Candies and Food Traditions – Wishing Everyone a Happy and Sweet Chinese (Lunar) New Year!

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To all those who celebrate, Happy Chinese New Year!  The day may be drawing to a close, but my festivities are only getting started!  I’m celebrating with family next weekend and I’m hoping to get a few fun Chinese food posts on the blog this week.  Chinese New Year has been low-key for me so far but I’ve definitely been enjoying some great food!  I’ve been munching on an egg tart, a pineapple bakery bun, a dried chive and shredded pork and bakery bun, a yummy vegetarian dish, and some very awesome roast pork!  Aside from the roast pork which I really only eat maybe twice a year, I do eat many of the others at all times of the year but you know how it is.  Everything just feels more celebratory and festive during a special occasion, so eating Chinese bakery buns and egg tarts this weekend made me feel extra warm and fuzzy inside.

Traditionally, a dinner with meat is eaten on new year’s eve (thus, yesterday) and a vegetarian one on new year’s day.  We had some fabulous roast pork last night and today, we had big dish of cellophane noodles (“fun see”) with snow peas, peppers, and mushrooms.  On vegetarian day, we often have the cellophane noodles with veggies or melon squash as well as a big dish with different types of beancurd (“jai”) including curry beancurd, sweet and sour bean curd, seaweed, and others which we always eat with steamed rice.  I wasn’t the biggest fan of the vegetarian dishes when I was little (bean curd just doesn’t sound appetizing to a child’s ears!), but I absolutely love it as an adult now and love that there are delicious Chinese vegetarian and vegan options. 

And we certainly can’t forget the special Chinese New Year’s candies!  My family and I have made going to the adorable candy buffets at the malls and markets into a tradition every year.  They look exactly like the ones I posted last year from Market Village and Pacific Mall and it’s so much fun because there’s always something new and different amidst the familiar candies that are brought back on a yearly basis.  Our little Chinese New Year candy bowl has marshmallows with fruit filling, colourful jelly candies, milk candies, and hard lychee candies among others.  I love the marshmallows and colourful jellies the most and having these candies in the house makes me feel like I just went out trick-or-treating!  I have fond memories of filling red pockets (which weren’t actually red, but were instead cute new year envelopes with Winnie the Pooh on them) with candies for my friends in high school, just for fun.  

All my best wishes for good health, wealth, happiness, and prosperity this year!  Gung Hay Fat Choi, Sun Leen Fai Lok!  

Chinese New Year is Just Around the Corner! A Look Through Some Traditional, Classic Food Favourites

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Shrimp and egg tofu with green onion

Get ready for the lion dances, special candies and sweets, lots of food, and – if you’re lucky – shiny red lucky pockets!  On Monday, January 23rd, we’ll be ringing in the new year, dragon style, and I’m anticipating one very exuberant celebration!  Like many special occasions and holidays, if you have the weekend before to have some fun, you take advantage of it!  Even though my family and I celebrate Chinese New Year after the actual new year (typically the weekend afterward, based on tradition as my grandma tells us), I have a bowl of special Chinese New Year candies sitting right in front of me along with some crushed peanut sweets and a whole package of foodie loot my hairdresser gave us this past Wednesday!  So in actuality, I’m celebrating for about a week and a half.  No complaints here!

I’m excited and looking forward to it now, but when I realized the new year was happening only a month after Christmas, I was flustered.  Throughout my life I’ve been so used to celebrating the new year in February with a rare and spotty January one here and there, so it felt incredibly odd seeing money trees and Chinese New Year banners, scrolls, and calendars while I was picking up end-of-December holiday deals last month.  My mind was screaming, “How in the world am I going to prepare Chinese New Year posts so soon after Christmas?!”  I needed to make plans, pronto.  What I wanted eat, where I wanted to eat, what I wanted to do, what I wanted to see, the whole nine yards.  I share personal stories and anecdotes with you all on a regular basis, but posts about traditional Chinese food?  This doesn’t happen every day. 

Pineapple and chicken fried rice

Aside from the moon cakes and the green leaf sticky rice bundles, this is the first time I’ve featured anything traditionally Chinese on the blog.  I’ve posted a number of HK style diner posts and some Chinese vegetarian ones courtesy of King’s Cafe, but nothing pertaining to banquet style Chinese meals or the classic rice and noodle dishes that have become so familiar and comforting to me and it’s certainly not because I haven’t wanted to.  The timing and circumstances have just made it a little more challenging!  Try explaining to a table of 10 why they can’t dig into the food that’s been placed in the center of the table on the rotating glass disc right then and there.  You do not want to piss off people who are hungry; I know because I belong to that group.  I bare fangs if someone tries to get between me and my food. 
 
When I’m having a big ol’ Chinese dinner with the family, I’m there to shovel rice into my mouth with chopsticks and to drown myself in oolong and bolay (pu-erh) tea, not to sit there and thoughtfully adjust the brightness, hue, or white balance and exposure of my camera!  However, little miracles happen every day and this was mine: I managed to get some nice shots of a dinner I had with my grandparents with no grumbling whatsoever!  My grandpa even jerked his hand away and apologized when he reached for a dish and realized I was taking a photo of it.  How cute and sweet!  I’ve wanted to do a post like this for such a long time and finally, I get to show you all some of the food that’s been ingrained into my upbringing.  They’re not the best photos in the world, but they’ll do!
 

The classic peking duck

The peking duck aftermath - crunchies!

Wrapping the crunchies in lettuce

In a nutshell, traditional Chinese restaurants operate 3 ways:
  • you order a big banquet-style 10-course meal (or 8 courses or however many courses the particular meal set comes with) that will feed many mouths.  You pay a very pretty penny for these, so these types of meals are often reserved for super special occasions like Chinese New Year and traditional banquet wedding receptions, but they’re available any time so if you just feel like celebrating, you can certainly go for it! 
  • the “wo choy” meal arrangement.  This type of meal is similar to the banquet-style one, only smaller in scale (and obviously price!).  Wo choy meal sets are ones that come with a predetermined number of dishes in even numbers.  For example, 4 wo choy (“say wo choy” in Cantonese) is a meal set that comes with 4 dishes, while 2 wo choy comes with 2, and so on.  You can either choose the number and type of dishes you want for a fixed price, or you can go with the sets that have already been put together for you on the menu.  There are many different groupings so you choose the meal set that best suits your mood and tastes.  Dishes include seafood and meat, and vegetables.  Rice and noodles are exempt from these sets and are ordered completely separate from and outside of the wo choy arrangement.
  • the order-whatever-you-want-off-the-menu way.  Each and every dish has its own price point and you needn’t feel obligated to do the wo choy arrangement if you’re not feeling it.  However, this way obviously won’t be as cost effective since you’re ordering each dish a la carte, but you can do it if that’s what you want.

During this particular meal, we had a great assortment of delicious traditional Chinese favourites including silky shrimp and egg tofu, pineapple and chicken fried rice, chicken, hot pot beef, seafood and gai lan (Chinese broccoli), bok choy, and, of course, peking duck!  The peking duck is always the most anticipated because it’s such a treat.  I have this maybe once or twice a year, at best.  It’s accompanied with the little steamed crepes, cucumbers, scallions, and special hoisin sauce and the chefs use the remaining duck to fry up this incredibly delicious crunchy crispy that I like to call the “crunchy duck aftermath”, a dish with garlic, water chesnuts, green onions, sesame seeds, crispy noodle bits, and duck meat that you spoon onto large crisp lettuce leaves and eat as lettuce wrap tacos.        

Chinese New Year festivities are in full swing all across the city, country, and world and for the next week, we’ll be celebrating the new year with great food and traditions with family and friends.  This post is just a small peak at some of the classic, traditional Chinese foods and dishes that I’ve grown up enjoying.   

Traditional chicken and hot pot beef

*****

Photos taken in Scarborough at Very Fair Chinese Restaurant, in Agincourt.  Very Fair Chinese Restaurant is located at 4002 Sheppard Ave. East in the lower level of the complex.

Mooncakes in Celebration of the Mid-Autumn Moon Festival!

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Happy Mid-Autumn/Moon Festival!  I know I have the last part of the Vegetarian Food Fair to post, but my timing is a bit off so my posts are going to end up overlapping a bit for today.  I didn’t want the day to come and go without at least showing you all pictures of the mooncakes at my house 😀  I explained the Mid-Autumn and Moon Festival a little bit in the Food Calendar, but basically I’ve grown up understanding it as a festival to celebrate family, friends, togetherness, and of course, the symbolic importance of the moon in the spiritual context.  My dad would tell me stories of his childhood living in Hong Kong, going to the parks and lighting lanterns for the Mid-Autumn Moon Festival (jong chow jeet), and running around with all his cousins.  It’s funny, because when you’re little you go about your innocent, childhood years not really understanding the reasons why you celebrate a particular occasion, just that you do.  All you know is that it’s a custom and after awhile certain aspects of the occasion become very familiar to you, almost natural even.

This was me growing up.  I would celebrate all Chinese occasions with my family, aunts and uncles, and my grandparents but rarely would I question what we were celebrating and why we did the things we did.  I have seen mooncakes come and go since I was a tot, my family and I would sit down to a dinner of bbq meat (siu lap, or lechon as it is otherwise referred to in English), and Chinese vegetarian (jai) complete with bean curd, seitan, and a host of other veggie goodies.  It’s only been in the last maybe 5 years that I became very curious and started asking my parents questions about customs and origins and food, and paying much closer attention to what my grandparents would do during these occasions.  I’ve learned a lot just by watching and listening and being more aware all-around.

Here’s a secret though: I don’t actually like mooncake.  I KNOW.  I’ve tried it and I can honestly say I would much rather eat a lotus paste steamed bun, but I know a loooot of people who thoroughly enjoy these so I’m just joining in on the fun by posting photos!  My sweet hairdresser (who has been a family friend and my mum’s best friend for 14 years) gave these mooncakes to us (it’s customary to give and receive mooncakes as gifts; my grandma has given us mooncakes in the past) and she made a special order just for us as there are four different kinds!  We have the white lotus with one egg yolk (meant to symbolize the moon), the white lotus with two yolks, a nut-filled mooncake, and a green tea mooncake.  Even though I’m not a fan, I might take a tiny wedge of the green tea one but that’s about it!

I have stories from my grandma of her chastising my grandpa for gorging on these cakes many moons ago (no pun intended) and I know my dad has eaten some mooncakes in his time as well.  Nobody in my house would ever down an entire mooncake on their own these days though (I can’t even say we’d eat a quarter of one) which is why my mother cut each mooncake into 8 pieces.  We have 32 pieces of mooncake in our house.  God help us.

    

On the Chinese Lunar Calendar, Today’s the Day: It’s Green Leaf Sticky Rice Day!

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Even though I don’t follow the Chinese Lunar calendar, my grandparents, older relatives, and my mom, to an extent, do.  I was informed the other day then, that today is what I refer to as “greef leaf sticky rice” day 😀  In Cantonese, we refer to them as “joong” and there’s a period of time every year (around May and June) that our older Chinese relatives will make them in honour of the Dragon Boat Festival.  I feel like a doof because I’m constantly mixing this up with the Mid-Autumn Chinese Festival that happens in September with the moon cakes! 

Anyway.  Let it be known that I actually don’t really eat these wrapped packets of sticky rice as I’m rather indifferent to sticky rice.  However, my parents, brother, best friend, and even my hairdresser do and they love them.  They’re very popular in dim sum and traditional Chinese and Cantonese cuisine, as well as other Asian cuisines such as Japanese and Cambodian.  In a nutshell, a packet of sticky rice (or glutinous rice) is stuffed with a number of different fillings and then wrapped in “green leaves”, which can take the form of banana leaves, lotus leaves, bamboo leaves, etc.  The packets of sticky rice are then tied and secured with string and then steamed (as you see above in the little dim sum steamer) and served as a meal.

Back in the day, my grandmother would make SO many of these for us and my mom would stick them in the freezer and my mom, dad, and brother would eat them and unload from the freezer as they went along.  These are labour-intensive though so my grandma hasn’t made these in quite a number of years because, well, she’s not getting any younger!  My hairdresser has even given us a bag of them to eat in past years.  My grandma would stuff them with everything from cured Chinese sausage (lap-cheung), chestnuts, peanuts, beans, edamame, pork, and lots of other stuff.  You can drizzle them with a bit of soy sauce and eat them as a savoury meal, or you can even drizzle some of them with honey if they are made as a sticky rice dessert with syrup. 

You can definitely order these green leaf sticky rice packets anytime during the year at a number of dim sum places (the first picture up top is one I took at King’s Cafe in Kensington Market), and you can even find them in Chinese supermarkets already steamed and cooked at times, like the mini ones I took a photo of!  The “green leaf” day, as I refer to it, is just a special time during the year that the consumption of these is more popular.

My apologies for the lack of interior shots though.  I promise when I get some I’ll update the post!  In the meantime, enjoy the cuteness of the mini ones my mom bought at the Foody Mart Chinese supermarket here in Markham.  Oh, and if you’re wondering why I have a strawberry in my photos it’s because my dad said to me, “you should put a strawberry beside them to show just how teeny and cute they are”.  Oh dad, always the thinker, haha!  And so I did.  I think it looks quite cute.  Happy “Green Leaf Sticky Rice” Day!

Celebrating the New Year at Grammy’s, Part III: Chinese Bakery Goods and Grandma’s Special Chicken

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“Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are” – Anthelme Brillat-Savarin

Before you gasp, no, I did not receive all those red pockets yesterday, ha!  I keep a lot of the envelopes and pass them on to my mom whenever she needs extras, so I thought taking a picture would be nice to show the full effect 😀  Part III of my Chinese New Year celebration posts = food stuffs at grandma and grandpa’s!  Celebrating the Saturday after New Year’s at and with my grandparent’s has been a long standing tradition of my family’s – I don’t recall ever missing a year.  As I’ve grown older, I’ve really been able to appreciate everything more.  You know what I mean.  When you celebrate as a kid with your family, you’re usually accustomed to running around with your other kiddy cousins and slurping ice cream from a cone after dinner.  But as you grow older, you learn to appreciate things more, to take everything in.  

I’m lucky; I’m close to my grandparents (maternal that is, my paternal grandparents have long since passed) and they have taught me many things throughout my life.  One very important thing that they have taught me is this: never skimp on food.  You go all out and are gracious about it, both with the food and ensuring that the experience is an enjoyable one.  When you invite people to your home or to a night out or anything like that, you can tuck away at other corners here and there, but food is something you never skimp on.  Showing how much you care through a meal says volumes about the person you are, and this nugget of wisdom has stayed with me for years.  You either go into it with all your heart, or not at all.

Munching away on a ham n’ egg Chinese bakery bun (and at the same time ogling an egg tart pastry, pictured up top), I stood by the kitchen and watched my grandma work her magic.  Let it be known that I refuse to eat Chinese style chicken anywhere but my grandma’s.  Over the years I have enjoyed chicken (in any style) less and less for a number of reasons, but one thing has remained constant: grandma’s homemade marinated chicken is the absolute best and it warms her heart knowing that I enjoy hers and only hers.  Excuse my language, but everything else in comparison outside tastes like ass.  As I’m noshing away at my bakery bun, I stand by the kitchen and watch my grandma lay several sheets of Chinese newspaper on the tiled floor, grab her cutting board, butcher knife, and kiddy chair to sit on so she can hack away at the freshly marinated chicken for tonight’s Chinese New Year dinner.  My mum looks over and ruefully smiles.  “Watch and learn, honey”.  One step ahead of you, mum.  And later on closer to dinner time, grandma is clanging and “chowing” away at her wok for her dish of shrimp and fresh vegetables: broccoli, bok choy, carrots, and snow peas.  She is one awesome superlady. 

I may be Canadian-born and I may not partake in particular cultural traditions as some of them are too traditional and too archaic.  And I may not be that much of a meat-eater, even (but I do have a weakness for amazing crispy roast pork).  But one thing that never gets old is enjoying a meal with my grandparents and soaking up the feeling of home every time I see them.  I hope you all have enjoyed the Chinese New Year posts these past few days!  And so ends another celebration for the year.  I’m really excited because I’m planning a slew of Valentine’s related posts this coming week leading up to Valentine’s next Monday, as well as dishing about my Winterlicious experience at Amaya’s Bread Bar last week! 

P.S. And no, I can’t reveal what my grandma uses to marinade her special chicken.  Grandma’s secret 😉

*****

Chinese bakery goods and pastries purchased from the Red House Bakery located at 11 Glen Watford Drive, just north off of Sheppard Ave. E and east of Midland Ave.       

Celebrating Chinese New Year, Part II: Shanghai Pork Dumplings and Green Tea Ice Cream Waffle Cake

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Pacific Mall and Market Village and I go waaaay back.  Even before I moved to Markham when I was 13 and still living in Scarborough, these two Chinese malls hold so many childhood memories for me.  Even though I don’t go as often as I used to, stepping inside feels like HOME.  The kind of feeling you get when you know you can find your way around even if you were blindfolded.  The kind of familiarity that leaves with you a deep sense of nostalgia. 

I used to buy Sailor Moon trading cards here as a kid.  In high school, I would buy packs and packs of cute Asian stationery to write letters to my friends.  My mum and I used to get custom made crystal bracelets from this wonderfully nice lady in Pacific, who would go out of her way to make me custom pieces because she said I was sweet.  My parents would order Chinese vegetarain trays for dinner.  My doctor used to be in Market Village and my brother’s orthodontist is still there, popular and successful as ever.  And if you want a real way-back-playback, I still have memories of the Chinese movie theater that used to be where the giant One’s Better Living now stands!  That’s what you call old school. 

Over the years, things have simalatanously changed and stayed the same.  Stores have come and gone, but that feeling of home still exists for me, welcoming me every time I go.  And one of my favourite parts of Pacific Mall is the Pacific Heritage Town on the 2nd floor, which is where I ate my good eats yesterday on Chinese New Year!

Not only do I love the food, I love the atmosphere.  I love stepping into this area of the mall and being welcomed with a waft of warm egg puff waffles, looking at cute Chinese coin purses, and enjoying the snacks that I love so much.  I asked myself yesterday, “it’s Chinese New Year today, what do I really want to eat?  What would I enjoy more than anything?”  I briefly considered getting a Japanese sushi bento box full of my most favourite spicy salmon maki rolls from Japanese Express (trust me, these rolls deserve a post of their own so sit tight for one in the near future!) but instead, I chose my absolute favourite Shanghai dim sum that gets me happy-squishy just at the mere thought of it: my beloved siu long bow, aka. Shanghai pork dumplings!! *cue extreme salivating* 

These little dumplings are my favourite Chinese comfort food and I can’t ever seem to get enough of them.  They are such a treat to me and they are so deliciously yummy with their warm, juicy soft pork and steamed dumpling envelope.  Among many other Chinese “siu sic” snacks and Shanghai dishes and dim sum from Shark’s Fin City (like the yummy green onion pancakes which are a favourite of both my mum and grandma!) , they come in sets of 4 priced at $3.50 and are freshly made right when you order.  You normally may have to wait about 10 minutes or so, but they are sooo worth it.  Other than TianJin Fine Food at the food court in First Markham Place, I don’t enjoy these mouth-watering dumplings anywhere else.  And do I ever enjoy them.  I douse them in red vinegar and wiggle and make “mmm” noises after every bite.  Oh my god I love them so much ❤

And for dessert?  Green tea ice cream waffle cake!! 😀  Purchased from the nearby candy shop and egg puff waffle vendor, there are over 10 flavours of ice cream to choose from (vanilla, cookie, pineapple, mango, among others) and I intend to eat my way through many of them.  They are wrapped in a warm, crispy egg waffle and sliced into wedges.  A dessert that is both warm and cold, and soft and crispy, it is absolutely delightful!

It was so much fun and it was just a wonderful feeling being there yesterday.  I may not shop there as much as I used to, but I look forward to each and every trip and leave with fond memories every time.  And I am so looking forward to tomorrow: celebrating with my grandparents!  I’m going to be getting up at the crack of dawn to bake them surprise cupcakes, and my parents and I will be running around like crazy chickens picking up food along the way to my grandparents in preparation of tomorrow night’s awesome new year feast.  I’ll see you all tomorrow for part III, happy celebrating!

*****

Pacific Mall and Market Village are located at 4300 Steeles Ave. East, right at the intersection of Kennedy Rd. and Steeles.  Pacific Heritage Town is on the upper level and houses a food court with traditional Chinese, Shanghai, and Japanese and sushi, as well as a bakery and plenty of bubble tea and Chinese snack vendors.  Food is also available on the upper level on the other side of the mall in an alternate food court.

Happy Chinese New Year! Part I: Celebrating the Day at Market Village & Pacific Mall

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Happy Chinese New Year everyone!! 😀  I spent the day at Market Village and Pacific Mall (two very popular Chinese retail destinations that have been a part of my childhood and adulthood for years, located just north of the Steeles Scarborough/Markham border on Kennedy Rd. and Steeles Ave.) and had a blast spending actual new year’s day enjoying the special festivities, booths, and FOOD!  I surrounded myself with booths and booths of colourful Chinese candies, containers full of sesame balls and lotus paste pastries, dumplings, and green tea waffle cake!  It’s not often I get to do this; in the past I was always in school on new year’s day if it fell on a weekday and there were only a few times to my recollection that I celebrated on the day of if it fell on a weekend and that’s when my family felt prepared enough to brave the crowds, ha!  This is part one of my three-part Chinese New Year celebration, so enjoy the photos and happy new year – sun leen fai lok! ❤

*****

Pacific Mall and Market Village are located at 4300 Steeles Ave. East, right at the intersection of Kennedy Rd. and Steeles.  They are open 365 days of the year and with the exception of eateries that serve breakfast, they typically open their stores closer to 11am and 12 noon (Market Village and Pacific Mall respectively), so keep that mind if you plan on shopping and eating there.