This weekend New Zealand's Chinese community will celebrate the New Year, with fireworks and parades planned around the country.
If that night appeared to pass unnoticed in some areas, it's because Chinese New Year is essentially a private family celebration, akin to our Christmas. As with Christmas, it's a time for family get-togethers, gift giving and special foods.
Wellington restaurateur Jessica Tang has her mother visiting from Hong Kong this year, and she recalls the Chinese New Year's Eve celebrations from her childhood in Hong Kong, when her grandparents and favourite aunties would turn up for dinner on New Year's Eve, all bearing red envelopes containing cash.
The amounts varied, but from her parents Jessica would always get a thousand-dollar note, Hong Kong's highest denomination, worth about $200 in New Zealand terms.
"But after you get married," chips in Jessica's partner Frank Wang, co-owner of Dragons Restaurant, "you stop getting the red envelopes, and start giving!"
Coming from the north of China, some of Frank's family dishes are quite different from Jessica's. An absolute must for Frank's family on New Year's Eve was boiled dumplings, while Jessica says that in Hong Kong and the south that is unknown.
Jessica's family used to eat pig trotters braised in stock, and boiled pig's tongue. In both cases, they would be served with a sauce of dried oysters and black moss, a delicate type of seaweed with auspicious linguistic associations for the Cantonese: their name for black moss is "fat choy" - exactly the same as "New Year".
Frank's family always had peanuts in the shell (another lucky symbol), Eight Treasures Rice Pudding and a big two-layered cake.
But all Chinese people share one New Year's Eve dish in common a whole fish.
Frank's grandfather, formerly a cook to the generals of the Chinese army, used to deep-fry the fish and serve it with a sweet-sour sauce.
As Mrs Wan Lu, proprietor of the Shanghai Restaurant, points out, a whole fish symbolises that you always get more than you wish for, because "fish" and "surplus" share the same pronunciation in Chinese.
And to ensure there will be a symbolic surplus for the coming year, when Wen Lai Ji of Mr Ji's Kitchen shares his fish with his daughter Yunji, they always leave both the head and tail. For all these local Chinese restauranteurs, the New Year period is the opposite of the traditional holiday.
At both Dragons and Grand Century, further down Tory St, special menus are offered over New Year, with many of the dishes containing black moss.
Wan Lu reports the Shanghai Restaurant was as busy as ever on Chinese New Year's Eve this year, so she, her father, mother, husband and son had their celebratory dinner after the restaurant closed around 10.30pm. Being from the north, Yan Lu says dumplings are a must. "Our favourite dumpling is Chinese chives and pork mince."
It's a light dumpling, boiled not fried, which sounded so delicious I asked for the family recipe:
Yan Lu's Chive and Pork Dumplings
250g chopped Chinese chives
1 teaspoon salt
3 teaspoons rice wine
A few dashes of white pepper powder
10 drops of sesame oil
For the skin: 4 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup water
For dipping: Chinese black vinegar
Mix the flour with water and knead it for about 20-25 minutes or until the dough gets soft. Separate the dough into two equal portions and roll them into cylinders (about 2.5cm in diameter). Cover them with wet towel and set aside.
Prepare the chives by chopping off the root (white part) of the chives. Use only the green part. Mix the chives with ground pork and add all the seasonings. Chill in fridge for 30 minutes.
To prepare the skin, cut the dough into 0.5cm length and use a rolling pin to flatten it until it becomes a round skin about 7cm diameter. Put a small spoonful of filling into the centre of the skin and seal it up tightly with your fingers.
Heat up a pot of hot water until it boils. Drop the dumplings (25 dumplings firstly) into the boiling water and cover the pot. As soon as the dumplings start to float (meaning they are cooked) dish them out on a serving plate. Serve hot with black vinegar.
Makes 50 dumplings to serve 6 people.
Easy peasy? Unfortunately not. Here are some further tips for perfect dumplings from chef Frank Wang: Obtaining the correct texture in the dumpling dough is crucial to obtain a watertight seal around the dumpling filling. Frank says the dough needs to be a little bit sticky, but not too sticky. Add a little more flour or water as necessary. If the texture is correct, the dough will merge and the dumplings will more or less seal themselves; otherwise, press them together with egg white.
Ready-made dumpling wrappers (jaio zhi di) are available frozen from Asian stores, and while they are anathema to Chinese home cooks they may suffice, provided they have not lost too much moisture by having been frozen too long.
When it comes to cooking the dumplings, Frank says that in Chinese restaurants the practice is to bring the water to the boil, add the dumplings, and then pour in some cold water. Stir the dumplings gently to ensure they are not sticking to the bottom of the pot, then bring the pot back to a gentle boil.
Frank says depending on how many dumplings are being cooked at one time, they may need 30 minutes or longer to cook right through. To draw out this cooking process, professional Chinese chefs periodically add more cold water to the pot.
- © Fairfax NZ News DAVID BURTON
Last updated 10:23 08/02/2012
PRACTICE MAKES PERFECT: Dumplings aren't the easiest thing to make, but the results are worth it.