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.

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