The Chinese are the butt of a lot of jokes for their propensity to eat “anything.” While a wee bit of an exaggeration, it’s true that the national diet is more diverse than that of the Western world. The combination of thousands of years of poverty, numerous wars, the rather imperial tastes of various ruling dynasties, thousands of miles of coastline, and a diverse geographical and climatic landscape make for a highly regionalized and complex cuisine.
Food, then, is an intrinsic and incontrovertible part of Chinese culture, perhaps no more so than during the weeklong celebrations of the Lunar New Year, which begins February third. And if there’s one place that knows how to throw down, it’s Hong Kong. The city is hosting it’s annual Chinese Lunar New Year (CNY) festival February 3-17th, and in honor of the Year of the Rabbit, I thought I’d give a little breakdown on the culinary side of things.
Quick history lesson: As this isn’t a political dissertation, let us just say that many residents of Hong Kong don’t wish to be called Chinese, which doesn’t change the fact that this article is on CNY. As you likely know, HK is considered a Special Administrative Region (SAR) of the mainland, after this former British colony was returned to China in 1997. The term “Hong Konger” generally (but not legally) refers to someone originally from HK, but Wikipedia informs me that the more generalized “Hongkongese” is catching on amongst the Western press. I didn’t see any mention of this being considered offensive, so I’m sticking with it. Please feel free to comment and provide a correction if I’m mistaken).
[Photo credit: Flickr user jinny.wong]I had the good fortune (fortune being a theme that repeats itself endlessly during Chinese New Year) to be in Hong Kong for the festivities a few years ago, and it proved a fascinating crash course in Chinese culinary culture. I actually went to eat my body weight in dim sum, but found myself pleasantly sidetracked by an orgy of New Year’s foods. I also learned it’s hard to dislike a place where the standard (translated) greeting is “Have you eaten yet?” My inner eight-year-old was also delighted to discover that, while “Gung Hay Fat Choy” may mean “happy new year,” “fuk” means “prosperity,” and “yu” means “abundance,” or “surplus.” Fuk yu! Hee.
New Year’s is a time of elaborate banquets, rituals, and symbolic foods and dishes, some of which may only be offered during this time. Oranges have long been associated with good fortune in China, because the word orange sounds similar to “ji,” which means good luck. Colors are also emblematic. Red apples or oranges adorned with red ribbons are ubiquitous, because the color is equated with happiness, while vegetables such as celery, spinach, and lettuce with the roots attached symbolize vitality. Homes and businesses offer a “tray of togetherness,” filled with candied lotus seeds and roots, water chestnuts, winter melon, and coconut, as well as paper lucky money pouches containing chocolate coins.
In addition to various activities that correspond with the spiritual aspects of CNY, the Hong Kongese go all out when it comes to holiday meals. At the beginning of the week, the Yau Ma Tei fruit market in Kowloon (one of HK’s best dining districts) is packed with shoppers, primarily wives and grandmothers, who come to purchase ingredients for “family reunion dinner.” Celebratory foods include sweet dumplings filled with lotus paste or crushed nuts and coconut; lin gou, a sticky rice cake; barbecued (cha siu) pork meant for offerings at Buddhist temples; pig’s trotters or tongue; black land moss (a fungus representing wealth), and carp (profitable year ahead).
The first day of the new year is vegetarian, as the plants are believed to store good fortune in their roots. Each subsequent day has a different theme, and corresponding foods that must be offered. The second day, for example, is the Day of Commencement, in which lavish meals featuring seafood and poultry are served, in order to encourage a productive start to the new year of employment. Speaking of seafood, try taking a ferry to nearby Lamma Island for a beachfront feast, where you choose your own seafood from dazzling displays.
Yau Ma Tei during this time is a special treat. Tofu vendors hawk great blocks of bean curd, live poultry and seafood are chosen and dispatched to order, butchers pushing wheelbarrows loaded with whole pig carcasses weave through the crowd, and dumpling vendors pinch off pieces of dough and deftly fold them into savory bundles.
There is also a collection of food stalls adjacent to the market, where you can feast on roasted meats, cheung fun (rice noodle sheets) stuffed with prawns, or congee for less than the price of a Happy Meal. For more cheap eats, don’t miss out on a bowl of HK’s famous wonton noodles; Mak’s Noodle Ltd. in the Central district (77 Wellington St., 2854 3810; there are also outlets in other districts) is the bomb and will set you back just a few bucks.
The best way to experience traditional new year’s foods, however, is to wrangle an invite to someone’s home, or gather a group for a banquet at one of Hong Kong’s better Cantonese restaurants, such as Tai Woo (locations in Causeway Bay, Tsim Sha Tsui–which has a concentration of fine-dining restaurants–and Shau Kei Wan), or Super Star Seafood (Kowloon and Tsim Sha Tsui). I love them both, and they’re 2010 winners in HK’s Best of the Best culinary awards. Both restaurants also have good dim sum although they aren’t traditional dim sum houses.
Hong Kong draws visitors from around the world for what is dubbed the International Chinese New Year. There are temples to visit, an over-the-top parade (best described as the bastard child of the Disneyland Main St. Electrical Parade, Superbowl Halftime, and an Asian game show), but it’s the fireworks display over Victoria Harbour that is truly one of the greatest spectacles I’ve ever beheld.
That stunning harbor, combined with the seemingly endless array of places to eat, drink, and shop; bustling streets pulsating with neon, and abundance of five-dollar foot rubs make HK a great place to spend a couple of hedonistic days, no matter what time of year it is. You can always start your new year’s resolutions when you get home.
For more information on Hong Kong and ICNY events, click here.
[Photo credit: Laurel Miller]