The year of the water snake starts on Sunday. Are you prepared?
Happy Chinese New Year, Toronto! This Sunday is the start of the year of the water snake. Chinese communities around the GTA are gearing up for the accompanying 15-day festival.
Saturday is New Year’s Eve, which is normally the big kick-off. Lantern Day, the last day of the celebration, is February 24.
If you’re Chinese, none of this is news to you. On behalf of everyone else though, we checked in with Shirley Lum, a culinary historian who gives food tours of Chinatown. She told us about some of the traditional foods eaten during the New Year, what they symbolize, and where, in Toronto, to get them. (If you’re feeling down on your luck, a plate of dumplings this weekend might turn things around, although we’d advise eating dumplings at almost any time of year.) Lum also tipped us off that grocers go all-out to get top-notch meat and produce, so this is a particularly good time of year to go food shopping in Chinatown and at Asian supermarkets like T&T.
Our guide to Chinese New Year treats is below.
Gōng Xǐ Fā Cái!
What it means: A Confucian law says, “There is a beginning, a middle, and an end to everything.” This is embodied by the chicken. It symbolizes family reunion, as millions of people travel great distances to reunite with their families for the holiday. It also stands for peace and harmony and is a symbol of health—like you, the chicken is to remain in one piece (until being served, that is).
What it tastes like: Traditionally, the chicken is boiled or steamed, but it can be roasted or prepared in other ways. It’s usually paired with ginger and onion, but this varies regionally.
Where to get it: Lum says any meat and barbeque spot will have plenty of chickens, but make sure to grab one before they’re all snatched up.
What it means: The shape of the dumplings resembles a kind of antique Chinese currency. They also look similar to coin purses. The idea, basically, is to put your money where your mouth is.
What it tastes like: Lum notes that people eat both savoury dumplings and sweet dumplings. Shrimp and pork is a popular filling (pork signifies bounty). Sweet dumplings tend to be fried and stuffed with coconut (long life), sugar (happiness), and peanuts (prosperity).
Where to get it: Any Asian grocery store will have these in the frozen and refrigerated sections. Visit T&T, Chinatown, Foody Market in Scarborough, or another Chinese food destination.
What it means: The whole fish is associated with money and the aforementioned Confucian law of wholeness. Lum says that seeing an animal in its whole form is a way to respect it.
What it tastes like: Chinese New Year is celebrated all over the world, from Mauritius to Inner Mongolia, so the dish reflects local tastes. Places that are far from water, like Szechuan, might fry the fish, whereas coastal regions will opt for a fresher taste.
Where to get it: Fishmongers and grocery stores. Lum notes that no particular fish is sought after, but it must be a whole fish.
What it means: Any fruit that is golden yellow is a sweet way to end a meal. The word for kumquat in Chinese sounds like “gold money,” but tangerines, mandarins, clementines, oranges, apples, and pomelos are also popular, both because of their colour and because of their ability to balance out several protein-heavy dishes. If you’re looking to score a hefty red envelope from your favourite Chinese relative, offer them three pieces of a type of fruit, as three is the number of respect.
What it tastes like: Come on! You know the answer to this.
Where to get it: Head over to Dragon City, Pacific Mall, T&T, or Chinatown and pick up a kumquat tree. The fruit ripens quickly in warm houses and provides “gold money” throughout the New Year.
Sesame Seed Balls
What it means: Held in a certain light, these gem-like desserts look like glistening gold nuggets.
What it tastes like: Chinese pastries are sweet, but not too sweet. The balls are dense and maybe a bit cake-like. They’re coasted with sesame seeds, which gives them a nice, nutty flavour.
Where to get it: Pop into Dragon City or any other large establishment and you’ll see many pop-up vendors selling traditional New Year sweets on the main floor. Pick up a $3 box mixed with pig ears (a flat, ribbon-like cookie), and firecrackers (sugar-coated crispy sticks that come in the colours of the New Year: red for happiness and luck, green for long life, and gold for prosperity).