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Chinese Lunar New Year - What to eat in the Year of the Rat (not rat)

January 23, 2020

恭禧發財! Gong Hey Fat Choy, Wellington! This Chinese Lunar New Year takes place on 25 January, and in 2020 we are heralding the Year of the Rat. 

According to Chinese folklore, the rat is said to be the very first in the line-up of 12 Chinese astrological animals, thanks to its canny thinking and ability to be light on its feet. In the OG story, the gods held a decider race, in which the animals had to cross a river, to determine the order of the Chinese zodiac. The rat caught a ride on the ox's back across the river, and jumped off onto land, reaching the finish line before the ox could berth, and sealing the rat's number one status in the astrological line-up. As a result, this crafty little creature is symbolic of wealth and surplus in Chinese culture. 

If you want to lock down some of this ratty good fortune for yourself - regardless of what sign you are - we reckon you visit some of these Wellington restaurants to indulge in some Chinese New Year dishes and traditions that are sure to deliver. (Pro tip: put yourself in the firing line of the projectile lettuce. You'll know what this means soon enough.)

It goes without saying that Chinese New Year is a time for togetherness and feasting - lots of feasting. The fate of your upcoming year depends on it. Many dishes served during Chinese New Year are enjoyed with the belief you are securing health, wealth, prosperity and happiness, depending on what you are eating. 

We chatted to three Wellington restaurants about how they are celebrating the Lunar New Year, and what they were serving over the festival (25 Jan-8 Feb) to send everyone on their lucky way for the Year of the Rat. 

Dragons - Eric Kong, Dragons Front of House, and Shuping Chen, Dragons Restaurant Manager

How do you celebrate Chinese New Year at Dragons? 
Eric: Well, this is a family business, which means we are always together at the restaurant during Chinese New Year! Every year we have a variety of Lion Dances at Dragons, which is one of the most important traditions for Chinese New Year. It brings good fortune and keeps evil spirits away. 

We're hosting our Lion Dances this Chinese New Year on Saturday and Sunday. In the past, we've hosted a traditional Lion Dance called the Choi Chang (採青), which means “picking the greens”. The Lion has to jump up to reach the suspended lettuce head with a lucky red envelope attached to it with its mouth. The envelope is for the performers, but the lettuce head gets “chewed up” and ripped up inside the lion’s mouth, and then gets spat out and thrown around the restaurant. If you get hit by a piece of lettuce, that is very lucky! 

What special dishes are Dragons serving this year, and what do they symbolise? 
Shuping: We have a Chinese New Year Banquet menu, which is available for two weeks from 25 January. 

It’s really important to have fish every year at New Year, because the word for fish, (鱼), also sounds like yuè (余), which means you have savings that will be surplus for the following year. So, it’s like you have extra and plenty from the previous year to take you into the next year. 

This year one of our dishes is the steamed whole blue cod, and it’s cooked in a similar style to what you get in Hong Kong and Cantonese restaurants. We wanted to keep the flavours clean, fresh and simple - and complement the natural fresh flavours of the fish, and let that shine through. To let the natural flavours come through is very much in the style of Cantonese cooking. 

There’s also shellfish, pork, spring onions, ginger - really fresh flavours! And some capsicum to include the lucky colour, red. 

Eric: Also created especially for our Chinese New Year Banquet menu is the king prawn with assorted mushrooms and vermicelli noodles. This is a combination of New Zealand ingredients, with the seafood, and Asian ingredients with different mushrooms - enoki, shiitake and oyster. In Asian cooking it’s all about the texture as well as flavours - the crunchiness and softness. The vermicelli noodles represent longevity (if you’re Asian, you never cut noodles when you’re eating them because it means you are cutting life short!), and it soaks up all the flavours, so none of the sauce goes to waste.   

We really wanted to incorporate ingredients from the land, sea and air with our Banquet dishes. 

What is your Chinese astrological sign? 

Shuping: Uh... I think I’m Rooster? 

Eric: I’m Year of the Snake. 

What do you hope is in store for you in the Year of the Rat? 
Shuping: First of all, we really want to promote and share our Chinese culture through our food, and we really want to show the authentic side of Asian dining. There are lots of Europeans out there, who might not eat this fish, because they get put off by a whole fish on their plate, but we want to encourage them to try it. 

Eric: There are actually so many different Asian community groups out there, and many of them come here to Dragons. We want to be able to share the best of our culture with Wellington, so people can experience it authentically.  

In Asian cooking, we like to utilise all parts of the animal, fish or vegetables. In the old days, people didn’t find this unusual, but now many people won’t eat those parts. We want to encourage people to eat this way. Not only is it delicious - it’s better for sustainability. I always find the best part of the fish is the cheeks! 

Logan Brown - Shaun Clouston, Owner and Head Chef

Logan Brown is celebrating Chinese New Year for the first time - what dishes are you serving?
This year, we thought we would try something different and create a Chinese New Year tasting menu with eight courses - a lucky number in Chinese culture. We’ll be serving this on 25 January and we’ll also have a Chinese New Year Bistro menu from the 24 January until 2 February. All the dishes are symbolic of attributes such as prosperity, health, love and wealth. 
I’m very excited about the dessert, which will have peaches in it, since peaches are a symbol of health and longevity. It’ll be a Chinese take on the classic Peach Melba, featuring lovely some red colours, and instead of using Chinese five spice, we’re going to use eight because of that lucky number! 

We’ve also been practicing with our hand-pulled noodles, which are also symbolic of longevity We’ve been practicing… though I think we need more practice! Might have to go down to Taste of Home for a few lessons. 

What is your Chinese zodiac sign? 
I’m Year of the Rat, and so are [Logan Brown partners] Steve [Logan] and Deb! So given the three of us are rats, we thought it was a perfect time to recognise our Chinese Kiwi whānau.

What do you hope is in store for you in the Year of the Rat? 
I’ve already read my forecast for this year, and by the sounds of things, it’s looking like a good one in store for me! I don’t know about the new love interest, though… Rebecca [Shaun’s wife] might get a bit upset. But, y’know, it’s all written in the stars, so there won’t be much I can do about it! 

Monsoon Poon - Albert Zhang, Head Chef

What special Chinese New Year dishes are Monsoon Poon serving and how are these dishes symbolic to Chinese New Year?
We’re serving Chinese rice cakes, which is a traditional New Year dish. The red is for good luck, and in this case, this dish is made with tomato and tomato paste, and it symbolises nian gao - which means “a higher year”. So you eat this in the hope that the coming year will top the previous year. This is especially relevant to business. 

We are also serving fresh, whole steamed fish. It’s really important to serve fish as part of New Year dinners, because it symbolises surplus and having plenty. We can’t get Chinese fish here, so we’re using something very local with tarakihi, and serving it with a seafood sauce, lots of scallions, ginger and coriander. My favourite part of the fish is the cheeks! 

What is your Chinese astrological sign? 
I’m the Year of the Dog! I think that was a couple of years ago. 

What Chinese New Year traditions do you celebrate with your family? 
We all gather together, and watch programmes that celebrate Chinese New Year on TV. Then at midnight we all eat dumplings together. 

What do you hope is in store for you in the Year of the Rat? 
It would be great to get a hat for the restaurant. Because I would love [for Monsoon Poon] to be the first Asian restaurant in Wellington to get a hat!

恭禧發財! Gong Hey Fat Choy, Wellington! Get out and try these dishes over the Lunar New Year festival between 25 January - 8 February (check with each restaurants to confirm how long they will be serving their New Year dishes).

Other Welly spots that have special Chinese New Year culinary offerings: 

- Hot Sauce - Hippopotamus' Award-winning Executive Chef, Jiwon Do, has designed a special Chinese New Year menu, reflecting a strong, prosperous and lucky year ahead. 

- Lashings - Patisserie chef, Jackie Lee Morrison, shares her favourite Chinese New Year sweet treat, nian go, with Wellington. "It's a super traditional brown sugar glutinous rice flour cake that is steamed, then coated in egg and fried. It's traditionally served at Chinese New Year because it's sticky, signifying how families stick together." Pop in and try one! 

- Wellington Chinese New Year events - There are loads of cultural events taking place in Wellington over Chinese New Year, kicking off on 25 January and running until 2 February. Check them out and get amongst the festivals, food, performances, fireworks, parades and workshops!