Red Emperor's dish of lobster with ginger and spring onion for Chinese New Year. Photo: Eddie Jim
"A customer came back from China recently and she had a whole goat's womb with the placenta and the foetus in it," says Christine Yong, general manager of Melbourne's well-loved Chinese restaurant Red Emperor.
"What don't the Chinese love?" she asks with a big laugh.
Christine Yong, general manger at Red Emperor. Photo: Eddie Jim
It's Year of the Snake and preparations are under way at Red Emperor for the speciality dishes (“goat's womb” isn't one of them) and celebratory banquets that will be served this weekend, as part of the lunar new year celebrations, the most important date on the Chinese calendar.
Will there be snake? No – although Yong says it will definitely feature on menus in China.
“Snake stock is sweeter and stronger, more potent than chicken stock,” says Yong, adding that Red Emperor did have a version on its menu for years – a nourishing herbal soup of water snake – before it was banned.
Deep-fried pigs' trotters and fat choy. Photo: Eddie Jim
For any would-be snake eaters: this is a typical winter dish, and it's usually served with chicken (yin) to help cool the heat (yang) of the snake meat and white chrysanthemum petals.
Yong, who is Chinese Malaysian, makes the distinction that while Christmas is “a religious thing”, Chinese New Year “is very much a cultural thing”, with a host of ancient traditions, rituals and customs, many of them heavily linked to food.
Particular ingredients are essential eating – such as fat choy (an edible blue-green alga, also known as "black moss"), loong ma (lobster), lettuce, ho si (dried oysters), pigs' trotters, pigs' tongue and lotus root – each one culturally imbued with the promise of wealth, prosperity, good fortune and abundance.
Fat choy, lotus root and dried oysters are all essential ingredients for Chinese New Year. Photo: Eddie Jim
“It's really important that we use the black moss in most of the dishes. It means 'get rich', and Asia is all about money and wealth,” laughs Yong.
Like saffron, authentic fat choy (black moss) is a product that spawns inferior imitations and there are plenty of impostor fat choys on the market. Harvesting restrictions have pushed prices up – Red Emperor pays $280 per kilo – and the real deal is highly prized.
"It's like tiny black hair and then you soak it in hot water and a little bit of oil, so that it's not so dry, so it comes back to life." Red Emperor is doing a classic version of Fat Choy Ho Si, a dish of stewed dried oysters (said to mean “good market”), fat choy (“get rich”) and lettuce (“grow wealth”).
Get rich quick? This New Year's dish of stewed dried oysters, fat choy and lettuce is considered to bring wealth. Photo: Eddie Jim
Lobster – also known as “dragon prawn”, meaning to “be alive like the dragon” – will feature, as will deep-fried pigs' trotters (loose translation: “money will come easily”) topped with fat choy.
You'll always see lotus root on New Year menus, perhaps candied, dried, as seeds, or in pig's tongue soup. “You have to have lotus root,” says Yong, “because it means 'every year', so it means abundance will come every year.”
If you want to create prosperity for your whole family, try the double-boiled soup of Chinese mushrooms, lotus root, black moss and pig's tongue – combining the lot is more powerful in terms of luck.
But, while the New Year's day banquet is important, Yong says the family reunion dinner on New Year's Eve carries more significance.
“We all have to come home for that one,” she says. “The most important dish is to have fish. When you have fish on New Year's Eve it means you have abundance to carry over to the following year.”
Yong says there must always be more than enough food, and that you never clear your plate to signify plenty.
If you're wondering about a New Year gift, try peanuts, lollies, mandarins (to signify gold) and nian gao (sweet, caramel, glutinous rice cakes). Nian gao are made with sticky rice flour, coconut sugar and coconut cream, and steamed for hours. Tradition dictates that they are presented to the Kitchen God who reports to the God of all Gods about the household's goings-on during the past year. “The culture behind the cake,” says Yong “is that the Kitchen God will eat it and his mouth will stick together and go all gluey so he can't badmouth the family.” She adds that nian gao means “higher year”, a year has passed and the new year is a year to “go higher”, to improve yourself or your wealth or career.
It's good advice – so when you see fat choy or pig's tongue on the menu at this year's Chinese banquet, eat up and let the good times roll.