F&W’s newest contributor, food writer Mei Chin, heralds the Dublin Chinese New Year by explaining the diversity in regional Chinese food, traditionally eaten for the celebrations, and where to get an authentic taste in Dublin city.
Nearly 1.5 billion people in the world hail the beginning of the Chinese lunar year, and like a fireworks display, what a glorious, culturally clashing cacophony it is. Each person from China’s 33 multiple-dialect speaking provinces, vehemently believes he or she knows the most correct way in which to spend the New Year. Regional differences become even more pronounced around this time because it is a holiday where people go home to their family seat to observe it.
Perhaps no debate is more fraught than what one should eat. After all, eating is culturally central. Confucius, the national philosopher, was a gastronome, taking time off from statecraft to worry about how meat was seasoned! There’s a tradition of great Chinese thinkers, like painter Ni Zan and poet Yuan Mei, writing cookbooks. The Chinese even honour their dead by feeding them, setting out feasts at their shrines. That the dead eat first on New Year’s is one law that transcends Chinese borders.
The rivalry between North and South China vividly plays out during New Year. Southerners think that the Northerners are yokels, Northerners think the Southerners are crass and money-obsessed. Never ever tell a person from the South that you ate jiaozi, the boiled Chinese dumpling that many non-Chinese consider traditional to Chinese New Year. Similarly, don’t tell a Northerner you had fa cai.
In North China
Jiaozi, the boiled dumpling, of a springy wheat wrapper around a hearty meat filling, is considered the only new year food. However, jiaozi is also a necessity, wheat being the only crop that can survive their region’s bitter blasts. Rice, which so many consider as a staple, is scarce. For this reason, jiaozi for New Year’s is considered by the rest of the Chinese to be a backwards practice. In my opinion, there is nothing better than a juicy jiaozi lovingly handmade, its filling cut with chopped green beans or scented with fennel fronds, but then again, I am from the North.
This region includes cosmopolitan Shanghai, the elegant West Lake region, and Sichuan province, China’s current culinary darling. Both Northerners and Southerners will admit that some foods of this region will be, if not better, than as good as those of their own. Here, the focus is not on what one loves best, rather than what tradition dictates. Flavours range from sweet and mild in Fujian and Shanghai to hearty Hubei braises, puckering sauces in Hangzhou and punch-in-the-mouth heat in Sichuan and Hunan.
New Year’s supper can be as simple as huo guo or hot pot, where family members sit around and swirl seafood together in a simmering broth; in Fujian, the broth will be mild and clear; in Sichuan and Hunan, it will be blistering. There is la rou, or cured pork belly, for which Sichuan and Hunan are famed, gently smoked over peanut shells, cedar shavings and tangerine peel. In these provinces too, you often find ice-cold chicken bathed in peppercorns and spices.
A Hubei New Year’s will always include a pot of lu-cai, or braised meats, eggs, lotus roots and tofu. Whole fish (yu, the word for fish is a pun for surplus) is crucial on Central and Southern tables; steamed if from the sea, braised if freshwater, and laced with vinegar in the West Lake. Other dishes: fenzhen paigu – spare ribs marinated in wine and steamed with chopped rice and star anise, zhenzhu wanzi – “pearl” meatballs studded with rice, and dan jiao – cloud-like dumplings of egg.
Popular for dessert, especially on Lantern Festival, the 15th or last day of New Year, are tang yuan – rice dumplings in a warm sugar syrup, their smooth round shape evoking harmony. Central Chinese will serve you four tang-yuan, a practice unheard of by Southerners; for central Chinese consider the number four, the first even square number, as the most auspicious of numbers, the Southerners consider four – also a homophone for death – as unlucky.
Canton, Macau, Hong Kong
If Northerners are unrefined, the Southern, or Cantonese stereotype is flashy, superstitious, and wealth-obsessed, who, when honouring their ancestors, burn paper copies of Prada bags. Little wonder the New Year celebrations in Canton and the prosperous port cities of Macau and Hong Kong, are irresistible. Here, pageantry is unsurpassed; old-world colonial style mixing with vivid, in your face Chinese personality and a healthy lash of bling.
Most everything on a Cantonese menu will involve a pun or superstition packaging and ceremony. Egg rolls look like gold bars, deep-fried to a burnish. The fish is served at the end of the meal in a calibrated and elaborate dance. Nian gao, or New Year’s cake, is a confection of glutinous rice and brown sugar tasting delightfully of toffee and found exquisitely packaged in local patisseries.
The word nian means year, but it also means sticky. One offers nian gao and other sticky sweets to the god who does the annual naughty-and-nice reports. They glue to the roof of his mouth and prevent him from saying too much. Still, at times the Cantonese New Year’s menu values ceremony over flavour. Fa cai is a seaweed that literally translated means “hair moss,” and a homophone for acquiring luck. It is usually stewed with dried oysters. There is a reason why fa cai, which does look a lot like human hair, is only eaten once a year.
Perhaps the tastiest Cantonese New Year’s food is the mix of snacks that are set out for when people come to call. Typically, the Cantonese are on the go, so New Year’s is the rare time of the year that they must be found at home. A lacquered wood 'tray of togetherness' consists of eight (a lucky number) separate compartments of candied nibbles like sugared lotus seeds, lotus roots, and melon seeds (they signify fertility and abundance). Gok zai are fried pastries stuffed with coconut and shaped to look like, you guessed it, money. Then there are the warm New Year’s cakes. There is sweet nian gao, of course, but also savoury cakes of radish, taro, and purple potato, spiked with dried scallops, and garnished with Yunnan ham, XO sauce, and caviar.
Chinese New Year Dublin – where to eat?
Where to eat like a Northerner…
Really, only jiaozi are the ones you have made with a Dongbei grandmother, but failing this, one should eat a jiaozi with a scratch wrapper rolled by a Northern Chinese person. Northerners are surprisingly prevalent in Ireland because they are used to the weather. Old Town makes its own dumplings, as does Lee’s Charming Noodle. However, the Korean mandu at the Chinese-owned Korean Hailan on Dame Street approximate most closely the flavour of the jiaozi I have had at home. An added bonus of Northern people? Unlike many Chinese, Northerners can drink!
Celebrate in Central Chinese fashion...
Old Town has a spicy, Sichuan-style hot pot and both Old Town and Bowls by Kwanghi Chan on Parnell Street make homemade tang yuan. For lu cai – eggs, braised meat, and green beans – try Steam on Westmoreland Street. Plus, China Sichuan in Sandyford is running a New Year’s menu of Sichuan and central Chinese accented dishes like lobster poached with suan cai pickles, Dongpo pork, and “gold sand” beef with salted duck yolk.
Or party like you’re in Hong Kong...
Tim Tang of EatZen in Ashbourne has constructed a Cantonese New Year’s banquet with old school bravura – French Rouge chicken in consommé, dried scallops and fa cai, and braised pig’s trotters – in a menu of playfully punning poetic couplets. Strictly speaking, the first dish, yee sang, is not Cantonese but from Singapore, but Tim’s staff executes it with Hong Kong panache, tossing ingredients into the salmon sashimi salad while shouting verses.
Author: Mei Chin
Mei is from New York and Connecticut. She has written for Saveur, Lucky Peach,
New York Times, Irish Times, the Sunday Times, Gourmet, Fiction, Bomb, and is the
recipient of the James Beard MFK Fisher and two IACP Bert Greene awards. She is
currently collaborating with editor and writer Georgia Freedman on a new
magazine, Ampersand: Eating at the Cultural Crossroads. Now based in Dublin, Mei
spends much of her time obsessing about Caesar salads, tacos, and martinis.