of Asian food. And so, I approached a few trusted Borough Market vendors whose families celebrate the Lunar New Year to ask a slightly thought-provoking question: if they had the power to add new symbolic dishes to the celebration, what would they choose and what positivity and fortune would it bring to the feast?

Salina from Joli, Borough Market’s Peranakan (Chinese Malaysian) street food stand, would put her beef rendang on every celebratory table. It would be, she says, a “symbol of tranquillity”. Only Salina herself knows how many chillies are in that curry paste, and yet I took one bite at 10am and couldn’t stop eating it. She’s right: it’s magical. Joli’s rendang deserves to be a part of any Lunar New Year feast.

Salina Khairunnisa of Joli

As a New Year gift to you all, Salina Khairunnisa has let me divulge part of her secret. Her rendang sauce recipe includes garlic, red chilli, shallots, lemongrass, galangal, fragrant lime leaves and freshly grated coconut (rather than desiccated). Plus a special kitchen built just to roast off the belacan (Malaysian shrimp paste) so her neighbours don’t shout at her about the pungent cooking smell! All of this is slow cooked to perfection, with just enough sauce to mop up with some coconut rice.

For her contribution, Worawan Kamann from Raya, a specialist Southeast Asian grocery store on the corner of the Market, suggests an ingredient rather than a dish. Worawan developed a childhood love of coriander root. She believes it is and always will be the road to a simple, wholesome life; an ingredient that should never carelessly be discarded or taken for granted as it holds so much precious flavour for most Thai cooking.

Bringing us back to more traditional Lunar New Year chitchat, Erchen Chang from the Bao Borough restaurant wonders why bao hasn’t been given the same importance as noodles and whole fish in the long list of auspicious foods traditionally found at a feast. She tells me about the true symbolic nature of a bao – “the ultimate full purse of prosperity” – which certainly helps explain the success of the Bao collective since its inception in 2012! Erchen’s symbolic dish of choice would be her Bao Borough favourite: steamed gua bao filled with soy-braised pork belly, coriander and peanut powder, topped with fermented mustard greens which also signify long life – a dish that is bound to fill anyone’s food purse with pure joy.

Worawan Kamann of Raya

Something I talk about a lot in my latest book, Simple Family Feasts, is that finding a balance in flavour, texture and colour is the key to cooking the perfect Asian feast. And this iconic London food market has a knack of bringing the best of the world’s food and traditions together in one place for us to enjoy. Strolling through the Market, my senses are immediately transported back to Asia. From the mellowed-out aroma of the thick South China Sea air, rich with toasted belacan, to the vibrant basketfuls of mangosteens and green papaya, you can find everything you need right here. The distinctive link between the local British produce and these unique Asian food stalls seamlessly combines the best of all cultures and makes it so easy to find the right ingredients to balance out your Lunar New Year feast. Pick up a slab of pork belly for a melt-in-the-mouth slow braise at Ginger Pig, slide across to Furness Fish Markets for your whole steamed fish and some seafood to add a savoury bite and some real colour to the meal, stopping by Raya to get some crunch from a freshly made som tam before heading home.

Since Salina from Joli joined the Borough Market family, she has not only kept visitors to the Market well fed but has also introduced a Chinese lion dance performance for a Lunar New Year show. Come and join in the festivities, traditional and new alike, on 10th February 2024 and share our humble, simple yet festive celebrations in the most tranquil, delicious ways. There are woks full of food, and baskets full of bao waiting for you too – so long as the lion doesn’t get to them before you do! Whatever you decide to eat or cook, I wish you all a happy, prosperous, and most of all, relaxed, Lunar New Year.