It seems odd that a petite parcel of tasty pork filling tucked in a delicate wrapper can mean so much. But eating jiaozi (pot-sticker) dumplings at midnight, a northern Chinese tradition, promises a prosperous year ahead since their crescent shapes resembles gold that was used as currency in ancient China.
It’s one of many food rituals rich in symbolism that are parts of the traditional Chinese New Year’s eve family feast. Commonly known as the Spring Festival, this year’s 15-day lunar calendar celebration begins on February 10, ushering in the Year of the Snake.
Several restaurants in the city offer menus that feature some of the main dishes traditionally used in the celebration. Ernest Yan, chef and owner of Bird’s Nest of Beijing, serves a tapas-style tasting menu that changes regularly. And he starts on it early. About a month before the new year arrives, he starts making the black vinegar to go with several of the dishes. It takes so long because garlic has to be soaked in the vinegar for a month to lend the perfect flavour and body.
Yan, who specializes in spicy northern Chinese cuisine, also serves a delectable Beijing style head cheese at his restaurant that’s surprisingly meaty and densely packed with cashews, carrots and pickled cucumber. It’s served with that malty, tangy black vinegar. For the sweet and spicy maple-glazed pork belly with chestnuts and deep-fried spinach, Yan sources the Japanese pork from Sakura Farms in B.C. because it’s considerably less fatty than what North Americans are used to.
But it’s his poached basa fish and shiitake mushroom in saffron duck broth and fresh dill that is possibly the most popular item. “To this day, I still crave it,” admits Yan.
Venture south of the river to Golden Rice Bowl restaurant for tastes of China’s Guangdong province. A Cantonese feast is filled with foods that get their meaning from similar-sounding words. For example, in Chinese culture, dining on fish represents hope for a year of plenty, because the word for fish, yu, is a homonym for “surplus.” It is served whole, with head and tail attached, to symbolize a prosperous start and end for the coming year. Similarly, the word for shrimp, ha, is the sound of laughter and eating it may bring about happiness, says Miranda Lau, owner of Golden Rice Bowl.
They might seem to be tenuous connections, but why tempt fate when a delicious, 10-course spread might also equal a mound of good fortune? The suckling pig is considered lucky for its red skin. Red symbolizes prosperity and good fortune, echoed in the traditional new year exchange of red envelopes filled with money.
The Peking duck is a specialty here. “It’s best to come with six people,” says Lau, so you can enjoy the whole bird, served over three courses: First, crispy glazed skin, green onions and sweet hoisin sauce wrapped in lettuce. Then comes the juicy duck meat with fried rice or noodles, along with a cozy soup made with the bones. Call a day ahead to order.
For authentic Shanghainese fare, visit Shanghai 456, oddly located at the Edmonton Flying Club cafeteria, which will offer these dishes in the weeks leading up to Chinese New Year but possibly not during the actual celebration. Sixty-four year old Chef Kan Wong says Shanghai food takes the best of northern and southern cuisine. His feast includes a mix of small plates, entrees and dim sum made with eight (a lucky number, because it’s associated with “fat,” which is a sign of good fortune) different cooking techniques for a special and complete meal.
The Buddha’s feast (yut bun wor) is a “happy gathering” hot pot filled with a clean, savoury chicken broth, glass noodles – uncut, to represent a long life – with eight toppings artfully arranged, including house-made fish balls and thinly sliced pork belly. The fish entree is deliciously battered and deep-fried, topped with a sweet, tangy sauce of onions, carrots and sprinkled with pine nuts.
Meanwhile, the turnip cakes are packed with both flavour and symbolism. Golden orbs of flaky pastry, made with oil, are filled with shredded ham and vegetables, and symbolize richness. Of course, dessert is equally significant. Rice balls filled with black sesame paste signify togetherness, in hopes the reunion next year is just as auspicious as this year’s.
Persian New Year
Further west along the silk road, the Persians also celebrate the arrival of spring. On March 20, the spring equinox, Iranians, Afghans and Kurds celebrate Noruz, which literally translates to “new day.”
The most important ritual involves setting an elaborate table called sofreh-ye haft seen, which means”a table setting of seven elements”:
1. Sabzeh: Sprouted wheat or lentils symbolizes rebirth
2. Sekeh: Coins represent wealth and prosperity
3. Sib: Apples represent beauty and health
4. Senjed: Sweet, dried fruit of the lotus tree symbolizes love
5. Seer: Garlic symbolizes medicine
6. Somaq: Sumac represent the colour of sunrise; with the sun symbolizing good conquering evil
7. Serkeh: Vinegar represents age and patience
A Noruz menu always includes a noodle soup called ash-e reshteh. Eating this symbolically helps unravel life’s problems, represented by the noodles. Another classic traditional dish is herbed rice with crispy, fried whitefish, called sabzi polo ba mahi. The herbed rice represents rebirth and the fish represents life – it’s light and mild with a squeeze of Seville orange, lending it a delicate and fresh flavour. Lastly, one of the most decadent Persian dishes, fesenjoon: A saucy, sweet and tangy pomegranate and ground walnut stew made with chicken thighs or lamb meatballs served over saffron basmati rice.
OK, be honest, have you taken your Christmas decorations down, yet?