Celebrating the Lunar New Year

BY MALU LAMBERT
RECIPES BY MALU LAMBERT | PHOTOGRAPHY & STYLING C&D HEIERLI | FOOD ASSISTANT NELLEKE ELSTON

In Western culture, New Year means crates of champagne, silly hats and grown men dressed in diapers. Resolutions are made and hangovers endured.
In the East though, things are somewhat different.

Food plays a significant role in celebrations, yes, but dishes are loaded with symbolism. Nothing is eaten just for sustenance. “Noodles symbolise longevity,” says Isabella Fang, owner of Red Tassel, in Sea Point, as she talks about Chinese beliefs. “If you cut a noodle in half, it’s said your life will also be cut in half.”

CHINESE NEW YEAR began with a tale. “Nian is the word for year,” says Isabella. “And in Chinese mythology it’s a horned monster. Every New Year it terrorised the villages. The monster ate children and destroyed crops, until one day an old man waited for it armed with fireworks. The monster eventually returned to the sea, scared off by the flashes of light and noise. That’s why we celebrate the New Year with fireworks, drums and lanterns.”
This year, Chinese New Year is on 14 February and is celebrated for 15 days, the start date being determined by the cycle of the moon.

Silk fans add a subtle, delicate, whimsical touch

“On the first three days you’re not allowed to cook,” says Isabella. “So there’s a lot of preparation beforehand. My mom spends hours cooking the soup. She infuses it with ginseng and other Chinese medicines. Then we have a big feast on New Year’s Eve. In Chinese it’s called Chúx or Year-pass Eve. There’s always so much food. We eat pork, duck, beef, vegetables and fish. Fish is very important. The word for fish is yu, meaning abundance.

“I loved New Year when I was younger. My parents would buy me new shoes and new clothes. Everything had to be new for the coming year.” The Chinese believe all creation is reborn at New Year. Houses are cleaned. Clutter is thrown away. The year must begin with a clean slate.
Later, at Saigon restaurant in Cape Town, Chef My is describing VIETNAM’S NEW YEAR. “We call it Tet. It’s the same as the Chinese New Year,” he says. “Vietnam was a colony in the Ming Dynasty. So we’ve adopted Chinese traditions."

The Vietnamese are very picky about the people they invite into their houses on this auspicious day. It’s believed that a person who has been unlucky will bring bad luck into the home for the coming year. Sometimes, to avoid this, people leave their houses a few minutes before midnight and come back just as the clock strikes midnight.

“For the New Year’s feast we roast a pig big enough to feed the family and the extended family,” says Chef My. “Also, on every table you will find the Five-Fruit Tray or Mam Ngu Qua. This symbolises gratitude for heaven and earth. It also symbolises family togetherness and the striving for prosperity.

“The most symbolic food is the sticky rice cake,” says Chef My. “While the sticky rice represents the earth, the mung bean paste inside it represents the sun.” Called either banh chung or banh tet, these rice cakes are not the dry kind you’ll find in health shops. Instead, sticky rice is encased in banana leaves, and in the centre you’ll find mung bean sprouts or paste mixed in with bits of pork. The leaves impart a tea-like flavour to the rice and they also keep it fresh. This is important, as no cooking is traditionally allowed during the three-day celebration.
Serve sake either hot or cold. It's said that cheaper sake should always be served hot, to cover flaws

It’s custom during Tet to visit older relatives, pay off debts, return borrowed items and give away ‘lucky money’ in red envelopes to children. This is the same in China. The two cultures also have Tsao Chun, the Kitchen God, in common. All over South-East Asia families hang portraits of Tsao Chun above their stoves. The god apparently watches over the family. When the Lunar New Year rolls in, Tsao Chun is said to go to heaven and present a report to the Jade Emperor on the behaviour of each family member. This is where bribery comes in. Family members smear Tsao Chun’s mouth with honey so he will tell a sweeter version of events. After the honey smearing, the portrait is burnt and the rising smoke is said to represent his ascent to heaven. A new picture is then placed above the stove for the coming year. 

Across the water from Vietnam is KOREA where they celebrate Seollal for their Lunar New Year. The focus is on family, ancestor worship and feasting. Traditionally a dduk-gook (broth with rice cakes) is eaten. It’s a bowl filled with symbolism. Cho Hee, a Korean expat living in Cape Town, explains, “The white rice cakes symbolise purity and their round shape represents money and prosperity.”
Another country with New Year customs is TIBET, where they celebrate Losar. People are given balls of dough with various ingredients hidden in them such as chillies, salt, wool, rice and coal. The ingredients are said to be a comment on a person’s character. If white ingredients are found, it’s a good sign. If chillies are found, it means the person is talkative. But if you find coal in the dough, it means you have a black heart.

Watch Out for the Year of the Tiger

img_lunar_004.jpg

Teeth like razor blades. A low purr rumbles from his throat. His black stripes undulate as he pads towards you. His gaze is fixed. It’s the Year of the Tiger and it’s coming right for you. According to Chinese astrology, 2010 promises to be fierce and will be a year filled with power, passion and daring. Chinese astrologists say that before the year begins, you should mend broken relationships and make peace with family members. This year will be one of extremes. Luckily, 2011 is the Year of the Rabbit, which astrologists say will be a time of peace.
Whichever way you decide to indulge in lunar revelry, the message is the same—share in abundance with your family and friends. “There are a lot of festivities in China over the New Year,” says Isabella Fang, of the Red Tassel in Sea Point. “But none of that really matters. The most important part is spending time with your family.”

Man with One Chopstick Go Hungry

img_lunar_005.jpg

The great Chinese philosopher, Confucius, was said to have had a hand in influencing widespread chopstick use. He believed a knife and fork indicated violence, and their use went against his peaceful teachings. But if you use chopsticks, bear in mind that over 100-billion disposable chopsticks are used and discarded every year. That adds up to a lot of trees. Confucius believed in good karma. Make sure yours is good, too. Next time you eat Asian fare take along your own re-useable chopsticks.

Fortune Cookies 
Nian Gao or Chinese Sticky Cake 
Plum, Sake and Ginger Sorbet 
Sake-steamed Abalone 
Crayfish Dumplings in Soy Milk Froth