Lunar New Year Reunions
The Lunar New Year is the most important holiday of the year in Chinese culture, and family reunions – often held at classy restaurants – are an important part of the festival. Take a look at what eateries in Hong Kong and other Asian cities have on the menu.
Traditionally, Chinese New Year was a two-week festival, culminating with the Lantern Festival, which took place on the 15th day of the new year.
By custom, family reunions were held on Chinese New Year’s Eve, which falls Monday 4 February in 2019.
Because there is a massive fireworks on the second day of Chinese New Year in Hong Kong (Wednesday 7 February in 2019), many Chinese restaurants in the territory serve special menus on that evening to tie in with the spectacle.
But Chinese New Year banquets do not need to be held on New Year’s Eve or the night of the fireworks.
Some restaurants start serving special menus as early as late January and some continue serving them through the end of February.
Fish, dumplings, rice cakes, and fruit all represent wealth and prosperity in Chinese culture so they usually figure prominently on Lunar New Year menus.
Rice cakes in particular can represent a higher position or status. Sweet Rice Balls are eaten for family togetherness, and noodles are eaten for longevity.
Lettuce, dried oysters, and pomelos are particularly popular at Chinese New Year in Hong Kong and neighboring Guangdong province as they represent prosperity. This is because their names are homonyms with auspicious words in Cantonese.
Something to be avoided at Chinese New Year is congee, or rice gruel, as it is considered a poor man’s dish.
Meat should also be avoided at breakfast on the first day of the Lunar New Year.
Year of the Pig
The Pig is the 12th and final animal in the Chinese Zodiac, completing the zodiac’s 12 year cycle.
Roast suckling pig is often served at Chinese New Year feasts, and many chefs will show off their culinary skills by creating dishes in the form of pigs during the festive season this year.
Some Western-style restaurants, in fact, will also try to cash in on the Chinese zodiac by serving pork dishes at the beginning of the Year of the Pig.
Chicken dishes were, in fact, served by a few Western restaurants at the beginning of the Year of the Rooster in 2017 and lamb dishes at the beginning of the Year of the Sheep in 2015.
But this practice can only be taken so far. Imagine the uproar that would have arisen if any restaurant followed suit at the beginning of the current year, which is the Year of the Dog!
Festive Chinese New Year Dinner Menus
Most Chinese restaurants in Hong Kong and other cities in Asia offer special Chinese New Year menus during the Chinese New Year period.
These include mutli-course set menus, which are served at the table course-by-course and lavish all-you-can eat buffets.
Some Chinese restaurants start serving these special Chinese New Year menus in late January. Some serve them until the end of February. And some serve them only for the first four to seven days of the new year.
Nearly all Chinese restaurants in Hong Kong with views of Victoria Harbour will serve special menus on the second evening of the Chinese New Year, which falls on Wednesday 6 February this year.
Poon Choi – a New Territories Favourite
Often associated with the early settlers of Hong Kong’s New Territories, Poon Choi is a favoured dish at the Lunar New Year, other Chinese festivals, weddings, birthdays, and other festive occasions.
Poon choi is, in fact, now served at Chinese restaurants throughout Greater China.
Poon Choi consists mostly of “expensive” ingredients such as meat, poultry, seafood, dried mushrooms, fish balls, ginseng, shark fin, and other delicacies.
If poon choi is short on vegetables, that is because to the farmers in rural Hong Kong that served it, vegetables were nothing special (they toiled, after all, in the fields growing them), and therefore not worthy of being served to honoured guests.
While fine-dining restaurants tend to dress poon choi up a bit, serving it in classy porcelain platters, poon choi is traditionally served in bamboo or wooden containers.
I was once invited to a village festival in the New Territories, and if truth be told, the Poon Choi (which I was being confronted with for the first time) did NOT look very appetizing.
Needless to say, I was reluctant to try it, but cultural differences came to the rescue. When I politely declined, the person sitting next to me thought I was being polite.
In traditional Chinese culture, you see, it is considered good manners not to appear greedy and scramble after the choicest tidbits on the table. So if you show reluctance, it can be (mis)interpreted as a sign of “not being selfish”.
“It’s okay!” the person next to me said enthusiastically. “Take some!”
I did, and OMG!!! It was one of the most delicious things I have ever sunk my teeth into.
Fish – a Sign of Prosperity
In the Chinese language, the character for fish is a homonym for the character for surplus, which can also be interpreted as abundance.
Both characters are pronounced “yu” in the Mandarin (or official) Chinese dialect and in many regional Chinese dialects, as well.
As a result, fish have come to symbolize an abundance of something – wealth? Health? Male offspring?
Most Cantonese chefs steam grouper, and despite the fact that most Chinese diners seem to like it prepared this way, I personally don’t care for it – and most of my Western friends agree with me.
What I don’t like is that the surplus (or should I say “abundance”?) of bones makes the fish difficult (and not very enjoyable) to eat.
When it comes to Pinenut Fish, however, it was love at first bite. I first had it at a restaurant in the Chinese city of Xi’an, of terra cotta warriors fame.
I saw the dish on practically every table – it was obviously very popular with locals. I insisted to trying it, and I – and everyone else at my table – absolutely loved it.
The Cantonese expression lo hei, which means “to toss”, sounds like “doing well”. By extension, it symbolizes good fortune.
The festive dish usually consists of raw fish slices, mixed fruit, and vegetables, all of which are arranged on a platter or serving dish.
Dinners gather around the plate and toss to ingredients into the air, creating a salad.
Whole Abalone with Fish Maw, Sea Cucumber, Shiitake Mushroom, Dried Oyster, Conpoy, and Lettuce Braised in Clay Pot is a featured dish at Ming Court, the fine-dining Chinese restaurant at Cordis, Hong Kong.
There are certain dishes that – by tradition – are almost always served at Chinese New Year family reunion dinners.
If there were no variation in the menu, however, diners might start get fed up with dining out so creative chefs try to give a new twist to old favourites or come up some altogether new dishes to serve at Chinese New Year banquets.
What you will NOT find on the menu are inexpensive dishes such as congee (or rice gruel).
Better not to star the new year off on the wrong foot!
In response to the growing popularity of healthy foods and vegetarian dishes in Hong Kong, Chef Li Yuet Faat at the Michelin-starred Ming Court restaurant in Mongkok has created a selection of vegetarian Chinese New Year dishes using Omnipork.
Omnipork is a plant-based meat substitute made of peas, non-genetically modified soybeans, mushrooms, and rice.
I must say, the pan-fried lotus root with water chestnuts looks particularly tempting!
Chinese New Year Desserts
Elaborate Chinese New Year dinners are usually followed by mouth-watering desserts, which – because of British influences – are often referred to as “puddings” in English.
The most popular Chinese New Year puddings are made of taro or turnip. Many restaurants sell them in gift boxes.
Chinese New Year Hampers
Visiting family and friends during Chinese New Year is customary, and small gifts are usually offered during the visit.
Traditionally, this can include cookies, candy, or fruit. For some strange reason, however, specific brands tend to become “appropriate” in certain locales, which can, of course, greatly simplify things.
You don’t need to try and figure out what someone would actually like! On an even more practical level, you can also “recycle” these gifts!
For many years, a specific brand of Danish butter cookies was considered de rigueur in Hong Kong, and mountains of them could be found in the aisles of markets throughout the territory.
In recent years, however, a few other brands have been added to the mix – and Italian chocolates and other tasty goodies are now making it difficult for shoppers to navigate the aisles of supermarkets in Hong Kong.
If you really want to show off, however, you might want to consider giving one of the extravagant Chinese New Year hampers that are sold by high-class Chinese restaurants – especially those at hotels.
Afternoon Tea Sets
Many hotels in Hong Kong and other Asian cities offer afternoon tea sets in their lobby lounges, and the InterContinental Hong Kong is no exception.
Afternoon tea sets – a time-honoured British tradition – should not be confused with Cantonese dim sum.
Afternoon tea sets are usually brought to the table on serving trees, and they generally include both savoury and sweet elements.
Many hotels frequently change the tasty offerings to keep patrons coming back, and they sometimes feature seasonal themes.
In Hong Kong and other Asian cities, tea sets in January and February often have Chinese inspired dishes in celebration of the Lunar New Year.
Festive Cantonese Dim Sum
For the more tradition bound, many Chinese restaurants in Hong Kong are serving special types of dim sum at lunch.
Expect a new take on old favourites such as touches of gold leaf on shrimp dumplings and pork buns.
Chinese New Year – Key Dates
Chinese New Year was traditionally a two-week festival, followed by the Lantern Festival, which took place on the 15th day of the new year.
Nowadays, Chinese New Year – known as the Spring Festival in China proper – has been shortened.
The Spring Festival is officially a week-long holiday in China itself, and people living away from home usually do their best to make it home to spend the holiday with their family
In Taiwan, Chinese New Year’s Eve (Monday 4 February) and the first three days of Chinese New Year (Tuesday 5 to Thursday 7 February) are official holidays.
In Hong Kong and Macau, only the first three days of Chinese New Year (Tuesday 5 to Thursday 7 February) are official holidays.
In Malaysia and Singapore, the first two days of Chinese New Year are official holidays. In Indonesia, the Philippines, and Thailand, only then first stay of Chinese New Year is an official holiday.