Over the moon: get ready for the Lunar New Year

12 January 2022 by

February will see days of festivities for the Lunar New Year. Operators share dishes they will be serving, along with their memories of family celebrations.

Tuesday 1 February is Chinese New Year, the beginning of a period of festivities that can last up to 16 days, with the Lantern Festival marking the end of the celebrations. This year will be the Year of the Tiger, the Water Tiger to be exact. Each year corresponds to one of four elements (water, fire, wood and metal) and one of the 12 animals of the Chinese zodiac – the Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Goat, Monkey, Rooster, Dog and Pig.

Legend has it that the Jade Emperor – the highest of the Chinese gods – invited these 12 animals to his palace, and the order they arrived dictated the order of the zodiac; some stories tell of a race across a river, where Rat rode the back of Ox and nipped into first place by running down Ox's nose.

This period of the year is not only known as Chinese New Year – across East and South East Asia it is most commonly celebrated as Lunar New Year or the Spring Festival. Although many share the same date of celebration, there are unique traditions within various communities that have roots in different histories.

Based on the Chinese lunar calendar, developed primarily between 770-476 BCE, this form of time-keeping spread across East Asia to include (regions now known as) Korea, Japan, Tibet, Mongolia, and through to Vietnam in South East Asia.

The celebration itself is also marked in many more countries, where diaspora of these regions reside. As the moon waxes and wanes across the year, the date for the New Year shifts, falling somewhere between the end of January and the beginning of February, and it has become a period of celebration known globally.

Shoot for the moon

When understanding the origins of this New Year's celebrations, it is important to understand the link to the moon cycles, which anchor the year in an agricultural calendar. Many cultures have calendars based around the moon, and although the majority of the world adheres to the Gregorian calendar in a practical sense, traditions and celebrations based on lunar cycles – lunisolar calendars – are still practiced today, such as the Hindu's Holi festival and the Islamic Ra's as-Sanah.

Lunar New Year marks the end of winter and the beginning of spring, an important point as it announces the start of a new agricultural year. It's a celebration where food is a key feature, where symbolism is woven through the dishes eaten, and traditions are created within families, as well as wider cultural rituals are observed.

Lunar New Year is a time of reunion when many travel home to be with family; in 2019 it was estimated three billion people travelled in China alone during this time, and the period is dubbed the largest annual human migration. This movement of holiday makers is also global, as many diaspora take this time to see family worldwide, but with the pandemic travel has been impossible for many.

The idea of home is not just about a sense of place, but being with family, and with travel being prohibited – even at times just to cross a city – missing home is a theme that featured in the last couple of Lunar New Year preparations and celebrations.

We spoke to four UK restaurateurs about their plans for this year's festivities including how they are bringing personal traditions into their restaurants, and how the idea of home plays a part in these celebrations.

Ellen Chew, founder of Chew On This restaurant group

After opening Rasa Sayang, a Malaysian and Singaporean restaurant in Chinatown, London, in 2008, Chew has gone on to open Mrs Chew's Chinese Kitchen in London and Birmingham, Lotus Leaf in London and Shan Shu in Bicester Village, and is one of several partners in the Lobos Tapas restaurant group. Originally from Singapore, Chew's aim is to create a nuanced look at Chinese food from the perspective of Singapore and Malaysia, and looking at how Lunar New Year is celebrated in her restaurants shows how traditions are unique across different countries.

An important dish from Chew's childhood is Yu Cheng, a salad dish created in this region. "It comprises thinly sliced vegetables of all colours, fresh raw fish slices and a whole bunch of condiments, topped off with plum sauce and crispy bits of wanton skin. Each ingredient and condiment has its own special and auspicious significance. For example, the fish denotes abundance and the wonton skin ushers in gold for the New Year," Chew explains.

For Chew, her memories of the New Year in Singapore as a child were about the reconnection with family, and her favourite day of the two weeks of celebration is focused on that.

"One of the most significant moments of Lunar New Year for me is actually the eve, when we have our reunion dinner. That's when all devices are put away, the TV is turned off and no matter how busy you are with whatever it is that you have going on with your life, you come back and spend a few hours, or even the whole day, prepping, cooking and feasting." Chew adds that it isn't uncommon to have 10 dishes in a single dinner.

London is home for Chew, but nothing quite compares with celebrating Lunar New Year in Singapore – "the atmosphere is totally different, and it's mainly because we have far few relatives here than in Singapore, but it helps that we have built very close relationships and friendships here over the years."

Chew does say that a big part of being homesick is missing home cuisine. This year she is travelling back to Singapore, and although it will be a different celebration (one of the traditions is visiting relatives' homes to pay respects, but this will be curtailed due to Covid-19), Chew is thankful to be able to do this, as it has been a long two years of not being able to see her mother and family.

John Li, owner and founder of Dumpling Shack Group

John Li started a dumpling stall in Broadway Market in London more than seven years ago. Since then he has opened fast-casual spots Dumpling Shack and Fen Noodles in two London locations and is set to open the group's first sit-down restaurant in east London in spring, which will also include his fried chicken concept, Sichuan Fry.

Li grew up in Surrey, where his parents – who came to the UK from Hong Kong – ran a Chinese restaurant and takeaway business. Lunar New Year for Li is a period focused on cooking for others, as it was the restaurant's busiest day of the year. Their family celebratory feast would fall on the Sunday when the restaurant was closed.

As with all occasions, Li explained that his father took the opportunity to cook special dishes: "He would be able to use ingredients such as jellyfish, lily bulbs, sweet glutinous brown sugar cake (nian gao), ingredients that customers in Caterham in Surrey may not be accustomed to. I used to cringe having to try to sell our New Year's menu to them (‘trust me, jellyfish is delicious!')."

This year's celebrations hold even more importance, Li feels. Although the pandemic hasn't abated, the past two years have been so difficult that they plan to really take the time to celebrate and be with family. "We've missed out on Lunar New Year, Mid-Autumn Festivals and my daughter's 100-day celebration with the family, so I'm going to go all out this year for the family feast," he says. Li will be cooking roast ducks, roast pork belly, suckling pig and says, "I'm going to be angry if dad doesn't make his lobster crispy noodles."

Li's family ties are still in Hong Kong and it is a place that still resonates with home – it has always felt far away, but having not been back for two years it feels even further. Li says it is an incredible experience to celebrate Lunar New Year in Asia, "from going to worship at the ancestral village, eating poon choi with my grandma or soaking up the New Year markets".

It has always been his dream to create a Lunar New Year Market in London, on a grand scale, as he would love people in the UK to experience it. Hopefully in the future this will happen, but in the meantime at Dumpling Shack, Li is planning to incorporate seafood into a special four-night, Lunar New Year event. Akin to a seafood boil, it will incorporate flavours he loves, such as mala (made from Sichuan peppercorns, a hot and numbing flavour), ginger and spring onions, and served with garlic noodles. "We've done it for the past couple of years and hopefully it's a tradition we can maintain for the duration of the business" Li says.

Tian Nguyen, co-owner, Bánh Bánh

Tian Nguyen is one of five siblings who own and run Vietnamese restaurants in South London. They started as a pop-up in the Bussey Building in Peckham in 2014, and in 2015 they opened their first restaurant, Bánh Bánh, in Peckham – a 10-minute walk from their family home. They subsequently opened Bánh Bánh Cafe in Brixton in 2018, and across both places the food reflects the dishes they grew up eating. Inspired specifically by their grandmother, who was a chef in Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) in the 1930s, it is a family affair with each sibling heading up a different part of the business – Tien runs the front of house, Luan and Keven head up the kitchens, An is responsible for marketing and Vi is in charge of drinks, although all are part of recipe development: "We often spend our days off back at our parents house creating new dishes," Nguyen explains.

Known as Têt Nguyên Đán, Têt for short, the celebration is rooted in Buddhist tradition and is a vegan feast. Travelling back to Vietnam as kids, especially with five, was not easy, so their parents and grandmother made the London celebrations count: "The house would be decorated, we'd wear our best clothes, start the day with prayers, incense, offerings to our ancestors and Buddha such as fruit, and then wait eagerly for our lucky red money bags."

Nguyen also describes the meal – a banquet – as the strongest memories of the festivities, with at least 10 different dishes being served. Now, this is a day when the siblings all hang up their aprons and their mother cooks the vegan feast for them all.

Nguyen's parents came to the UK as refugees in the 1980s and her aunts and uncles are spread across the globe. As her and her siblings got older they would go back to Vietnam to celebrate. She says: "Our extended family used Vietnam as a base, as they are dotted all around the world. This New Year's we won't be travelling, but we will still be able to celebrate at our parent's Peckham house – it will be more like our small childhood celebrations. So in some ways, coming full circle." And with the siblings starting to have their own children, these traditions developed in Peckham are being kept alive for the next generation. This year, both Bánh Bánh restaurants will be replicating the feeling of family and togetherness with a feasting menu of small and large sharing dishes, which are at the heart of Nguyen and her sibling's memories. A key dish will be sticky rice rolled in a banana leaf with a mung bean filling, served sliced and grilled with a side of pickles. "It's a big hit with our customers every year. We also gift our customers little red envelopes with treats in," Nguyen says.

Judy Joo, co-owner of Seoul Bird

Judy Joo founded the restaurant group Seoul Bird with Andrew Hales, serving food inspired by South Korean street food. In Korea the Lunar New Year is a three-day holiday and an incredibly sacred time, Joo remembers it as a time to reunite with family, many travelling miles to be together. "It is customary to bow deeply to your elders to show your respect and say ‘새해 복 많이 받으세요' or ‘I wish you good fortune for the New Year'," she says.

Tradition is a big part of Joo's memories and what she continues into her adult life, particularly when it comes to cooking, sticking to the classic dishes. "My mom used to make rice cake soup with a beef broth that she would boil for days, until it was rich and milky white from the bones. The rice cakes are shaped like coins and represent the wish for prosperity in the new year." Gifts of fruits would be given, such as enormous golden Korean pears ("as large as my head!") in boxes lined in silk, and eaten after dinner while playing traditional games.

For Joo, missing home is largely about missing her mother's cooking. "Whenever I cook her recipes, I feel her love," she says, which is why cooking variations of her rice cake soup is a must on Lunar New Year, this year it'll be the same, "just in a smaller pot". It is a time of year that is about celebrating ancestry and the past, but looking forward towards good fortune. At Seoul Bird, Joo is bringing the best of her heritage of both her Korean and American homes, to her new space of home, London.

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