February 19th kicked off the celebration of Chinese New Year, ushering in the year of the sheep (also goat or ram). The Chinese commonly regard sheep as an auspicious animal, and the Year of the Sheep, therefore, heralds a year of promise and prosperity. It has yet to be determined what the lunar calendar will have in store for this rabbit, but if my dining experience last night was any indication, it will definitely be a palate pleasing year.
I had the good fortune this year to take part in my brother-in-law’s annual Chinese New Year family dinner at Century Palace. After warm wishes for a happy new year and the distribution of little red envelopes, came a delicious a feast. As with many cultures, food is highly revered and plays a major role in celebrations. The banquet for Chinese New Year is laden with symbolic and “lucky” foods and begins almost before the table is set. This celebratory dinner also known as a Reunion dinner, is large and sumptuous and includes meat and fish as well as various vegetables, and ends with sweet food to augur a luscious life in the next year. It consists of a set number of courses, the number is always six, eight or ten, meaning “smooth”, “prosperous” and “perfect” respectively.
We sat down to a 10 course feast which began with crispy skin roast belly pork, one of the most common meats eaten by the Chinese all year round and are also used as offerings in religious rituals. It is a favored dish for the feast as its festive value lies in the auspicious golden red color of the skin. Next up, a personal favorite of mine, the deep fried shrimp stuffed crab claw, one of a few seafood offerings as fish plays a large role in festive celebrations as it symbolizes abundance.
The third course was certainly the most uniquely significant offering and brimming with luck. A traditional New Year delicacy known as Ho See Fatt Choi, that consists of braised dried oysters (for well wishes of good things to come or good business), Chinese black mushroom (symbolizing longevity), abalone sauce (assurance of surplus), black sea moss (for wealth and prosperity), and lettuce (which implies growing wealth). Admittedly it was not my favorite sampling but I can certainly appreciate the careful construction of this dish and the meaning behind it.
More seafood followed with the fish soup, a savory sweet broth with a milky smooth feel. The secret to this soup’s very particular consistency is frying of the fish first which in turn gives it the creamy white color. Following the fish soup was the barbecued chicken. This too an emblematic main as it is representative of family togetherness. After the chicken, a vegetarian course of mushrooms and bok choy, meant to be a cleanse with vegetables. Here the black mushrooms are meant to fulfill wishes from East to West.
From here we parlayed into my favorite course of the evening, the succulent lobster which was proceeded by steamed fish. This, a very customary end denoting a wish for abundance in the coming year. Further, it is served whole, with head and tail attached, symbolizing a good beginning and ending for the coming year. The final entrées consisted of shrimp fried rice and mushroom noodles which are representative of longevity. Chinese superstition dictates that it is bad luck to cut the noodles as they suggest a long life.
No festive meal would be complete without dessert to mark the occasion and our sweet send off for Chinese New Year consisted of almond butter cookies once, their round shape denoting good luck and signifying family reunion, and a warm and fragrant steamed ginger milk custard. This ambrosial adieu to guests at this banquet is the desire for a rich sweet life.
It was an honor to have this invitation extended to me and be able to take part in this glorious period of eating and greeting. Gung Hay Fat Choy! Buon Appetito!