By Constance Lam
Every year, Chinese New Year with my family begins in my grandmother’s house. The extended family and I all squeeze into the flat, eagerly anticipating a delicious homemade feast. By the time we arrive, her homemade chicken soup (infused with ginseng, ginger, and conpoy) has been simmering for over 24 hours.
Freshly fried vegetables, a huge steamed fish swimming in soy sauce, and succulent pork ribs wait for us on the table. And how could we ignore the casserole (盤菜)? This obscenely large pot is stuffed with ingredients, including abalone, oysters, mushrooms, and the divisive vegetable, fat choi.
Some of these dishes hold significant meaning for the new year. The fish is there for two reasons: my family love eating fish, and the Chinese word for fish is a homophone related to the new year’s saying 年年有餘, which connotes prosperity. The words fat choi sounds like 發財 (which loosely means ‘get rich/prosper’), but the actual name literally translates to ‘hair vegetable’ — a name befitting its hairy appearance. Sorry for the visual, but it tastes better than it looks: it took me around 15 years to appreciate this!
Chinese New Year has always been my favourite holiday, in part due to the sheer amount of food. My family and I start Chinese New Year with a wide array of snacks. You can see my dog, Snowy, ogling them in this photo!
Some of the signature dishes eaten during Chinese New Year include turnip cake (蘿蔔糕) and niangao ( 年糕 literally translates to year cake). Turnip cake is best enjoyed when hot and dipped in generous amounts of XO sauce. One of my aunts makes the best niangao I have ever eaten. Traditionally, niangao is sweet and sticky in consistency, and you might feel sickly after eating too much of it. However, I will gladly make an exception for my aunt’s niangao, which is much lighter and much more fragrant than restaurant versions.
Pre Covid-19, my family and I would watch a comedy movie in the cinema and stay up on Chinese New Year’s Eve, which we would celebrate with my grandma’s homemade dinner and tangyuan (sweet glutinous rice balls filled with sesame, peanut, and even Maltesers for gluttonous grandchildren like myself).
The round shape of the tangyuan is meant to symbolise reunion, which is central to the Chinese New Year holidays. After this day, we visit our relatives’ houses to receive red packets filled with money. Traditionally, married adults are expected to give red packets to children and younger relatives. I don’t need to further explain how this benefits my brother, cousins, and myself.
As Chinese New Year falls during term time, I wasn’t able to celebrate with my family while at university. Since this is my favourite holiday, I still celebrated with my friends in first and second year. One of my fondest memories in Durham is celebrating Chinese New Year at Fifty-Six Restaurant with my friends and singing off-key karaoke — over 20 of us were able to celebrate together during pre-pandemic times.
Last Chinese New Year, I enlisted the help of my housemates to wrap almost a hundred dumplings and prepare a Chinese New Year meal — the budget version of my grandmother’s annual feast, but delicious nonetheless.
Ironically, I only wore traditional clothing on the Chinese New Years that I spent in the UK. Though many families wear traditional dress (including qipao/cheongsam and tangzhuang) and their best clothes during the new year, my family and I are relatively lazy on that front. Before leaving for Durham I decided that I should pack a qipao just in case, despite rarely wearing it in the past.
In retrospect, I’m grateful I made that decision. Wearing the traditional qipao with my friends reminded me of how much I enjoyed sharing Chinese New Year traditions with others. As an additional bonus, a qipao is quite flattering and forgiving on a food baby (see photo)
This year, my family has forgone big celebrations during Chinese New Year, instead enjoying a smaller meal at home. After spending two Chinese New Years away from home, I couldn’t ask for anything more.
Image: Elvir K via Unsplash