How to celebrate the Chinese Year of the Snake in Dubai
new year banquet
It may seem like Dubai has only just had one grand celebration to usher in the beginning of 2013, but this week another culture celebrates its own new year, with the Chinese festival scheduled this year for Sunday February 10. Traditionally, Chinese new year festivities take place over a 15-day festival, filled with feasting with family and friends, traditional dishes and other eating rituals considered key to this time of year.
Now, Dubai’s Chinese restaurants are getting ready to introduce celebratory menus and classic entertainment, to usher in the year of the snake. Among the more traditional Chinese venues holding a Chinese new year promotion, Cantonese restaurant Royal China will introduce an à la carte selection of classic dishes. Keen to find out more about the flavours and dining culture of China’s most famous festival, we decided to visit Royal China for the lowdown.
Unlike the calendar based celebration of European new year on January 1, Chinese new year is a festival that is dictated by, and originates from the cycles of nature. Changing every year, the date for Chinese year is taken from the lunar calendar, although it usually falls between the months of January and February. Also known as ‘spring festival’, the new year festivities are a celebration of seasonal changes, taking place from the first day of the first month in the lunar calendar and culminating on the ‘lantern festival’ taking place on the last day.
At Royal China, assistant manager Sherry Liu, who comes from Suizhou in the Hubei province of China tells us that the festival is thought to have originated from the agricultural calendar. Originally, the end of the rice harvest marked a period of rest for the farmers, who could then take a hard-earned rest before the cycle of nature meant it was time to start tending to the new rice crop. The sense of new beginnings implicit in the start of the new spring season means that now Chinese new year celebrations are characterised by a chance for a fresh beginning to the year. As such, the first phrase is occupied by cleaning and refreshing your home, Sherry says, and Chinese people will take the opportunity to ‘spring clean’, and throw out old and broken items.
The next phase, she adds, is typically occupied by days spent at home, preparing sweet treats and dumplings together as a family. This is done in preparation for visits made to the homes of family and friends, as well as arriving at the homes of others as a visitor, so that when you greet your loved ones to wish them a happy new year, you can also offer them a gift of sweet edible treats. These visits usually take place during the first seven days of the festival, and candy, fresh fruit and fortune cookies are all on the menu for visitor gifts. In her own family home in China, Sherry adds, they usually sit together to prepare the dough to make their own fortune cookies. Typical greetings placed inside the cookies, she says, are the Chinese characters for ‘wealth, health and happiness’.
Wealth is a common theme, with the traditional new year greeting in Mandarin ‘gong xi fu cai’ translating into English as a wish for more money in the year ahead. Similarly, the oldest members of the family will give the youngest red envelopes, known as ‘hong bao’, containing money. Other traditions include the lighting of fire crackers and fireworks, as well as the dance of a red lion-like monster. This beast, Sherry tells us, is the mythical monster Nian, who was believed to bring sickness and misfortune. In Chinese mythology, Nian was defeated by an army comprised of humans who teamed up with the twelve animals that now make up the Chinese zodiac. Each year is dedicated to a different one of these twelve animals, with this year dedicated to the snake. According to legend, the monster Nian is driven away by the colour red, which
Sherry explains is why this colour is traditionally considered auspicious in Chinese culture.
The key tradition, however, is feasting, which takes place with aplomb among family and friends. The menu changes from family to family and province to province, but there are usually a few underlying themes. To explain the significance, Sherry takes us through the customs behind Royal China’s new-year menu.
Perhaps the most traditional dish is a steamed whole fish. At Royal China, they will be serving a whole Dover sole, prepared with ginger, spring onions and soy sauce. Serving a whole fish is considered to be auspicious because the inclusion of head to tail represents continuity and abundance. Dumplings (or ‘jiao zi’) are also key, as they are well suited to sharing between large groups. Sherry says the fillings for the new year dumplings will vary throughout Chinese provinces, but for the dried oyster mushroom dumplings on Royal China’s menu, the ingredients in the filling are favoured by the Cantonese to represent and wish wealth.
Other dishes often included are leafy green vegetables, since the green represents youth and long life, although here more regional variation comes in to play. Sherry points out that in Guangzhou, for example, people eat kai lan or pak choi since the jade colour also represents the highly precious stone, and the pronunciation of the Chinese characters for jade is similar to the character for ‘wealthy’. Other wordplays dictate the menu. Fish reappears in other guises (such as the fish cakes served at Royal China), since the character ‘yu’ for fish is similar to a character wishing for money. Moving on to the sweet pastries and buns served for dessert on Royal China’s new year menu, there is more symbolism. The traditional Cantonese style egg tart are thought to look like gold coins, while the deep-fried sesame buns are dubbed ‘happy pastries’ in Chinese, since they look like smiles. Finally, you can usher in the new year with the traditional steamed rice flour cakes ‘nian goa’. They are coloured naturally with orange juice, for an auspicious orangey-red hue, and the name of the cakes contain a happy new year greeting. Royal China’s new year menu will be available from Dhs60 (per dish). Sunday February 10-25. Royal China, DIFC (04 354 5543).
By Penelope Walsh
Time Out Dubai, 5 February 2013