Dragon of the sea ... lobster dish, symbolising strength and good fortune, from Sea Treasure, Crows Nest. Photo: Jennifer Soo
Food and superstition are two of the strongest forces in Chinese culture and few meals are as deeply symbolic as the Chinese New Year banquet.
"For centuries, the Chinese have gone to great trouble to imbue their special foods with images of good fortune. Luckily for us they also happen to taste good too," says The Sydney Morning Herald's chief restaurant critic Terry Durack.
Abundance and unity ... whole steamed fish served with the head and the tail is traditionally the final dish of the New Year banquet. Photo: George Fetting
Traditional New Year banquet dishes are chosen for their symbolism and connotations of luck, Durack says.
The red colour of the crisp, crackly skin of a roasted suckling pig, for example, signifies good fortune for the year ahead.
"Noodles symbolise a long life, a whole fish means that those around the table will soon meet again, and small discs of roast pork represent golden coins that foretell great wealth, and so on," he says.
Plays on words are taken seriously in China, and many dishes are favoured because the name of the dish has a similar sound to a word or phrase with a positive meaning. Take, for example, one staple of the banquet - a dish of dried oyster and black sea moss.
"The Chinese name for sea moss (fat choy) means 'prosperity'. The traditional New Year's greeting kung hei fat choy means, in all its Oriental subtlety, 'May your wealth increase'," Durack says.
Other dishes which derive their meaning from the Chinese love of playing on words include abalone (bao yu) which sounds similar to a Cantonese phrase meaning "guaranteed abundance", bao meaning "guaranteed" and yu meaning "surplus" or "abundance". Prawns (ha in Cantonese) signify happiness and energy because the word sounds like laughter, while the word for oysters (ho see) sounds like the Cantonese phrase meaning "good things".
Some foods symbolise characters from Chinese mythology. Lobsters, sometimes called "the dragon of the sea", represent the dragon, which is a symbol of strength and good fortune. Paired with the phoenix, which is represented by a whole poached or steamed chicken served with the head and feet (the feet representing the phoenix's claws), the two symbolise a strong marriage and family.
Dishes are served whole to preserve the symbolism of the food and to represent unity. Steamed whole fish served with the head and tail is traditionally the final dish of the banquet, the presence of the head and tail symbolising a good ending to the year and a good beginning to the coming one. Fish is also served because the word for fish (yu) sounds similar to the word for surplus.
“It's in the spirit of auspiciousness and luck that normally during Chinese New Year you want everything perfect, everything complete. If you serve it without the head and the tail, it is incomplete,” says Tony Wong, manager at Iron Chef Chinese Seafood Restaurant in Cabramatta.
New Year banquet dishes are heavily steeped in Chinese philosophy and history, particularly the teachings of Confucius and Taoism.
"Typically, depending on whether you're in the north or south, there would be a balance of the yin and yang foods … which is linked to the idea that opposing forces create balance and harmony,” says Kylie Redfern, director of Chinese Business Courses at the University of Technology, Sydney.
Yin and yang in Chinese philosophy represent the two opposing but interrelated forces in nature. Yin foods, considered "cooling", are foods with a higher water content, which are usually steamed, boiled or poached, Redfern says. Yang foods are "hot" foods and tend to be deep-fried or roasted.
"In a banquet both yin and yang foods will be cooked and there will be a combination of sweet, spicy, salty and sour flavours to create harmony," she says.
And while New Year banquets are highly traditional and adhere to long-established customs, some of these customs do not apply at other times of the year.
"The whole idea is to do everything opposite to what you do in everyday life, which means excess and abundance and overdoing everything," Redfern says. "It's a celebration of the good life."
Which is why rice - a staple of the Chinese diet virtually every other day of the year - is only served towards the end of a banquet or sometimes not at all.
"Rice is a poor man's food; it fed the masses and is seen as something you fill up on when you don't have all the good stuff," Redfern says.
Chinese New Year banquets in Sydney
Sydney Morning Herald Good Food Guide reviewer Les Luxford recommends the bigger, palatial Chinese restaurants for a New Year banquet with all the trimmings, including the traditional lion dance or dragon dance.
"The visit of the dragon is always accompanied by incredibly loud fire crackers," Luxford says. "The purpose of the dragon is to collect money, so put some money in your lucky envelopes and feed it to the dragon as it passes your table."
The Star, 80 Pyrmont Street, Pyrmont
Phone: 9566 2328
393-399 Sussex St , Haymarket
Phone: 9212 3901
Choose from three Chinese New Year banquet menus (nine courses $880, $1280 or $1380 per table of 10)
Lion dance performances at Golden Century only, 7pm
The Eight Restaurant
Level 3, Market City, 9- 13 Hay Street, Sydney
Phone: 9282 9988
Choose from eight Chinese New Year banquet menus ranging from nine courses for $42 per person up to 13 courses for $1388 per table of 12.
Lion Dance performance on February 9 at 7.30pm and February 10 at 7pm
Palace Chinese Restaurant
38/133-145 Castlereagh St, Sydney
Phone: 9283 6288
Choose from three 13-course Year of the Snake banquet menus (Diamond $1588 for table of 12, $988 for table of six; Gold $1288 for table of 12, $798 for table of six; Silver $1038 for table of 12, $688 for table of six) or an eight-course set menu for $90 per person
Lion dance performances on February 9 and 10 at 7.30pm
46 Willoughby Rd
Crows Nest NSW 2065
Phone: 9906 6388
14 courses for $1188 per table of 12
Lion dance performance on February 9 and 10 at 8pm
Level 1, Corner of Pitt and Alfred Streets, Circular Quay
Phone: 9241 3338 or 9212 3901
New Year's Eve banquet 11 courses for $90 per person
3 Bridge Lane, Sydney
Phone: 9240 3000
Seven courses for $88 per person
Blue Eye Dragon
37 Pyrmont Street
Phone: 9518 9955
10 course Taiwanese banquet (choose six entrees and four mains from the a la carte menu). Includes one bottle of wine per four guests.
$50 or $60 per person, depending on number of seafood dishes ordered