5 Dishes to Help You Usher in the Year of the Rabbit (or Chinese New Year!)
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Chinese New Year is upon us, and there’s no better way to celebrate it than with these classic dishes.
How Did Chinese New Year Come About?
The festival of Chinese New Year is steeped in myth, history, superstition, and symbolism. By some accounts, it emerged at the time of the Shang dynasty (1600-1046 BC), when sacrificial events were held to honor ancestors or deities at the beginning or end of the year.
Origins in Myth
Its roots in mythology stem from an interesting story that symbolizes human victory over destruction. According to legend, a beast called Nian used to raid villages at the start of each year, eating crops, livestock, and humans in the dead of night. Villagers would put out food on their doorsteps for the beast, hoping to satisfy its hunger, but they still weren't spared.
Then a wise old man discovered that the beast was scared of bright lights, loud noises, and the color red. He set off firecrackers and strung up red paper and the village was miraculously unharmed. From then on, people wore red clothes, hung red spring scrolls and red lanterns from their doors and windows, and used bamboo, firecrackers, and drums to scare Nian away. Till today, Chinese New Year is marked by these practices.
It was the Han dynasty (202 BC to 220 AD) that fixed the first day of the first month of the Chinese lunar calendar as the date of the new year festival. The Wei and Jin dynasties that followed popularized the practice of honoring ancestors and deities. Families cleaned their homes and engaged in night-long revelry on New Year's eve.
Over time, bursting firecrackers, visiting friends and family, and eating dumplings, all became an integral part of the New Year celebrations. The Spring Festival's religious purpose was replaced by a social one.
Cut to modern times. In 1928, the Kuomintang Party that ruled China, decided that Chinese New Year would coincide with the Gregorian calendar on January 1. However, people opposed this plan and it was nixed. Later, in 1967, during the Cultural Revolution, a ban was imposed on official Chinese New Year celebrations. These thankfully resumed in 1980.
All About the Year of the Rabbit
The rabbit symbolizes peace in Chinese culture. Although the preceding year (of the Tiger) was a period of action, and sometimes impulsive action, the Year of the Rabbit is expected to be a calmer period. People, therefore, need to act in accordance with the peaceful energy that the year brings, and decision-making needs to be conservative and reflective.
The rabbit also stands for cautiousness and intelligence, and people would be advised to approach their tasks in a clever and deliberate manner like the rabbit. The animal's speed and charm are good omens drawing in money, partnership, and success.
The rabbit also embodies empathy, a trait borne out by Chinese and Buddhist lore. According to one story, an old man and a child once lost their way in the wilderness and had nothing to eat. They were cold, hungry, and miserable. The Buddha then appeared to them in the form of a rabbit, lit a fire, and jumped into it to provide them with food.
The animal signs of the Chinese Zodiac repeat every 12 years. 2011 was the last Year of the Rabbit; 2035 will be the next one.
Traditional Chinese New Year Celebrations
Chinese New Year celebrations usually span 16 days, beginning on the eve of Chinese New Year and closing with the Lantern Festival. People have a week-long public holiday during this time.
Chinese New Year is a time to honor deities and ancestors. Families get together, clean their homes, buy new clothes, and prepare elaborate meals. Tea, fruits, candy, and alcohol are given as gifts, and children receive red envelopes stuffed with money.
Reunion dinners -- which take place on New Year's eve in everyone's laojia or hometown -- are the most important part of the New Year celebrations. Several generations gather around the dinner table, and the scene is one of warmth and bonding.
Food and drink, of course, take centerstage. 'Lucky' dishes like dumplings (symbolizing wealth) and fish (symbolizing abundance) are must-haves, while Baijiu (Chinese rice wine) is a staple too. After the feast, people burst firecrackers and ring the New Year bell at midnight.
Symbolism is everywhere. People believe that cleaning their house before the New Year rids it of the bad luck of the old one. Sweeping on the first day of the New Year may cause you to sweep your luck away, which is why cleaning has to be done the day before. Washing one's hair or clothes on New Year's Day is also prohibited as it may lead to 'washing fortunes away'.
Tradition calls for avoiding certain practices like cutting one's hair, borrowing money, or buying or gifting books during this time. The first day of the New Year is said to set the stage for the rest of the year.
5 Recipes to Ring in the Chinese New Year
Food plays an important part in Chinese New Year celebrations, with dishes assigned symbolic meaning. For instance, apples stand for wisdom and peace; bananas symbolize a wish for education and brilliance at work or school; carrots stand for good fortune; eggs and duck stand for fertility; meatballs for reunion; and so on.
Offerings of food are also made to ancestors and venerated entities like the Kitchen God and the Jade Emperor. Food offerings are believed to bring humans close to the other world.
Food is also about feasting and making New Year celebrations memorable. Noodles, steamed fish, sticky riceballs, and dumplings are central to Chinese New Year meals. Here are a couple of outstanding recipes that feature these ingredients.
Cantonese Style Steamed Fish
As we mentioned earlier, the fish symbolizes abundance in Chinese culture. In fact, the Chinese word for fish sounds a lot like the word for abundance. This makes fish a popular Chinese New Year staple. This flavourful Cantonese-style steamed fish recipe is a light main course that's extremely easy to prepare.
- 450g of firm white fish fillets (use cod, sole, or salmon fillets, or whole fish like turbot or sole)
- 1.5 tablespoons of finely shredded fresh ginger
- 1 teaspoon of plain salt or coarse sea salt
For the garnish-
- 3 tablespoons of finely shredded spring onions
- 1 tablespoon of groundnut oil
- 2 tablespoons of Kikkomann soy sauce (naturally-brewed soy sauce containing wheat, soybeans, water, and salt)
- 1 cup of fresh coriander sprigs
- 2 teaspoons of sesame oil
- Remove the fish gills if using whole fish. Use kitchen paper to pat the whole fish or fillets dry. Rub both sides with salt and set aside for half an hour. This allows the fish flesh to firm up and any excess moisture is drawn out.
- Set a steamer up or place a rack in a deep pan or wok and fill it with two inches of water. Bring the water to a boil over a high flame. Place the fish on a heat-resistant plate. Evenly spread the ginger on top. Place the plate containing the fish onto the rack or into the steamer.
- Tightly cover the pan and steam the fish gently till it's just cooked. Flat fish will take around five minutes to cook. Thicker fish or fillets will cook in 12-14 minutes.
- Remove the plate containing the cooked fish and sprinkle the soy sauce and spring onions.
- Take a small saucepan and heat the groundnut and sesame oil together. When the oils turn hot and start smoking, pour them over the fish.
- Garnish with coriander sprigs and serve.
Poached Pork Dumplings
Dumplings, or jiaozi in Mandarin, symbolize wealth. Jiaozi resembles Ming-era gold ingots and are therefore connected with prosperity. Want to feel like a wealthy Mandarin? Here's an easy route to that 'rolling-in-dough' feeling!
For the jiaozi dough-
- 150g of all-purpose flour
- 0.25 teaspoon of salt
- 280ml of cold water
For the filling-
- 175g of ground pork
- 1 teaspoon of salt
- 1 tablespoon of soy sauce
- 1 teaspoon of sugar
- 1 pinch of white pepper (freshly ground), to taste
- 1 tablespoon of Shaoxing rice wine
- 3 tablespoons of sesame oil
- 2 slices of finely minced fresh ginger
- 1 finely chopped spring onion
- 2 finely chopped coriander stems
- 1 clove of peeled and finely diced garlic
- Stir the salt into the all-purpose flour. Stir in the cold water slowly. Add as much water as is necessary to make a smooth dough. Knead the dough using your hand into a smooth ball. Cover the dough. Set it aside to rest for around half an hour.
- While the dough rests, prepare the filling. Take a large-sized mixing bowl or blender and add salt, soy sauce, sugar, white pepper, and rice wine to the meat. Mix well. Add any unused ingredients and mix thoroughly.
- Now knead the dough into a smooth ball. Roll it into a shape resembling a long sausage and then pull off around one-inch pieces in order to form the dumpling skins. Roll each piece into thin circles measuring around three inches in diameter. Around 30 dumplings can be made from the dough.
- Place a small portion (one level tablespoon) of the filling in the middle of each wrapper (dumpling skin). Moisten the edges of the rolled dough with water. Fold the dough into a half-moon shape over the filling. Pinch the edges to seal. Continue this process with the rest of the dumplings. This is the basic dumpling shape, though different shapes can also be made.
- To cook the dumplings, bring water to a boil in a large-sized pot. Add half the dumplings to the water, and give them a little stir to ensure that they don't stick together. Bring the water to a boil again and add 100ml of cold water to it. Cover and repeat. The dumplings are ready when they come to a boil the third time. Drain and remove. Serve with shredded ginger.
Hainanese Chicken Rice
Chicken is a highly auspicious food in China, with the Chinese pronunciation for 'chicken' sounding similar to the Chinese word for prosperity and good luck. Hainanese chicken has its origins in the southwest Chinese province of Hainan and has now spread to Singapore, Hong Kong, Thailand, and Malaysia. This dish is prepared differently in each country, but the common denominator is poached chicken.
For the chicken-
- 1 whole chicken weighing around 3 pounds (fat-trimmed and set aside)
- 2 large, roughly chopped spring onions (scallions)
- 50g of thinly sliced fresh ginger root
- 4 large smashed garlic cloves
- 1 teaspoon of chicken stock powder or 1/2 chicken stock cube (optional)
- 1 teaspoon of sea salt
- 2 thinly sliced spring onions (scallions), to garnish
For the rice-
- 1 teaspoon of vegetable oil
- 1 tablespoon of grated fresh ginger root
- 1 teaspoon of grated garlic
- 1 small finely diced onion
- 400g of basmati rice (rinsed in cold water and drained)
For the spring onion and ginger sauce-
- 30g of finely chopped fresh ginger root
- 1 teaspoon of sea salt
- 60g of finely chopped spring onions (scallions)
- 90ml of vegetable oil
- Cut excess skin off the chicken. Reserve it to be fried with the rice later.
- Bring water to a boil in a large-sized saucepan. Ensure that the water is sufficient to submerge the chicken. Place the chicken breast side down in the pan. Bring to a boil. Simmer for five minutes. Scoop any leftover scum from the surface of the pan.
- Put the spring onions, ginger, garlic, chicken stock powder/crumbled stock cube, and salt in the pan. Simmer over a medium flame for 30-35 minutes till the chicken is cooked.
- Lift the chicken out carefully and allow it to cool. Retain the poaching broth. After the chicken has cooled down, chop it into chunks with a cleaver or a sharp knife.
- Take a saucepan and heat vegetable oil over a high flame. Add the chicken skin trimmings and fry them till they turn crispy. Add the ginger, onion, and garlic and toss in the drained basmati rice. Mix till the rice is thoroughly coated.
- From the poaching broth add four ladles of the chicken stock to the rice. Bring to a simmer and once the water is absorbed, add more ladles of chicken stock till the rice is cooked. Around 600ml of poaching broth will be needed. Don't stir too much or the rice may get sticky. Cover to make sure the rice stays warm and steaming.
- To prepare the sauce, take a heatproof bowl and mix salt, ginger, and spring onions. Pour vegetable oil into a small flameproof pot and bring the oil to a boil. When you see the surface ripple, you can be sure that the oil has reached its boiling point. Alternatively, you can insert a wooden spoon into the oil and look for bubbles. Pour the boiling oil over the bowl containing spring onion and ginger.
- Plate up the chicken, rice, and sauce and serve.
Chicken Chow Mein
Everybody loves chow mein. This is a classic, delicious dish that can be prepared in no time, which makes it a favorite at Chinese New Year celebrations. Don't forget to slurp your noodles whole though, that's what tradition demands!
- 225g of fresh or dried egg noodles
- 5 dried red chilies
- 4 tablespoons of sesame oil
- 100g of skinless and boneless chicken breast cut into fine 2-inch pieces
- 1 tablespoon of finely chopped garlic
- 2.5 tablespoons of groundnut oil
- 50g of finely shredded mangetout
- 2 teaspoons of light soy sauce
- 50g of finely shredded Parma Ham or regular cooked ham
- 2 teaspoons of dark soy sauce
- 1 teaspoon of salt
- 1 tablespoon of Shaoxing rice wine or dry sherry
- 0.5 teaspoon of freshly ground white pepper
- 3 tablespoons of finely chopped spring onions
- 0.5 teaspoon of sugar
For the marinade-
- 2 teaspoons of light soy sauce
- 1 teaspoons of sesame oil
- 2 teaspoons of Shaoxing rice wine or dry sherry
- 0.5 teaspoons of freshly ground white pepper
- 0.5 teaspoons of salt
- Place the noodles in boiling water in a large-sized pan and cook for 3-5 minutes. Drain and plunge the noodles into cold water. Thoroughly drain, and toss the noodles with 3 teaspoons of sesame oil. Set aside.
- Add the marinade ingredients to the chicken shreds. Mix thoroughly and leave to marinate for around 10 minutes.
- Heat a wok over a high flame. Add a tablespoon of groundnut oil to the wok and when the oil turns very hot and slightly smoking, add the chicken pieces. Stir fry for around 2 minutes. Transfer the mixture to a plate and wipe the wok clean.
- Reheat the wok till it turns very hot. Pour in the remaining groundnut oil. Add the garlic when the groundnut oil is slightly smoking. Stir fry for 10 seconds. Add the ham and mangetout. Stir fry for around a minute.
- Add the soy sauces, noodles, rice wine/sherry, pepper, salt, spring onions, and sugar. Stir fry the mixture for 2 minutes.
- Put the chicken and any juices back into the noodle mixture. Stir fry the mixture for around 3-4 minutes or till the chicken gets cooked.
- Pour in the remaining sesame oil. Stir the mixture a few more times and serve.
Kung Pao Roasted Broccoli
Chinese broccoli symbolizes harmony, and the roasted broccoli in this Chinese-American dish perfectly harmonizes with the sweet and savory umami sauce in a way that's sure to make this one of the stars of your dinner table.
For the broccoli-
- 60ml of vegetable oil
- 0.2 teaspoon of cayenne pepper, or more to taste
- 1 tablespoon of sesame oil
- 1 pinch of salt and black pepper (freshly ground)
- 900g of broccoli (around 2 smallish heads), cut into florets, stems peeled, and sliced into 0.2-inch rounds
For the kung pao sauce-
- 60ml of Thai sweet chili sauce
- 2 tablespoons of oyster sauce
- 2 tablespoons of sesame oil
- 2 tablespoons of vegetable oil
- 1.5 tablespoons of sriracha (hot sauce made from a paste of distilled vinegar, chili peppers, garlic, salt, and sugar)
- 1 tablespoon of soy sauce
- 1 tablespoon of unseasoned rice vinegar
- 2 cloves of finely minced garlic
- 40g of roasted peanuts (chopped and salted)
- 1 thinly sliced spring onion
- 1 red or green fresh jalapeno (sliced into rings)
- Preheat the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Whisk vegetable oil, cayenne pepper, and sesame oil together in a bowl.
- Toss broccoli into the oil. Generously season with pepper and salt.
- Put the broccoli on a large-rimmed baking sheet. Spread the broccoli out in one layer. Roast for 20-25 minutes till the edges of the broccoli are crisp and blackened.
- Meanwhile, prepare the sauce. In a medium-sized bowl, whisk all the sauce ingredients together.
- Take the broccoli out of the oven and toss it with the sauce on to the pan directly.
- Turn up the oven to high or place the sheet beneath a hot grill. Cook the broccoli for 4-5 minutes till the sauce turns bubbling and thick.
- Transfer to a platter, and garnish with spring onion, peanuts, and jalapeno. Serve.