Growing up as a second-generation Chinese-Canadian in Vancouver, British Columbia, I believed we were special because we celebrated two new years every year. The first was on January 1 and included funny hats and loud noisemakers. The second was several weeks later and involved what seemed like endless preparations in the kitchen followed by a magnificent cornucopia of exotic dishes. I thought of this as my new year: Chinese New Year.
The holiday marks not only a new beginning but also the start of huge multicourse feasts. Large groups of family and friends gather to imbibe and eat sumptuous meals of special dishes considered auspicious because they represent wealth, luck, happiness, and long life―everything we all hope for in a new year. This year we’ll observe the start of the Year of the Ox, January 26, and the fun will continue for two weeks.
The New Year’s Eve meal, a time when families unite for thanksgiving, is the most important celebration. Each family’s meal is slightly different, but most incorporate foods that have special meanings. For example, New Year’s dinners usually consist of eight or nine dishes, since both numbers are considered lucky.
One of my favorites on these special occasions is poached or steamed whole fish. The Cantonese word for fish is yu, which also sounds like the word for “wish.” Thus, eating fish for New Year’s ensures one’s wishes will come true. Fish also represents marital bliss and fertility, since fish commonly swim in pairs. Fish is served whole (with head and tail) to symbolize a great beginning and end to the New Year. Serving a whole chicken, like our Salt-Baked Chicken, has similar meaning and is simple to prepare.
I was fortunate to grow up in a family who considered eating one of life’s top priorities. In our household, New Year’s festivities were always a well-orchestrated whirlwind of shopping, cleaning, cutting, chopping, marinating, stir-frying, steaming, and serving dishes with a multitude of colors, textures, flavors, and presentations. It was a communal effort involving my grandmother, mother, father, and aunts. I took part, usually as the kitchen prep helper, peeling and washing up.
Like many Chinese families in Canada, our menu was interspersed with modern Western favorites. We enjoyed roast turkey and prime rib alongside Chinese barbecued duck and roasted pork. There were mashed potatoes laden with butter, as well as plain steamed rice.
But the Chinese dishes were the stars of the evening, and there was always a competitive nature to the cooking.
“How is the mushroom stir-fry and Buddha’s feast this year―enough flavor and ingredients?” my mother would nervously ask the critical family members.
“Did I add enough spice to my shrimp?” Aunt Lil would timidly inquire.
My dad, who was a wonderful cook, would quietly ask, “Enough winter melon in the soup?”
Least worried was Po-Po (Grandmother), who was my inspiration to follow a culinary career. Her noodles were very good and made “famous” by the way she mixed everything together with her bare hands, something I found odd as a young child. She cared about what her family thought of her cooking, which was exceptional, but her reward was the delight of watching everyone eating together.
Three years ago, my last remaining grandparent passed away at 92. Goung-Goung (Grandfather) had an unbelievable passion for eating and was admired for his hearty appetite. The week before he passed away, he had a chance to see his newborn great-grandson, Evan. Although my family will miss Goung-Goung, this coming Year of the Ox will once again be celebrated with great food and family traditions. We’ll introduce Evan to our Chinese culinary traditions, as well as his father’s (my brother-in-law’s) Canadian Prairie heritage. Evan will grow up celebrating Chinese New Year with traditions of East and West, just like I did.
Year of the Ox
Chinese astrology is portrayed by 12 auspicious animal signs, each with its own symbolism and characteristics. Every New Year ushers in a new sign. Unlike the traditional January 1st New Year in the West, the start of Chinese New Year changes depending on the Chinese lunar calendar. In 2009, the Year of the Ox -begins on January 26, and people born under this sign are said to be honest, reliable, hardworking, pragmatic, and tolerant, with sound financial judgment.