6 Classic Chinese New Year Dishes Explained By Famous Hong Kong Chefs
Chinese New Year is the time for family reunions, fresh beginnings, red packets—and lots of food. The reunion dinner on New Year’s Eve, which falls on Thursday, February 11 this year, is considered to be the most important meal of the year where family members get together to celebrate.
Traditionally including dishes that each symbolise a lucky meaning due to punny wordplays or similar appearances, eating these dishes promises that you’ll have a luck-filled year ahead, whether you’re looking for riches, a harmonious family life or good health.
To learn more about the dishes’ origin and lucky meaning, Tatler Hong Kong invited chef May Chow, founder of Little Bao and Happy Paradise; chef Jowett Yu of Ho Lee Fook; and chef Lee Man Sing of Mott 32 to get special insights on how dishes are made, prepared and served.
Sweet Glutinous Rice Cakes
“Sweet glutinous rice cake in Cantonese is neen go,” says Jowett Yu, executive chef of creative Chinese restaurant, Ho Lee Fook. In Cantonese, “neen'' sounds similar to the word “year”, while “go” sounds similar to the word “tall” or “higher” in Cantonese. Together, the dish’s name sounds auspicious during Chinese New Year because the pronunciation means “reaching a higher position at work or good fortune every year,” says Lee Man Sing, executive chef of Mott 32.
With a history of over 1,000 years, glutinous rice cakes come in many varieties due to differing customs in different parts of China. In Southern China, there are both sweet and savoury rice cake options, while in Hong Kong, crimson-shade sweet cakes are more common.
“Cantonese-style glutinous rice cake is simply a mixture of glutinous rice flour with liquid slab sugars,” explains chef Lee. The batter is then steamed and the cake is left to rest until cooled at room temperature. While the cake can be served as it is, pan-frying the cake is also popular with families. To serve, chef Lee likes to slice the rice cake into bite-sized pieces, then pan-fry them with one beaten egg. The egg adds an extra layer of texture, making the cake slightly crispy on the outside, while remaining chewy on the inside.
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Radish Cake & Taro Cake
“Radish cake in Taiwanese dialect is called cài tóu gāo (菜頭糕) and is a homophone for “good luck” in Taiwanese, hǎo cǎi tóu (好彩頭),” says chef Jowett Yu. “Traditionally, rice cakes in Taiwan were only rice slurry, because eating a cake made of rice was an expensive commodity. Anecdotally, it wasn’t until the 1950s in Tainan that someone brought back the idea of adding daikons to the radish cake from Hong Kong,” he adds.
The most important ingredients of radish cake? Dried shrimp, preserved sausage, and mushroom, says chef Lee. The ingredients are mixed with boiled, grated radish; rice flour and cornstarch to make the radish batter. Afterwards, the batter is placed in the steamer to solidify, and left to cool to firm up.
Store-bought cakes are usually pre-steamed and can be kept in the fridge for one to two weeks. To serve, most people such as chef Lee prefer to pan-fry slices of radish cake until golden to make the dish more fragrant. Pair it with your favourite soy sauce, chilli sauce and hoisin sauce if you’re looking to level up the dish even further.
Chef May Chow’s Insights on Turnip and Taro Cake
For Chinese New Year, turnip cake, taro cakes and sweet puddings are some of the must eats in Chinese culture. Dating back to 3,000 years ago, these food items signified a good harvest and an auspicious meaning for a great year ahead. The most popular style of turnip cake originated from southern China and are showcased in Cantonese cooking. The modern version includes ingredients like dried seafood, dried meats, turnip, dried shiitake, rice flour and starch.
Depending on the chef, flour and starch varies from using corn starch, potato starch to chestnut starch. The best golden ratio would be six parts turnip, two parts water and one part flour and starch. This ensures the maximum amount of ingredients to the least amount of flour. Of course, texture comes down to personal preference and what someone grew up with plays a factor. Some like it denser and more rustic while others prefer a softer cake.
As I began studying and developing turnip and taro cakes, it reminded me a lot of French terrines. If you cut through the cross section you should be able to see the textures and components of each item that goes into a turnip cake.
Start by thinking about the size of each cake slice, and if you would like to taste each dried seafood independently or have the flavours combined. We developed specific times to soak each dried ingredient and the amount of water to soak it in as I wanted distinct flavours of dried shiitake, dried shrimp, dried scallop to shine through.
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A sign of prosperity, wealth, and abundance, dumplings are eaten during Chinese New Year because of its shape looking like gold ingots, explains chef Lee. Because of that, Chinese people believe that having dumplings during Chinese New Year will attract wealth throughout the year, he adds.
Dumplings are commonly made with minced meat and vegetables wrapped in a piece of dough skin. Traditionally, boiled dumplings are eaten during Chinese New Year and a coin is sometimes placed inside the dumpling to attract wealth.
While dumplings are largely eaten in Hong Kong most of the time, the dish is rarely eaten to celebrate Chinese New Year in Hong Kong. Instead, dumplings are more popular in Northern China during the festive period and different fillings represent different meanings. For example, a celery-based filling means hard work leads to a wealthy life, while a cabbage filling stands for a hundred ways of attracting wealth.
Tong yuen, or glutinous rice balls, play on the phrase yuen yuen moon moon (圓圓滿滿) in Cantonese, which means “something is complete and full, signifying a completeness and contentment in life,” explains chef Yu. Similarly, when “tong yuen” is pronounced with a slight change of tone, the meaning changes to “family reunion”, thus the reason behind having tong yuen as a dessert during reunion dinner.
Traditional filling of glutinous rice balls are black sesame, peanut or red bean paste. As they are usually served in a Chinese sweet dessert soup (tong sui), chef Lee recommends making tong yuen with the classic ginger sweet soup.
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Eating a whole fish during Chinese New Year is important because retaining the head and tail means there is a complete start and finish (有頭有尾). The literal translation of the idiom means “have head and tail”, which is why serving a whole fish—instead of fish fillet pieces—is important.
It's also a wish for plenty of savings and to make more money the incoming year, as the fish also references the idiom neen neen yau yu (年年有餘), a phrase that means “may there be [a] surplus [of income] year after year”. The last character of the phrase, “yu”, means “surplus” in Chinese, however the pronunciation sounds similar to the word “fish”, hence the importance of eating fish to attract wealth during Chinese New Year.
Steamed fish is typically served during the holidays, however, remember to choose the type of fish wisely as different fish represent different meanings. Catfish is the obvious choice, as the name sounds like “year surplus” in Mandarin. For good luck, try Crucian carp, while those after good fortune should get the Chinese mud carp.
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Noodles are typically eaten on birthdays to wish for a long life due to the noodle’s length. In some places, longevity noodles are made longer than normal noodles and uncut.
A popular Cantonese dish for celebrating special occasions such as weddings or birthday parties to wish for a long, healthy life, the iconic noodle dish traditionally features e-fu noodle (or yi mein) with crab meat in supreme soup, says chef Lee. “The reason e-fu noodles are used is because the noodle is more expensive than other options and crab meat is usually seen as a premium ingredient in older generations,” he adds.
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