Get in on the action

Here’s when and where various Chinese New Year celebrations are taking place this year:

Nan Hua temple, Bronkhorstspruit: February 18, 10am-3pm;

First Chinatown, Commissioner Street: February 24, 5pm till late;

Cyrildene Chinatown, Derrick Avenue: March 3, 5pm till late;

China Mall – corner Main Reef and Production roads: March 3&4, 10am-3pm.

If you’re going to stay awake on Thursday night to see in the Year of the Dog, you might as well do it eating your way through the hours — the way the Chinese do.

Chinese New Year is the celebration of a fresh start. It’s welcoming a dawn of new hope for prosperity, peace and plenty and it comes with rituals and customs tied intimately to food.

Food is a binder after all, a connection to the familiar, to roots and also to pleasure. At Chinese New Year it’s exquisitely so. The Chinese New Year’s Eve feast should mean the dinner table groans with food as an invitation to share and feast together. All family members should have returned home on this night of reunion.

Even deceased ancestors are remembered and symbolically invited to the feast with a tray of food placed before an altar in the home and as joss sticks are lit and spiralling coils of smoke dissipate like invisible missives to the dead.

It’s this duty to return home that drives the annual mass movement of people across China in the days before Lunar New Year. But it’s a reunion worth the trek because traditionally there are 15 days of celebration and there are rewards — especially for the tummy. The dishes on the menu are customary and symbolic. Served up year after year, they take on unique elements for individual families.

Many of the ingredients or dishes for New Year feasts are homonyms for prosperity, fortune and happiness. There are dishes like faat choi — a fine black moss with a Cantonese name that sounds like the words for prosperity. Dumplings resemble gold ingots, roast duck and chicken are presented whole to symbolise completeness. Whole roasted suckling pig makes an appearance for abundance, and prawns, oysters and lettuce are on the menu for their symbolism of life, renewal and good things to come. There’s usually a whole steamed fish or a dish of raw, thinly sliced fish. The word for fish in Cantonese is yu, meaning abundance, and leftovers of this dish are a must to symbolise continuity of goodness to be carried over to the New Year. Ingredients and the dishes are deliberately extravagant for their sense of luxury and auspiciousness.

For SA’s Chinese, their New Year’s Eve celebrations are mostly subdued, private family celebrations. But even though we’re thousands of kilometres from the Middle Kingdom, some traditions survive, and others have been adapted with perfect SA flavour.

Su-Yen Thornhill is the dynamo behind Chez Fong. Her weekly Houghton patio pop-up restaurant of Asian fusion foods has become a culinary fixture for the city. Thornhill, born to a Chinese mom and Scottish dad, grew up in Hong Kong.

"Suckling pig was my favourite Chinese New Year food. I also remember the nin gou [a sweet steamed glutinous rice cake, symbolic of growing year on year]," she says. She has memories of the riot of colour at flower markets in Hong Kong’s Victoria Park. Families would pick the best blooms to bring new growth and freshness to their homes.

Thornhill went off to school in the UK when she was 11. This signalled the end of the traditional Chinese New Year’s Eve feasts of her childhood. Now she says marking Chinese New Year with her own family in Joburg has less fanfare. She has, however, dedicated three weeks of Chez Fong’s menu to serving typical Chinese New Year foods.

"There’ll be dishes like faat choi, but I’m going to deep-fry it to try something different. There will be dumplings, spring rolls [they represent gold bars], fried savoury turnip cake and char siu [sweet roasted pork], which I could eat all day.

"Each Chinese New Year mom still calls to tell me my horoscope for the year and what talisman I should wear. She also tells me how I’m not cooking in the proper Chinese way," she says, laughing about the bonds that still bind her to her roots and to her mom.

Ready for a new start

For well-known Joburg restaurateur Emma Chen, who owns Red Chamber and Pron, if she’s in Johannesburg and not doing the trip back to her Taiwan home, she celebrates with her staff, many of whom are far away from their families in China. A meal of celebration and togetherness with work-family has to be extra special. It includes the likes of Chen’s trademark crispy Peking duck as well as roast pork and cured meat platters; maybe even pig trotters and the obligatory steamed whole fish.

When Chen was growing up in Taiwan, Chinese New Year was a big deal. The countdown to the New Year came with her family deep-cleaning their home — symbolic of clearing out the old and making room for new abundance, she says.

"My mother was really into her cleaning so my sister and I tidied our space harder than other kids. You were exhausted but excited because you knew it meant New Year’s Eve was coming," she says.

Chen remembers the gathering of happy people in her home. After the meal some family members and visitors played mahjong, others made dumplings as they watched special New Year’s Eve programming.

Sharing food, fireworks, lion and dragon dancing, drumming and singing is a way to introduce Chinese culture to our fellow South Africans
Paulette Leong

"Then at midnight the first thing we’d eat would be the dumplings we made — gold ingots in our mouths. We would also have rice wine, even we children were allowed some," she says.

Chen says overindulgence was encouraged and throughout New Year’s Eve the traditional "tray of togetherness" a compartmentalised tray filled with sweets, watermelon and pumpkin seeds, ground nuts and candied pieces of fruit would be constantly replenished.

"We children weren’t stopped from eating all the sweets we could. We’d also get red packets with money and new clothes. And, of course, our house was fresh and clean — ready for a new start," she says.

Even though Chinese South African households may have low-key celebrations on Chinese New Year’s Eve, the public celebrations have come to be highlights on the events calendar, for locals of all cultural backgrounds.

Paulette Leong, the English secretary for The Chinese Association (TCA) in Johannesburg, has been part of the co-ordinating team for annual festivities held in First Chinatown, which is in Commissioner Street.

"Sharing food, fireworks, lion and dragon dancing, drumming and singing is a way to introduce Chinese culture to our fellow South Africans. Every year the restaurant tables are booked up months in advance, but we have street stalls with great food on offer," she says, adding that last year around 4,000 people attended the event.

Joburg has the distinction of being a city with two Chinatowns. It reflects the story of different waves of migrations of Chinese to SA. Though the Chinese have been here for generations, the dawn of democracy in the early and mid-1990s led to the arrival of Chinese in greater numbers. It’s this wave of émigrés who established Cyrildene Chinatown. And it’s here where the second celebration of the year takes place.

There is also an annual celebration at the Nan Hua Buddhist temple in Bronkhorstspruit, which includes a devotional ceremony at midnight. It allows the faithful to give prayers and offerings in the first minutes of the New Year.

This year there’s an additional celebration taking place at China Mall in Crown Mines. It marks the Year of the Dog as well as 20 years of diplomatic relations between China and SA.

Stretching out festivities and feasting makes for delicious stuff; doing it with a uniquely SA signature – priceless.