As the vibrant energy of Chinese New Year fills the air, Chef Yuanhui Li is in his element. Whisking through his kitchen, preparing childhood favourites, he can't contain his excitement for the festivities. He pauses, sharing precious memories with Gulf News:
"Growing up in Dalian City, Chinese New Year meant a mouthwatering feast: dumplings, noodles, fish, spring rolls – all the classics! Mum always prepared special dishes with abalone and a delightful sticky rice cake for dessert, so sweet and chewy."
Drawing on his vast knowledge of traditional Chinese cuisine, Chef Li (now Dubai's Shi Group Executive Chef for four years) shares his insights on creating the perfect festive ambience and table setting. He emphasises the importance of tradition, presentation, and delectable taste, ensuring an unforgettable celebration.
"During the winter, my family back home gears up for one of the most important traditional holidays - the Chinese New Year. Also known as the Spring Festival, this holiday usually falls between late January and mid-February, and the festivities continue for 15 days. Each year is associated with one of the 12 animals in the Chinese zodiac, and 2024 is the year of the Dragon," said Chef Li. "The Dragon represents power, luck, and good fortune; people eagerly await the new year's arrival. For us, it is a time to honour our ancestors and pray for good fortune and prosperity in the coming year.
The Dragon represents power, luck, and good fortune; people eagerly await the new year's arrival. For us, it is a time to honour our ancestors and pray for good fortune and prosperity in the coming year.
"This festive season is the only time my family and I get together because we live far apart. It's a special occasion where we cook and enjoy each other's company. This year, I have a group of colleagues and friends in the UAE to celebrate and have a good time with."
The cuisine of Dalian
Dalian has a long coastline and a mild climate with fresh air, making it ideal for seafood, sailing, fishing, and enjoying the sea view. The seawater in Dalian is clean and has a favourable temperature, making it ideal for fish and other sea creatures to thrive, making them nutritious, fresh, and tasty.
Special dishes for Chinese New Year
As Chef Li comes from Dalian, which is famous for seafood, he cooks seafood dishes such as abalone and sea cucumber. Sizzling in the ocean, a dish with seven different types of seafood, is one of his favourites for the Chinese New Year, reminding Chef Li of his hometown. He also prepares a whole sea bass, symbolising abundance and a staple at Chinese New Year celebrations. The fish should be left with some leftovers on the table, as this indicates prosperity in the sense of having surpluses every year.
This is practised only in the north of the Yangtze River, but in other areas of China, the head and tail of the fish shouldn't be eaten until the beginning of the year, which expresses the hope that the year will start and finish with a surplus. He has shared three recipes with Gulf News readers to enjoy on this occasion: Sizzling in the Ocean, Roasted Duck with Lemongrass Sauce, and Xiao Long Bao.
The symbolism of Chinese dishes
Chef Li says that each recipe symbolises something special. Dim sum means ‘Touch of the heart’, and by having a mix of dim sum, they are giving their heart to the guest in terms of the effort they put into bringing all these flavours together in a perfect shape. Peking Duck initially served to the emperor in China 1500 years ago and is presented in a different way with a touch of lemongrass. This makes the guests feel like emperors. Appetisers like spring rolls, jellyfish salad, and marinated peanuts are arranged around the main dishes, usually in odd numbers for good luck. Longevity noodles are typically served in a long, unbroken strand in a separate bowl, symbolising long life and good health. Soups like wonton soup or fish soup are placed at the end of the meal for a comforting finish.
Setting a festive table for Chinese New Year
Chef Li sets the table using the art and science of Feng Shui to create a balance of energies and attract fortune, health, luck, and prosperity in the New Year.
Here are some key points to understand feng shui:
Qi (energy): The central concept of feng shui, believed to flow throughout the environment and influence well-being.
Yin and Yang: Represents opposing yet complementary forces (like light and dark), aiming for balance within a space.
Five elements: Wood, fire, earth, metal, and water, believed to interact and influence energy flow.
According to him, every element of the table is chosen wisely. For instance, the tablecloth must be red, symbolising good luck and happiness, and mandarins and oranges must be added to the table with a quantity that ends in 8, which is a lucky number in China. A conscious effort is made to have an even number of dishes on the table at Chinese New Year; the belief is that good things come in pairs, and odd numbers signify death. Usually, 8, 12, or 16 dishes are prepared for New Year. These numbers represent luck, success, and lots of wealth. A round table is preferred, as it signifies togetherness, peace, and family harmony.
Along with this, he believes that the best tableware adds to the festive atmosphere of the table. He uses a red tablecloth and adds prosperous colours such as red and gold in the form of napkins and napkin holders or gold bowls and salad servers. These elements are believed to attract fortune, health, luck, and prosperity in the New Year.
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