Chinese New Year is a feast of food and fun

It lasts for 15 days, is loud, colourful and mouth-watering... CHRIS McGINLEY reveals how Chinese people in Cork will be celebrating New Year next month
Chinese New Year is a feast of food and fun

Juan Ning, who teaches Chinese at UCC, says finding the right fish is important for a Chinese New Year meal

ALREADY failed to keep your New Year’s resolutions? Relax, there’s another New Year coming up to give you a second chance!

Chinese New Year, or spring festival as it’s also known, falls on February 16 this year, marking the beginning of the Year of the Dog.

Celebrated by millions of people around the world, Chinese New Year is a loud, colourful and superstitious event that traditionally continues for 15 days!

It’s loud because of the fireworks and firecrackers traditionally let off at midnight to scare away a monster called Nian, who spends the rest of the year asleep. No single hour in any other country on the planet sees as many tons of fireworks used as in China at midnight on their New Year, and the streets will remain littered with used firecrackers for the first two days of the New Year, as sweeping them away is believed to sweep away good luck.

It’s colourful because of the lucky properties of the colour red. Everything will be decorated with it — red clothes, red firecrackers, red envelopes containing money given as gifts, and red signs hanging on either side of every door in every house.

And it’s superstitious because everything done during the celebrations has a meaning. Nothing is random when it comes to Chinese New Year, especially the food. There are noodles for longevity, nian gao (sticky rice cake) if you’re looking for a promotion, and rice porridge should be avoided, because it’s seen as a poor person’s food, and people don’t want to start the year poor.

So how will Chinese people in Cork be celebrating their New Year next month? I spoke to some to find out... and discovered that food really is the focal point.

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May O’Donovan, of SensAsian Food, will prepare ten courses for a Chinese New Year banquet for her family and friends in Cork. BELOW: A sample of some of May’s dishes and some ornaments to mark New Year
May O’Donovan, of SensAsian Food, will prepare ten courses for a Chinese New Year banquet for her family and friends in Cork. BELOW: A sample of some of May’s dishes and some ornaments to mark New Year

May O’Donovan, whose West Cork name hides her Hong Kong origins, will first clean her house from top to bottom in the days before February 16, to wash away bad luck.

“Then I go shopping,” she says. “In Hong Kong, you can buy flowers and red and gold decorations — the decorations must be bright, very bright and cheerful.”

May, of SensAsian Foods, will also stock up with lots of food because she will be cooking a big meal for her family and a few Irish and Chinese friends this year.

“It’s all about food, family and friends,” said May. “The main lunch on New Year’s Day will have at least ten courses. The first dish is usually vegetarian, but after that there will be many dishes, different meats, seasonal vegetables, radish pudding, sweets and pastries,” she said.

“The food eaten on New Year’s Day is different, it takes a lot of work so therefore it’s special. Most of the dishes would take too much work to do on normal days,” she explained.

“The women always cook. It’s like a competition, if their food gets the most praise then they are happy and can boast about it for the rest of the year,” she laughs.

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Juan Ning will host a meal in her home for Chinese New Year, with her special recipe for pork ribs
Juan Ning will host a meal in her home for Chinese New Year, with her special recipe for pork ribs

Juan Ning, from Chengdu in south-west China, will host a New Year meal in her home for some Chinese friends living in Cork.

“Last week, I ordered fresh pork ribs from the butcher to make my favourite dish, my mom’s recipe for sweet and sour pork ribs,” she said.

‘In Chengdu, we like spicy food. Spicy hotpot and sausages are popular there.

“At home, my mom always cooks our New Year dinner and usually starts the preparations a week in advance.

“On our New Year’s dinner table we always have a whole chicken, a whole fish, and vegetables.”

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Guo Wen, from Henan in the centre of China, is a Chinese teacher in UCC and self-confessed foodie. She explained that the different regions in China have different foods.

“In the north, dumplings are most important,’ she said. ‘There will be a lot eaten around New Year, but it is important to make sure that they are eaten at three special times. Once for dinner on New Year’s Eve, then at midnight just as the year changes, and then again for lunch on New Year’s Day.’

Guo will be celebrating in a restaurant a few days beforehand with some of her work colleagues.

“Many people prefer to go to a restaurant nowadays, the cooking for New Year is just too much work,” she said. “You need to book at least two months in advance to get a table in a restaurant in China for New Year’s lunch.”

She is also planning to cook a small meal at her home for some of her students, if she can find the right fish.

“Fish is very important; the New Year’s meal must have at least one fish dish. The Chinese word for fish sounds like the word for surplus, so you eat fish in the hope of having some money left over at the end of the year.”

Chinese New Year is a great celebration for children too. Not only do they get to stay up late to set off firecrackers, they are given red envelopes stuffed with money and there is all the sweets and fried food.

“Fried food is easy to cook in advance, so there will always be plenty around throughout the day,” Guo said.

The New Year festival runs from February 15 until March 2 and each day of the celebration has its own traditions, such as a day for visiting in-laws or a day for staying home to welcome good fortune.

The lantern festival marks the end of the celebrations, an event that sees the skies over China and much of south-east Asia filled with red paper lanterns.

During the Lantern Festival everyone eats tangyuan, as it’s called in the south, or yuanxiao in the north. These are sticky rice balls which can have sweet fillings.

“The round shape of the balls symbolises family togetherness, and eating them is meant to bring the family happiness and good luck in the new year,” explained Guo.

So, at midnight on New Year, listen for the sound of firecrackers, on March 2 watch for any lanterns that may drift past, and for luck, you might want to sleep with something red under your pillow on New Year’s Eve.

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