Chinese New Year 2024: Traditional dishes, whisky and cocktails - how chefs and foodies will celebrate the Year of the Dragon
It is an annual celebration marked by a 15-day festival that coincides with the arrival of the first new moon. But just how important is food to Chinese New Year, also known as the Spring Festival?
The ancient festival, running between January 21 and February 20, is celebrated by Asian communities around the world, with 2024 marking the year of the dragon. And as Nick Kwek, technology journalist, filmmaker and host of BBC’s Discovering The World's Table, says, the celebrations are "usually always centred around food”.
With this in mind, how are people in Scotland celebrating and what’s traditionally eaten during this festive time?
Glasgow chef Jimmy Lee said: “Traditionally we would have a family Chinese banquet. We would have steamed seabass with ginger and spring onion. There is a very symbolic reason behind having steamed whole fish. It signifies having saved enough throughout the year and having enough saved to bring forward to the New Year.
"We also have Chinese dumplings as they resemble money pouches. This symbolises prosperity and wealth. I personally love having roast duck at Chinese New Year. The delicate crispy duck skin goes so well with the sweet and hoisin flavoured juicy duck.”
Similarities can be drawn between this time and Christmas, as the focus is on family, friends and food. This year Glasgow chef and TV presenter Julie Lin will be celebrating with a dumpling party. She said: “I am just having a few friends around, and we’re going to have dumplings that we’re going to make together, which will be quite fun. It’s always the best way, especially if I am not celebrating with family, to get everyone involved instead of me just putting on a spread.”
In the past, Lin and her family would often go to SeeWoo – a now closed Asian supermarket in Glasgow – to watch both the dragon dance and fireworks. This year, after entertaining friends, the chef will fly to Malaysia to spend time with family where they will eat traditional food such as prosperity salad – where the ingredients for the salad are tossed as high up in the air as possible – to signify good luck.
She said: “In Malaysia, we have fish quite a lot. We have whole fish, steamed with spring onions, ginger and dried mushrooms. We also have dumplings, which we make with seven pleats in them as that signifies luck.
"In my family, because my uncle is married to a Portuguese Malaysian woman, they’ll bring devil’s curry, which is often eaten at Christmas. But because it’s a celebratory dish, they’ll bring that over.”
While there is cooking done at home, Lin explained that in Malaysia, there is a tradition to order items in from hawker stalls. “We have ordered in oyster omelette and satay sticks before,” she said. “We are Chinese Malay, but we lean quite a bit into the Malay Indonesian food for new year.”
When asked if it’s similar to cooking Christmas dinner, Lin said: “I just don't feel like there's that same pressure like ‘oh my God, like I'm having all my family around for Lunar New Year, what am I going to do?’ It is a bit more casual than that, which is nice.”
For Kwek, his family will gather and enjoy traditional fare made with local Fife produce. He said: “It means getting together and having a big pot luck dinner where each of us makes a separate dish or several dishes. Usually my dad George makes his signature crispy roast pork – his favourite – which this year we're getting from The Butchery at Bowhouse.
"My eldest sister Caroline makes Peking Duck and jumbo spring rolls. The spring rolls she makes reminds me so much of when we used to make them together at my dad's Chinese Malaysian take-away The Wok & Spice in St Monans.
"This year I'll be making steamed seabass with ginger and spring onion, sweet and sour pork and BBQ spare ribs. We might also have some siew mei dim sum for the young nieces and nephews as it's their favourite. My other sister Natalie will make Yee Sang, also known as prosperity salad. This is traditional Chinese-Malaysian, a Chinese new year specific dish, which involves everyone getting involved in a circle and with ceremony chanting and tossing the salad with chopsticks. It's really fun and officially marks the beginning of the feast – a bit like an address to the haggis at Burns Night..”
When it comes to drinks, Lin said a lot of her family parties in Malaysia ended with whisky. But Lee said: “We often have Bijou (a musky sweet Chinese liqueur). This is apparently the world's most drunk spirit. Culturally drinking bijou during the New Year is a symbol of good fortune.”
Non-alcoholic drinks could be the ever popular bubble tea, with shops becoming more mainstream in Scotland in recent years. Kwek said his family may also be reaching for the fizz or some cocktails, saying: “Usually we drink jasmine tea with the meal, but in recent years have had champagne. But this year I'm planning on livening things up with some fresh lychee and cranberry martinis.”
As for memories of Chinese New Year’s celebrations gone by, Kwek said: “I'll always remember the exotic, foreign, strange smells coming out the busy kitchen at my auntie's house and being always surprised by the many different dishes that were prepared, sometimes taking days to make in anticipation of the feast. Chinese music was playing in the background, that undeniable flute instrument and plucking of strings – you felt you were in a different world, a far-flung place.”
The Year of the Dragon is said to bring growth, abundance and progress and is the symbol of success, intelligence and passion. As Kwek said: “Fingers crossed the Zodiac is right and we can all have a wonderful year to remember.”
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