Lunar New Year Good Eats
Where to satisfy cravings for festive dishes if you don’t have a big group
For the holidays, my partner and I are delighted to have each other for company. In Macau, as in other parts of Asia, many Chinese-owned restaurants rest for the first three days of Lunar New Year so restauranteurs get to celebrate as well. Food preparations at home would commence a full week beforehand, as various gourmet dried specialties take time to rehydrate. Such would be traditional Cantonese celebration with large groups of family and friends. But alas, my mother’s extraordinary cooking talent is something I have not fully inherited. On Day 2 of Lunar New Year — the official day for the all important big lunch to kick off the year — what better way then to honor the occasion than to try our luck at one of the many excellent Cantonese restaurants in high end casino resorts, always open.
Why are dim sums irresistble? These heart-touching bite-sized goodies concentrate in a small basket or plate with a sole reason to exist: To please the person ever so fortunate to lay eyes on the few precious inches. I am definitely not talking about the usual shrimp dumplings, pork siu-mais and barbecued pork buns. The custom designed Lunar New Year treasures coming up are decidedly festive, and perfect for couples.
My choice of tea for celebrating this occasion is the famous oolong Da Hong Pao (大紅袍), “Big Red Robe” from the Wuyi Mountains. On completing the first pour, our tea sommelier presents the emptied small glass vessel for aroma appreciation. O gosh! I can get drunk on the fragrance alone. Notes of mountain orchids, other complex earthy elements with hints of the wild rock drift through the nose. Long, smooth and mellow. Lingering, sweet aftertaste. Perfectly roasted the traditional way with carefully controlled flames of the best pinewood. The legend is worth its salt (1). After all, what’s an outstanding dim sum experience without an equal pairing of tea?
Plump sundried oysters braised in oyster sauce come a full circle back to wholesomeness. A pair of these giant species royally present themselves in the center of the dim sum dish, with their loyal friend black sea moss cushioned in the middle, soaking up the flavorful sauce ready for the most discerning palate. For the occasion, Chef is excused for plating luxuriously with a cluster of edible gold leaves dancing on top of the ocean harvests. I look in fascination. New Year dishes are visual metaphors and auspicious puns. Black sea moss and oysters form a delicious pun for “Good Fortune and A Prosperous Society” (發財好市). The oysters yield pleasantly to the bite, with a texture like very moist cake packed with savory goodness, and a unique oceanic taste only possible from the sun and air-dry process. The Cantonese use of dried seafood originates from coastal abundance and preservation for winter months. This one is a version of the classic.
Next comes creative “Pouches of Fortune” (福包), literally full bundles of choice mushrooms and fine vegetable morsels in a tasty sauce, wrapped in bean curd skin, and secured with a ribbon of spring onion before steaming. Piping hot when served. One bite produces dripping satisfaction and all the comfort that eating well brings. Ahhh…How the chefs manage to hold all that and keep the bundle intact always gets my admiration. The pun for “Success in the East and the West” (東成西就), from the Cantonese pronunciation of shitake mushrooms （冬菇), speaks of historically robust international trade in Canton, where the Portuguese first set up a European trade post in 1500s (2). And of course, Canton (now called Guangzhou) being a terminus of the old Maritime Silk Road, its trade connection with the West goes way back to about 200 BCE (3).
Not to be missed is the all important chicken, essential for the virtuous symbol of courage, integrity, diligence, trustworthiness and kindness on every festive occasion. It feels good to pick up a piece with my chopsticks, loving the ritual.
I can’t take my eyes off the creative ruby gems — premium mini abalones nestling in taro paste, each fried in a golden bowl of flaky, super light coating. As my teeth sink into the incredibly tender yoke of the abalone and reach the layer of smooth taro paste, nutty aroma of the legume fills the mouth, adding a pleasurable variant to the unique, refined notes of the pristine sea waters. All this ties in with the airy crispness that crumbles on the palate. This particular dish “Booming Business with Great Aspirations” (大展鴻圖) plays on the pun “red”, pronounced the same way in Cantonese as “鴻”, which connotes “grand” or “booming”. Abalone (鮑魚) itself plays on the pun “Guaranteed Abundance”. And of course abalone comes with numerous health benefits, proven by no lack of research (4).
Preserved protein comes in the form of sausages as well. Morsels of these well-loved delicacies find their way into New Year puddings (糕點）— savorous turnip flavor and taro flavor. A stack of three appears like an Olympic award stand, topping with the classic sugar pudding（年糕）, a pun for “ascendence” or “promotion” (步步高升) . Eager to delve in, I cut them into bite-size pieces before remembering to take photos.
Always observing good balance, seasonal green sprouts make a good choice for leafy vegetables (菜), a pun for “green backs”. Only the tenderest top two leaves of the sprouts make it to this New Year dish, the rest saved for other use.
For a change of pace, our tea sommelier presents a conversation piece Lapsan Souchong (正山小種) (5), the world’s very first black tea, although the name Lapsan Souchang came much later. Originating in Tungmu Village of Fujian, China, in late Ming Dynasty, this Wuyi tea is no stranger to European royals. Portuguese Jesuits and merchants already “busied themselves” with Chinese tea in 1560 (6), shortly after entering Macau, but allegedly it was Dutch merchants who actually brought it to Europe in 1600s (7).
Serving this red brew in a clear glass tea bowl certainly adds to the festive mode. Fingering the jewel-like knob on top, the colorful accounts of a certain Scotsman Robert Fortune’s infamous corporate espionage (8) comes to mind. The antagonist landed in the tea farms of the Wuyi Mountains in late 1840s, donning a long, fake pigtail, Qing dynasty Chinese robes and all, absconded with tea seedlings, teaplants and secrets of the trade on behalf of the British East India Company, brought them to India in 1851 and fatally changed the fortune of the Chinese tea industry. I wonder how will the wheel of fortune turn next?
As to the tea itself, obvious high notes and unmistakable smoky flavor — a bit too smoky for my personal taste — make an interesting pairing for the desserts to come.
Chuckles ring all round at the sight of our New Year dessert. I can see Dim Sum Chef having fun decorating the warm buns as piggy banks. Salty-sweet, golden custard lava lavishly oozes when I break apart the gently steaming buns (豬仔黃金流沙飽). A very apt pun. Culturally the number of courses needs to be even, that is either six, eight, ten or twelve. A second dessert of spherical glutinous rice dumplings (湯圓) in red bean purée rounds up everything nicely, “圓” being a pun for “reunion” (團圓). Only auspicious thoughts during the New Year fortnight.
The past year has been challenging for every industry. It’s an understatement today to say surviving and maintaining high standards is not easy, not to speak of upgrading. I notice Michelin and other gourmet award institutes continue with their pursuits as well, showing full appreciation for those who so very much deserve recognition. Kudos!
(The author writes freely and does not represent any industry or brand name. Food and beverages were complimentary on the occasion above.)
Photo credit: All photos are by the author
Copyright PseuPending 2021
(1) Da Hong Pao —
(2) Portuguese trade post in Canton 1500s —
(3) Old Maritime Silk Road —
(4) Abalone Health Benefits —
(5) Lapsan Souchong Legend —
(6) Chinese Tea Introduced to Europe (Portuguese record 1560) — The World of Caffeine: The Science and Culture of the World’s Most Popular Drug. By Bennett Alan Weinberg, Bonnie K. Bealer, PH D Bennett Alan Weinberg, PH.D., Psychology Press 2001
(7) Tea Brought to Europe by Dutch Merchants 1600s —
The history of Dutch tea
Love a cup of tea? Then you're not alone - tea has remained a popular drink in China for thousands of years, and today…
(8) Robert Fortune tea espionage — For All the Tea in China: How England Stole the World’s Favorite Drink and Changed History. By Sarah Rose, Penguin Group 2010
Book Summary -