Happy Chinese New Year!
Like the New Year being an important festival in the West, Chinese New Year (CNY) is the most important of the traditional Chinese holidays. However, unlike the New Year which occurs on every 1st January, CNY has no fixed date as it begins on the first day of the first month in the traditional Chinese calendar, a lunisolar calender which incorporates elements of both a lunar, and a solar calendar. It ends on the 15th day with with the Lantern Festival.
According to myths and legends, the beginning of Chinese New Year started with a fight against a mythical best called the Nian. It would come on the first day of New Year to disrupt the lives of the villages by eating their livestock, crops and even children. In fear, villages would prepare food in front of their doors, hoping that the Nian would be satisfied after eating and spare their lives. But in vain, as it continued to attack more people. One day, people saw that the Nian was scared away by a little child who was wearing red. It then occurred to them that the Nian was afraid of the color red. Villagers thus hung red lanterns, red spring scrolls on windows and doors, while some used firecrackers to frighten the Nian away. From then on, Nian never came to the village again. Red has since become the color of CNY.
This year being the Dragon Year, there are increasingly many customs and superstitions surrounding this time of the year – such as the giving of red packets, being totally fresh, not being clumsy and keeping your temper – as the Dragon is the most powerful in the Chinese Zodiac, and all over the world is a symbol of power and imperial authority. Historically, more babies are born in the Dragon Year as some Chinese families believe them to be smarter, more successful and lucky.
Most importantly and traditionally, a reunion dinner is held on the eve of CNY. In the past, before modern and affordable forms of transportation came along, it was difficult for family members living in various parts of China to return to their hometowns more than once a year. Thus, reunion dinner was especially important as it was the only time where members of the family would come and spend time together. Reunion dinner would be extremely sumptuous, traditionally starting with Yu Sheng, and including a whole fish, chicken or duck, noodles, and ending with Nian Gao. It would usually be held at the home of the most senior member of the family (In China, every store and restaurant would be close. But in Singapore, I guess dining outside is not unusual).
I had my reunion dinner last night at Lei Garden @ CHIJMES. We’ve come here often, and even at the one at Hong Kong, for their traditional Cantonese cuisine and we’ve never left disappointed. Lei Garden is one of the oldest and the best Chinese restaurant chains worldwide. It was founded in 1973, and has often been nicknamed the Shao Lin Shi – a famous Chinese Monastery where premier kungfu skills were taught – of the food and beverage sector. Mr Chan Shu Kit, founder and chairman of the Lei Garden Restaurant Group, has also been hailed as the “principal” by veterans in the field.
Lei Garden has an interesting history. When Mr Chan was young, his family residence was well patronized by exquisite cuisines prepared by master chefs. These culinary experience engendered an acute sense for gourmet food and a higher than usual expectation for what is being served. He often told people that while others eat to live, he lives to eat. Despite not having went to culinary school, or having the knowledge in marketing strategies and production skills, he desired to open a restaurant that not only serves the best, but healthy food. Lei Garden Chinese Restaurant finally opened in 1973 in Shamshuipo, Hong Kong.
However, Mr Chan suffered a loss of over 2 million dollars in the first 6 years of operation. But he never gave up. He began learning to cook himself and looking for experienced professional help in the field. Also, it became a rule to have food tasting session every afternoon to maintain the standards and improve the existing menu based on customer’s feedbacks. In recent years, dishes from all over China and the World has been infused into the traditional Cantonese menu, making Lei Garden one of the pioneers in Fusion Dishes in Hong Kong. Thus with Mr Chan’s perseverance, scientific approach and modern management mind set, this restaurant empire has successfully expanded to over 15 branches spanning across Hong Kong, Macau, China and Singapore.
Treasure Platter "Yu Sheng"
“Yu Sheng” is basically a CNY salad, but what makes it so special is that every item in this ‘salad’ has an important meaning. I took a video of the entire process, but unfortunately I am somehow unable to upload it up here ): So I’ll try to type through the process.
So firstly, our waitress welcomed us to Lei Garden and on behalf of Lei Garden, wished us a Happy Chinese New Year and a prosperous year ahead. CNY songs then began playing … (hahahhahahahhaah it was quite funny). She then started pouring a bowl of cooking oil onto a huge empty plate. This bowl of cooking oil symbolizes the fact that everything would go smoothly. Followed by plum sauce, which signifies the house being full of gold and jade. Then the spices of life for good luck kisses top to bottom. Then about 3 plates of salmon to signify a year of abundance. Next green limes for good fortune and big profit. And then followed by a huge plate which consisted of spiced abalone, raw lobster meat, turnips and lettuce, and vermicelli (1st picture on the left). Spiced abalone meant that prosperity was guaranteed. Raw lobster meat signified a healthy and active lifestyle. Turnips and lettuce signified the luck that you will get from all the elements of the earth. The vermicelli symbolizes longevity. Last but not least, 2 plates of savory flour chips fried to golden brown as a symbol of gold for everyone. And then time to toss – The higher you toss, the more prosperous you will be.
Roasted Whole Suckling Pig
Roasted Suckling Pig Skin on Pancakes with Hoisin Sauce
I’m pretty sure Zara would say, “Poor pig” ): :p oh well! 🙂 Roasted Suckling Pig has been a famous dish in China for at least 2,500 years and is a specialty for big occasions such as weddings and parties. The suckling pig is 2-6 weeks of age and has only fed on its mother’s milk. They are roasted whole on a spit at high temperatures in charcoal ovens with a generous rub of five spice powder, red and white vinegar, Chinese rice wine, garlic and maltose. Pieces of the crispy skin are then served together with chinese pancakes and hoisin sauce. I love the fact that the skin is sooooooo crispy, that it cracks at the slightess cut, and the fat underneath melts just right in your mouth for a nice contrast in texture.
Double Boiled Superior Shark's Fin Soup with Sea Whelk and Chicken
Double Boiled Superior Shark’s Fin Soup with Sea Whelk and Chicken. Double boiled soups in Chinese restaurants are extremely healthy and nutritious. However, no matter how much I love seafood, I have since stopped consuming Shark’s Fin for the last 5 years, and yesterday was no exception. To me, Shark finning is the most cruel act ever done to an animal. Sharks have also become one of the most endangered animal. I absolutely lift my hats off to Shangri-La worldwide for banning shark’s fin.
Braised Whole Abalone (3 Head Type) with Wild Mushroom in Oyster Sauce
Braised Whole Abalone with Wild Mushroom in Oyster Sauce. I am no fan of abalone and because it has also become an endangered species, I have also stopped eating abalone for a long time now. I had the wild mushroom which was extremely unique. It had more texture, and was more chewy than a regular mushroom. I liked it though!
Steamed Sea Grouper with Light Soya Sauce
Steamed Sea Grouper with Light Soya Sauce. “Yu”, fish in Chinese, sounds like wish and abundance. It is eaten whole as a symbol of an abundance of good things from the start (fish head) to the end (fish tail). Also, this was served whole to the table as traditionally, knives and sharp objects are avoided during this festive period as they could cut family ties. Give me a steamed fish dish in any Chinese restaurant and I would gladly accept it and finish it. I don’t know why, but the fish is so tender and soft and hearty. This one though, was slightly tougher than the many ones that I have eaten. Nevertheless, a serving was not enough and I had a second serving, not too much though, to ensure that a tiny bit of fish is left behind to symbolize an over-abundance of good things to come.
Panfried Beef with Russia Salad
Panfried Beef with Russia Salad. This is actually my first time having beef in a CNY reunion dinner. Nonetheless, the beef was seasoned well and cooked perfectly. It was cooked well-done, but because it was such a thin slice, it was really really delectable and luscious. The salad on the side was totally unnecessary. The dressing was a little spicy. But Russia and CNY? No link.
Poached "Pea Shoot" with Dry Conpoy and Silver Mushroom
Poached “Pea Shoot” with dry Conpoy and Silver Mushroom. Pea Shoot, or otherwise known as Dou miao, is a regular dish in Chinese restaurants. They are packed with Vitamin A, Vitamin C and folic acid. The leaves are tender, almost like cooked baby spinach, and its stems are slightly crunchy.
Poached Hand Made Noodle with Fresh Crab Meat
Poached Hand Made Noodle with Fresh Crab Meat. This was my favorite dish of the day hands down. The long strands of noodle, which symbolizes longevity, looked and had a similar texture of the Japanese Udon, just a little more tender. Note: the noodles were poached, not boiled, which was probably why it was slightly softer than a regular udon. There was a generous amount of crabmeat, every one of each fresh and sweet. The broth was hearty and had a distinct seafood flavor.
Chilled Double Boiled Snow Lotus Seed and Sterchilia Juice
Chilled Double Boiled Snow Lotus Seed and Sterchilia Juice. Sterichilia is a Chinese herb usually used in chinese teas, while Snow Lotus Seed are known for their healing effects on high blood pressure and other blood disorders. It was nectarous, and definitely a refreshing and healthy dessert.
Steamed Red Dates Cake with Coconut Juice
Lastly to end of the meal, Steamed Red Dates Cake with Coconut Juice. These are basically Nian Gao, a CNY cake. In Chinese, “Nian” means year, and “Gao” means high. So “Nian Gao” means getting higher and higher year by year. This sweet sticky “cake” symbolizes togetherness. Also, according to customs, it is served to the Chinese Kitchen God so that he reports favorably about the family’s behavior when he returns to heaven before the new year starts. I first had this ruby-coloured layer sticky cake last year during my grandmother’s birthday at the Lei Garden branch at Orchard Shopping Centre (oh how time flies). We were told that there is no added sugar and all the sweetness comes from the dates itself. Indeed, the rich and sweet flavor of boiled, skinned, then pitted red dates came through. The texture of the cake is almost jelly-like.
This is the most expensive CNY menu at Lei Garden and I would say that it was absolutely reasonable, especially with the whole Roasted Suckling Pig, Shark’s Fin Soup, Abalone and Hand Made Noodles with Fresh Crab Meat. Service was impeccable, and even though the staffs could not have reunion dinner with their own families, they had a smile on their faces every second. Definitely admirable.
I hope all of you celebrating CNY will have a good festive period. Happy collecting all the red packets, and enjoy all the eating as this is definitely not the time to be health conscious :p And of course to everyone, wishing you a prosperous year ahead! 🙂