Sydney 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.
"Across all cultures, the Lunar New Year is about positivity and prosperity," says Anthony Tam, strategy manager for New Shanghai in Ashfield, Chatswood and the CBD. "Good health and family reunion are very important too."
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. In the Vietnamese zodiac, a gracious water buffalo takes the place of the ox.
"From Monday to Thursday next week, Cabramatta is going to be packed with Vietnamese people buying last minute groceries for Tet," says Patrick Young, who hosts eating treks of the south-west suburb with social enterprise Taste Cultural Food Tours.
"The streets will be dead quiet on Friday while everybody visits aunts, uncles and in-laws, but by Saturday the mall will be nuts again with people catching up at cafes and bubble tea shops. There's usually the odd festival firecracker going off too."
Victor Liong, co-executive chef of Chuuka at Jones Bay Wharf, says dinner on the eve of Lunar New Year is the festival's biggest feast.
"It's all about that family reunion banquet the night before, a bit like Christmas Eve in European cultures. There's always a whole fish and whole bird, either chicken or duck, and lots of noodles because they're a symbol of longevity."
Liong has drawn from his Chinese-Malaysian roots to craft a yu sang salad for Lunar New Year. The many-textured dish stars green lip abalone, pomelo, mango, green papaya and pickled ginger.
"Yu sang is also known as prosperity toss salad and symbolises abundance and vigour," he says. "Each ingredient is presented individually on a platter with tradition dictating everyone at the table toss the salad together. The higher you toss, the better the New Year."
Local councils have cancelled many Lunar celebrations for the second straight year due to COVID-19 restrictions around outdoor gatherings. However, smaller events are still scheduled for some suburbs, not to mention countless restaurants serving special New Year feasts.
Here's how to eat like an ox across three key areas celebrating the fortnight-long festival.
Vinata's Hot Bread (Shop 13-14, 1 Hughes Street) marked Lunar New Year 2019 with a record attempt for the world's longest pork roll. Unfortunately, there's no behemoth banh mi at the bakery this year, but Young says there will be a lengthy line for crusty rolls destined to be spread with pâté or dipped in fragrant stews at family banquets.
A queue can also be expected at nearby Tan Hong Phat BBQ (Shop 6, 48 Park Road) where locals shop for glistening Peking duck and burnished barbecued pork. Ask for that pork to be sliced and enjoy it on the grass in Cabramatta Park, perhaps with an ice-cold Vietnamese coffee brewed by Cafe Nho (13-15 Belvedere Arcade) and a box of special Lunar sweets from Hoa Sanh Asian Grocery (63 Park Road).
Any bun bo hue and pho cravings can be cured at Thanh Binh (52 John Street), a strong contender for the best noodle soup shop in town.
Huong Xua's beef pho with tripe, beef flank and beef meat balls. Photo: Wolter Peeters
Huong Xua is right next door and specialises in Northern Vietmanese dishes such as the banana leaf-wrapped banh chung – a wonderfully sticky rice cake humming with pork, black pepper and mung bean that's essential eating for Tet.
Willoughby City Council has created a jam-packed program to welcome the Year of the Ox, featuring COVID safe events such as a comedy night, art exhibition and all-day Lunar markets in the mall.
Finding delicious treats on Victoria Avenue is never a challenge during the festival, from the gold-flecked lime raisin mousse cake at 85 Degrees Bakery Cafe (326 Victoria Avenue), to "Make Me Rich" xiao long bao dumplings at New Shanghai in Chatswood Chase shopping centre. "People like to see lots of colour on the table for New Year, so we've brightened the dumpling wrappers with purple cabbage and pumpkin juice," says Tam.
Other food highlights in the growing district include beef combination noodle soup at Bao Dao Taiwanese Kitchen (Shop 8, 376 Victoria Avenue), spicy mala xiang guo dry-fried hotpot at Master Bowl Chinese (306 Victoria Avenue) and whole suckling pig for $65 a kilogram at Chatswood Barbecue Kitchen. For a whole fish, Lilong by Taste of Shanghai is ready and waiting at the Interchange (Shop 68, Level 3, 436 Victoria Avenue) with steamed coral trout sharpened by ginger and shallots.
Holy heck, there are a lot of restaurants in this south Sydney suburb. Thankfully almost all of them are brilliant, especially anywhere on Forest Road specialising in Northern Chinese, Cantonese and Malaysian. Nevertheless, first-time visitors may like to book a special Lunar New Year guided journey of Hurstville with Taste Cultural Food Tours. (The not-for-profit company is also hosting special tours of Chatswood and Haymarket throughout February.)
One must-visit cafe and tour stop is Diamond Bakery (197 Forest Road) for its heaving window display of special Lunar mousses, taro sponges and tiramisu. Locals flock to Mr Stonebowl (316 Forest Road) for pan-Chinese fusion cooking, while Golden Sands (Level 2, Hurstville Times Plaza, 127-141 Forest Road) is the number one yum cha temple in town. Don't miss the trolley of chicken pies.
Sydney Dumpling King (173 Forest Road) is a Disneyland of pork buns, siu mai and rib-sticking wonton soup, and, closer to the Westfield, Oppa Pocha (264 Forest Road) is the right idea for Korean barbecue and bibimbap. Diners keen on tossing Malaysian prosperity salad can book a table at KampongBoy (370 Forest Road) for the experience.
More dumplings can be scoffed at Hurstville Plaza on February 19, when the Little Lunar night market kicks off from 5:30pm, featuring Malaysian food stalls, lion dancing, dragon beard candy making and Chinese opera.
Din Tai Fung's red wagyu dumplings for Lunar New Year 2021. Photo: Supplied
Further feasting for the Year of the Ox
A six-course $220 Lunar tasting menu stars glazed Maremma duck and roasted monkfish with black truffle. Available February 17-24.
1 Macquarie Street Sydney
Din Tai Fung
Even the ox-shaped chocolate buns are wearing masks at the bao chain. Bright red wagyu dumplings are the pick of its New Year treats. Available February 8-28.
The Gardens by Lotus
A $168 banquet includes all the Lunar festival hits such as prosperity salad, dim sum, oysters, whole fish and duck pancakes. Available February 10-13.
Chinese Garden of Friendship, Pier Street, Darling Harbour
XO pipis at Lilymu, Parramatta. Photo: Supplied
Chef Brendan Fong is rocking specials of XO pipis, garlic lobster and scampi noodles for the occasion. Available February 9-21.
153 Macquarie Street, Parramatta
Raw tuna with spicy orange oil is one of many highlights on a $129 banquet menu at the brooding pan-Chinese restaurant. Available February 10-20.
10 Bligh Street, Sydney