Everyone loves a party, and just as we’ve recovered from December 31 and Australia Day, Chinese New Year is now upon us! The 15-day celebration allows all members of the Chinese community – from families to farmers and Chinese gods – to let go of the old year and prepare to make the next 12 months as successful as possible.
But what traditions surround Chinese New Year? What food is served? And how can you host a Chinese New Year celebration of your own?
Chinese New Year begins on Sunday February 10 and is celebrated until the next full moon on February 24. It is an official public holiday in many countries, including Singapore, Malaysia, Hong Kong, and Indonesia. Here in Australia, there are official celebrations in most capital cities – and of course in homes across the country!
2013 is the Year of the Snake, and more specifically, the Water Snake. According to Chinese Zodiac beliefs, snakes represent wisdom, intelligence, problem-solving and instinct.
If you were born in a Year of the Snake (1941, 1953, 1965, 1977, 1989 or 2001), then typically you will be hard-working and loyal, and prefer a life of calmness. In addition, Water Snakes are influential and motivated people, and work well with others.
There are several traditions associated with Chinese New Year. Houses are cleaned from top to bottom to get rid of any bad luck that may be lingering from the previous year and all debts are paid.
According to a Chinese legend, one week before Chinese New Year the Kitchen god (also known as Zao Jun or “stove spirit”) returns to Heaven to report on the past year of each household – a positive report means good luck for the following year.
Chinese families offer up nian gao – loosely translated it means “year cake” or “higher year” – to the Kitchen God to ensure a favourable report. The steamed cake consists of rice flour, brown sugar, dates, milk, water and white sesame seeds, and some Chinese families believe that when the Kitchen God’s mouth is full of cake, he is unable to deliver a negative report for the upcoming year.
At midnight on New Year households open all of the doors and windows to let go of the old year, and end the night with firecrackers. The next day, red envelopes are exchanged with friends and family for good luck, and everyone is greeted with “Happy New Year!”
Nian gao is not the only food tradition surrounding Chinese New Year. A dinner occurs on New Year’s Eve, and it is the most important meal of the year. Whole fish – with the head and tail intact – is served as a way of ensuring a good start (head) and finish (tail) to the New Year.
Citrus fruit such as oranges and pomelo (also known as Chinese grapefruit) are displayed and eaten to bring wealth, luck and prosperity, and cookies and sweets are served to bring a sweet life to the New Year.
If noodles are served with the meal, they should be as long as possible, as they represent long life. For the same reason, long leafy greens and long beans are served whole to wish a long life for parents.
Former MasterChef contestant Alvin Quah knows a thing or two about how to celebrate Chinese New Year, and the Malaysian-born chef has fond memories of convening around the dinner table during the eve of Chinese New Year and eating dishes cooked by his mother.
“I think the tradition and symbolism of Chinese New Year is very important,” he explained.
“I am a believer in the nuances that come with this 15-day celebration (mainly around food) such as eating fish and seafood for prosperity and dedicating a day where you only eat vegetarian food to foster good karma.”
Chinese New Year Noodles (serves 4-6)
500g ‘Chow Mein’ noodles
1/2 cup good quality chicken stock
3 tablespoons oyster sauce
1 tablespoon thick soya sauce
2 teaspoons cornstarch
1 teaspoon sugar
2 tablespoon vegetable
1 cup shredded Asian BBQ duck
1 teaspoon sesame oil
1 heaped tablespoon minced peeled fresh ginger
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 spring onions, white and green parts, minced
Freshly ground black pepper
1/2 medium brown onion, thinly sliced
10 dried shittake mushrooms, soaked in water for 20 minutes then drained, and thinly sliced
1/3 cup thinly sliced canned water chestnuts
1 can straw mushrooms
1/3 cup roughly chopped coriander
2 long red chillies, sliced
Boil the noodles according to package instructions. Drain in a colander in the sink and rinse under cold running water. Shake the colander to drain off excess water and pat the noodles dry with a towel.
Whisk together the chicken broth, oyster sauce, soya sauce, cornstarch, and sugar in a small bowl, and set aside.
Heat a wok over high heat. Heat vegetable oil until smoking hot. Add the ginger, garlic, and spring onions and stir-fry, until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add the onion, and mushrooms and stir-fry, until crisp-tender, about 2 minutes. Add the water chestnuts and shredded duck and cook for another minute. Pour the sauce mixture, bring to a boil then add the noodles. Stir to combine. Remove from heat. Drizzle with sesame oil. Garnish with coriander and chilli.
Hosting a Chinese New Year party
If you’re feeling inspired to host your own Chinese New Year celebration, then Alvin has three tips for you.
“Firstly I would suggest some careful planning – what you want to serve, and make sure you have all the ingredients,” Alvin said.
“The theme, flow of the menu and table decorations is also just as important as anything else. And lastly, don’t forget to delegate and get your family involved by giving them jobs to do!”
Decorations often come in the form of apricot, plum and peach blossoms, bamboo, red paper cut-outs hanging from window and door frames, lanterns and pictures of the animal represented that year.
Best Home Chef contestant Snjezana Demo regularly hosts a Chinese New Year celebration for her friends, and uses the opportunity to try out some new dishes while following some traditional customs.
“I am not a big expert on Chinese food, but I have several favourite dishes. I like to serve steamed fish (usually snapper) with some soy sauce poured over the top and scattered with thinly sliced spring onions,” she explained.
“I then heat peanut oil to smoking point and pour it over the prepared fish, before serving it with steamed jasmine rice and broccoli.”
For long life and good health, Snjezana also serves stir-fried pork noodles in oyster sauce with spring onions, carrot batons and young basil leaves.
She is also hoping to successfully recreate a recipe that she once tried in a Melbourne restaurant and later found printed in a newspaper – baked crab in its shell.
“This is a dish I’ve been trying to cook for years,” she said.
“The recipe was given by the restaurant’s head chef and he was speaking through a translator, so I think something was lost in translation because I’ve never managed to recreate the dish from those instructions. I hope I’ll succeed this time.”
Snjezana also likes to prepare dishes for her three children, including chicken thighs diced and stir fried with hoisin sauce, dark soy sauce, rice wine and garlic, as well as Peking duck pancakes, spring rolls and dumplings.
“I also usually buy one or two century eggs and moon cakes from oriental shops for fun and to educate the kids,” she added.
“I serve the dinner on a Lazy Susan and decorate the table in red and gold, and I wrap oranges in red serviettes or paper as this is meant to bring good luck.”
Gong Xi Fa Cai everyone!