Growing up as a kid in Hong Kong, my grandma, who lived with us, used to make special snacks and dishes for the Lunar New Year.
For the Cantonese, there seems to be two schools of thought for the reunion dinner.
Reunion dinner is kind of like Chinese Thanksgiving. All the members of the family go home whether they are living and working in another city or if they're just down the street. This meal is the most important meal during the holiday.
So you can go two routes with this meal: hotpot or a more elaborately prepared affair with dishes that have meaning and symbolism.
If you're casual and don't want to spend days preparing, you can do it hotspot style. This is when you have a boiling broth (flavored with whatever you like, really) in the center of the table and a buffet of uncooked meats, seafood, veggies, dumplings, noodles (again, whatever you please) and your guests will cook the food items themselves by dunking it in the broth.
It's one of my favorite ways to eat with a big group because you can just cook whatever you want to eat. If you don't eat fish, don't put it in the pot! It's that simple. It's really a very democratic way to eat. Plus, you can accommodate your vegetarian or vegan friends by having a separate pot for them.
Elevate your hotpot experience by making special dipping sauces with all kinds of spices and aromatics. I always load mine up with lots of garlic, chili, sesame paste, sesame oil and parsley. Plus I always put one 'weird' thing in there just for kicks. Yum.
To host a hotpot party at home, you'll need an induction heater, a large pot, and little wire mesh ladles or small colanders with handles (is there a technical term for this?) so your guests can put their food items of choice into it. They'll cook their food in the ladles for a few seconds or minutes, depending on what the item is, and voila!
My favorite Chinese food blogger, Omnivore's Cookbook, has a really good post on hotpot here.
Tip: if you're hosting a hotpot party at home, do yourself a favor, and just get the pre-packaged broth bases. Hai Di Lao makes good ones.
My favorite hotpot restaurant in Singapore is:
The other route for your Chinese New Year meal would be a fancier affair with prepared dishes making for a multi-course meal.
This will require some specialty ingredients and cooking chops but if you're up for it, here are some dishes you can try:
髮菜蠔豉 (Fat Choy Ho See) - that's how you say it - Black Moss Dried Oyster
As you may have noticed, lots of good luck or auspicious things in Chinese culture have to do with the names for them when pronounced sounding like the words for "prosperity" or "longevity" or "joy" or "good" and the list goes on ...
The Chinese are really into homonyms and there is an endless supply of them because Chinese is a tonal language.
This dish is eaten during Lunar New Year because the name of the ingredients sound like "Prosperity" and "Good Things."
I would say it's not the prettiest looking dish, it's got an interesting taste and texture too.
The sun-dried oysters have a "mineral-y" taste to quote Andrew Zimmern and I remember them being quite salty. Whatever the case, just don't expect them to taste like fresh oysters.
Gotta be honest, is it the most delicious Cantonese dish? No. Is it bad? No. It's eaten for its kitsch factor. People love the name and the fun hair-like moss (it literally looks like strands of hair in your food - super fun when you're a kid! Fat Choy transliterates as "hair vegetable.") Why hair? The word for hair "fat" sounds like the word for prosperity.
This dish is eaten every lunar new year by millions for its symbolism.
Here's a recipe for this dish from this super cute family of food bloggers.
白切雞 (Bak Chit Gai) - that's how you say it - Cantonese Poached Chicken
This is another dish that makes an appearance at New Year dinners and pretty much any celebratory meal. It's super healthy as it's just poached chicken and you make a delicious ginger scallion dipping sauce with it. It's similar to the Hainanese chicken rice you find everywhere in Singapore and the Kao Men Gai in Thailand ... different versions of the same idea, each with their own twist. You should try them all if you get the chance.
For the Chinese New Year meal, the poached chicken is always presented whole with its head, tail and feet to symbolize completeness. Sharing the chicken is sharing the joy and togetherness of the whole family.
Another amazing recipe post from Woks Of Life on this dish.
蒸魚 (Jing Yu) - that's how you say it - Steamed Fish
A third must-have for Chinese New Year is fish. The word for fish sounds like the word for "surplus" or "abundance". Again, the whole fish, head and all, is served. This is one of my favorite Cantonese dishes and it's really simple to make. I recommend you try this one if you're intimidated by the other two. Also, if you're not into having the head on your fish while you eat it, by all means serve it without. No biggie.
This is not a dish specifically for the New Year or other celebrations; we used to have a steamed fish every night. Seriously, add this one to your arsenal of everyday cooking. You won't regret it.
Check out this recipe by What To Cook Tonight.
Last but not least, round out your meal with a stir-fry green vegetable. Lots of protein in the last three dishes so balance out your nutritional intake with some greens, okay?
油菜 (Yiu Cai) - that's how you say it - "Oil Vegetable"
This is literally the easiest thing to make and I won't even bother posting a recipe. Buy any green vegetable you like (preferably ones with harder stalks like Kai Lan or broccoli.) The name makes it sound greasy but it's actually just the opposite.
I don't recommend super wilty vegetables like spinach for this. Kale would work too. Wash your vegetable, cut it into smaller pieces if necessary, throw it into a pan.
Add some water to the pan - covering up to half the height of your vegetables - turn on the heat. Wait for the water to boil, if the water boils off, and you feel your vegetable isn't soft enough yet, add more water (preferably hot) and repeat until your veggies are al dente.
Tip: Have some boiled water on the side just in case you need to add to the pan. An electric kettle is great for this. Adding cold water will increase cooking time. But totally not a big deal if you add water right from the sink. I do it all the time.
Place the veggies onto a serving dish, draining off the cooking liquid, pour some sesame oil on it, and top it off with oyster sauce to taste. Remember, oyster sauce is super concentrated, a little goes a long way!
Other notable snacks:
Nian Gao - Chinese New Year Cake
Tseen Dui - Deep fried sesame puffballs with red bean filling
新年快樂! Happy New Year!
P. S. - if you're a cultural anthropologist and have a relatively comprehensive list of dishes the different ethnic groups make for Chinese New Year, I would love to see it! Thanks for reading!