Samui Wining & Dining
Enter The Dragon
Chinese New Year is the biggest event on the Chinese calendar.
It’s about family, ancestry, tradition and particularly food.

 

Enter The DragonHappy New Year! Give me money!” Whilst that phrase might seem, to some, an unexpected utterance at such an occasion. To the Chinese, it is the archetypal New Year’s greeting, said in Cantonese, “Kung Hei Fat Choi! Lai see dau loi!” The money they are referring to is found tucked away in little red paper packets, called lai see. In China and Hong Kong, pretty much anyone and everyone will be passing these around at the time of Chinese New Year. Some with hefty sums within, and others with a few token coins. It’s the thought that counts. Well, so they say.

 

And then there are the gifts. The Chinese economy sees a hefty boost during this season when people in the millions flock to shopping malls and markets gathering presents for their loved ones. They also buy decorations for the house and front doors, and windows become bright red and gold beacons of celebratory joy. The whole New Year period is about giving gifts, spending time with your family, and forgetting your worries. All existing grudges and quibbles are dropped – it’s a new year and a fresh start! Families gather within lovingly embellished homes to share the experience they have been waiting a whole year for. To bring in the New Year, and, of course, to feast.

 

The New Year’s Eve banquet truly is a family affair. If you have a dinner for two then you can only sample a few dishes. The more people you have, however, the more flavours you can try. So this is an event for the whole family. Uncles, grannies, cousins, nieces … whomever you can fit on the table. And it’s not quiet either. The atmosphere is of unashamed optimism and can get pretty boisterous. To add to the acoustic levels, noodles are slurped, Chinese style, from tip to tip – there’s no Italian-style fork twirling here. And how to pointedly express your enjoyment of the food? A good old belly-burp does the trick. The louder the better.

 

The date of Chinese New Year is dictated by the lunar patterns, and, for that reason, changes every year. It usually falls in the beginning of February but this year it’s towards the end of January – the 23rd to be exact. And 2012 is the ‘Year of the Dragon’. Whilst the Chinese New Year ceremonies actually last for two weeks, the big feast is held on New Year’s Eve itself – so this year that’s the 22nd of January. The Chinese New Year dinner is the most important family dinner of the year and is often compared with the Western Christmas. But, unlike Christmas – with the designated meat being turkey – the Chinese aren’t limited to merely one protein dish. This banquet is opulent. So let’s move on to the food.

 

Honey-glazed barbecued pork is served alongside a whole barbecued duck and whole crispy-skinned chicken. Clams can also served, coated in a black bean sauce, along with great big fresh steamed whole fishes in a ginger and soy sauce. Dish after dish is produced creating a veritable buffet, with every meat and fish imaginable being proudly displayed in the centre of a ‘lazy Suzie’ table with its revolving middle section. And the best thing about it? Each food item has symbolic meaning and a reason for being there. Even down to the noodles.

 

The meaning of a dish is determined either by the look of it or by the sound of its name. Pork is considered good luck because of the red coating it is given – red being considered an auspicious colour. Chicken, served whole, symbolises the togetherness and unity of a family. And clams, open, as they are when served, denote opening yourself up to good things. The Cantonese word for fish (yu) sounds like the word for surplus, so serving a whole fish represents having enough money to last the whole year. Sometimes some of the fish is left to further cement the connotation of excess.

 

But let’s not forget the vegetables and accompaniments. The flat, round heads of black mushrooms correspond to coins. And as the shape of dumplings look similar to a traditional Chinese gold ingot, they stand for wealth and fortune. Long strips of hair-like sea-vegetable are served as well because their name (fat choi) sounds exactly like the latter part of the New Year greeting, “Kung Hei Fat Choi!” Green vegetables are cut into long strips and must be eaten in one bite for long life. Turnips represent good luck because their name (cai tou) also means good luck. And pastries? They will gain you eminence, step-by-step. Last but not least, yi mein noodles are long, uncut noodles and are often referred to as longevity noodles. Eating them will thus bring you, yes, you’ve guessed it, longevity.

 

The dishes served on New Year vary in the North and South of China, and sometimes even from household to household depending on personal preference. There are no set rules. Some Hong Kong families prefer to have all their dishes served together in one giant bowl! It’s called poon choi, or big bowl feast. Within this bowl you have pork, beef, lamb, duck, pigskin, prawn, crab, fish balls, squid, dried eel, dried shrimp, shark fin, abalone, fish maw, mushroom, ginseng, bean curd and Chinese radish. Phew! That’s a long list. And it seems that just about anything can be ascribed meaning via some means or another.

 

So, whether you’re Chinese or not, try to celebrate Chinese New Year this year in one of Samui’s many Chinese restaurants. Celebrate it for what it is – an excuse to get together with your nearest and dearest and have a feast you’ll remember for the rest of the year. Whatever you eat, and with whomever you eat it, just remember the spirit of Chinese New Year – the spirit of family, friendship and good fortune. “Kung Hei Fat Choi! Lai see dau loi!”

 

Christina Wylie

 


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