A food lover’s guide to Lunar New Year feasting in Melbourne

Marvin Tan, owner of Jonker Street restaurants in Mount Waverley in Doncaster with his Lunar New Year banquet.
Marvin Tan, owner of Jonker Street restaurants in Mount Waverley in Doncaster with his Lunar New Year banquet. Photo: Eddie Jim

Melbourne is set to be coloured red and gold with dumplings all over as Lunar New Year celebrations officially begin on Friday.

Also known as Chinese New Year or Spring Festival, the calendar event is celebrated by several Asian cultures. In Vietnam, it's known as Tet and the streets are filled as flowers; Tibetan New Year is called Losar, while Koreans celebrate Seollal with bottomless bowls of tteokguk, a sliced rice cake soup.

The date varies each year according to the lunisolar calendar, but the festival usually begins between January 21 and February 20. In 2021, the main day is February 12, marking the commencement of the Year of the Ox, the second animal in the Chinese zodiac cycle.

Jonker Street's prosperity salmon salad, 'platter of blessed happiness' (pork ribs, vegetarian balls, yam and prawns) ...
Jonker Street's prosperity salmon salad, 'platter of blessed happiness' (pork ribs, vegetarian balls, yam and prawns) and abalone with mushrooms. Photo: Eddie Jim

Jason Lui, son of Flower Drum executive chef and co-owner Anthony Lui, grew up celebrating Chinese New Year in his father's iconic Cantonese restaurant. Now he runs the Market Lane fine diner, where a reservation on Lunar New Year eve requires serious forethought.

"We're usually booked out a year in advance," he says regarding the service. "It has been the same families for the past 40 years."

Parties as large as 40 people are already on the books for 2021, with 25 suckling pigs pre-ordered. It's an a la carte menu, but people prefer the most auspicious dishes.

Asia Unplated host Diana Chan.
Asia Unplated host Diana Chan. Photo: Supplied

"It's more meaning-based than anything," says Lui. "Whole fish is always good. Lettuce is good for livelihood and we'll have laughing doughnuts [cracked sesame balls said to bring happiness] and nian gao [glutinous rice flour cake].".

For chef Jerry Mai, owner of Bia Hoi, Pho Nom, and Annam Vietnamese restaurant on Little Bourke Street, Tet is centred around gathering with family.

"It's like western Christmas," she says. "You have conversations and you eat, drink and gamble, like all good Asians. There's a lot of coordinating food with colour and prosperity."

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Host of Asia Unplated on SBS, Diana Chan, grew up in Malaysia with multicultural festivities. At her uncle's house, the buffet spread will consist of halal dishes such as mee goreng and rendang to cater for Muslim friends.

"In Malaysia everyone celebrates, so you get Indians coming to your house for Chinese New Year, but in the same breath I'll celebrate Eid with them," she says. "You never get the same New Year food because it depends on heritage."

If you haven't scored an invite to someone's home for Lunar New Year, here's how to eat like an ox across three key areas celebrating the fortnight-long festival.

Sunshine

Great for: Vietnamese

Just 12 kilometres west of the city, Sunshine's Vietnamese restaurants rival those on Victoria Street in Richmond. At banh mi shop Kinh Do (11 Dickson Street) the counter is stocked with Tet specialties such as gio cha (Vietnamese sausage wrapped in banana leaves), nem chua (fermented pork usually packaged in cling wrap) and banh chung (mung bean and pork-filled glutinous rice cake).

Around the corner is Xuan Banh Cuon (232 Hampshire Road) specialising in northern Vietnamese steamed rice-batter pancakes wrapped around prawn, pork and mushroom.

Walk another 150 metres to Doi Dua (229 Hampshire Road) where woven platters present bun dau mam tom dac biet (pork slices, blood sausage, fried tofu and herbs encircling a mound of vermicelli).

Nearby at HaHa Quan (261 Hampshire Road) are half a dozen varieties of nem (Hanoi-style spring rolls), regional noodle soups and luxe, Chinese-influenced dishes loaded with lobster, mud crab and abalone.

Consider finishing the day on a sweet note at NNB Dessert House (221A Hampshire Road) with che hoa cau xoi vo – sweet sticky rice in a hot mung bean pudding.

Doncaster and Doncaster East

Great for: Malaysian, Singaporean, Cantonese, Fujian/Hokkien

If noodles represent longevity, then then Mister-K (1/261 Blackburn Road, Doncaster East) is going to be around for many decades to come. 72-hour Taiwanese beef noodle soup is a specialty at the family-run eatery, but also look out for Fuzhou red wine chicken with thin somen noodles, a traditional New Year dish in Malaysia and Singapore.

Malaya Inn (25 Village Avenue, Doncaster) and Jonker Street (84 Jackson Court, Doncaster East) are both serving yu sheng, the colourful "prosperity toss" salad; the higher you toss, the more prosperous your New Year.

Malaya Inn's banquet menu features luo han zhai (a mixed vegetable dish known as Buddha's delight) and Assam whole fish cooked in tamarind.

Jonker Street's banquet is split into courses with names such as Never Ending Happiness (that is, prawns), but you can order a la carte dishes that frequent tables in Malaysia during Lunar New Year, such as lobak (five-spice, bean curd-wrapped pork rolls), pork belly with preserved mustard greens and stir-fry in yam baskets. The same menu is available at Jonker Street's Mount Waverley outpost.

Meanwhile, Joyful Chef (237-239 Blackburn Road, Doncaster) is hosting lion dances and Cantonese banquets starring steamed coral trout, rooster and braised baby abalone with sea cucumber.

Herbivores should head to Chanhouse (21 Rosella Street, Doncaster East) where hot pot, dim sum and mock roast duck are listed on a vegan menu.

Vegan dumpling shop Blissful Station in Box Hill.

Vegan dumpling shop Blissful Station in Box Hill. Photo: Supplied

Box Hill

Great for: Taiwanese, Hong Kongese

The menu at Hong Kong Best Food (35 Carrington Road) offers auspicious entrees such as turnip cake and spring rolls, plus home-style New Year dishes including pork trotter soup with nam yu (red fermented bean curd) and noodles.

Kowloon Cafe (866 Canterbury Road) keeps things more casual with a Hong Kongese set meal of black pepper pork chop on rice with a milk tea a few doors down.

Grand Taipei Bakery (594 Station Street) is the pick for traditional sweets and baked goods. Stock up on tai yang bing (Taiwanese sun cakes) and wife cakes filled with candied winter melon paste; glazed pastry with red bean paste and whole egg yolks; and rolled sponge logs flavoured from pandan to durian.

Vegans can takeaway radish cake, glutinous rice rolls and stuffed xian bing (flat, pan-fried pies) from Blissful Station at Box Hill Central food court, or book in at Water Drop Teahouse inside Fo Guang Shan Er You Temple (42 Rutland Road).

Over the first four days of Lunar New Year the temple, run by a Chinese Mahayana Buddhist organisation based in Taiwan, will serve vegan versions of traditional New Year dishes alongside menu favourites. Highlights include noodle soup, rice vermicelli with tofu and vegetables, and bento-style lunch boxes.