- Good luck salad (yee sang)
- Crab and ginger dumplings with chilli oil
- Deep-fried duck with plum and citrus sauce
Kylie Kwong has a small chef problem. Chinese New Year is approaching and the roster needs to be written for Billy Kwong, the Sydney eating house she has owned for almost 20 years.
"I have a kitchen full of Chinese chefs, so I'm like, 'Oh, my goodness. Who gets Chinese New Year's Eve off?'" she says. "What about Chinese New Year's Day? It's a very significant date on the calendar."
Chinese New Year, also known as the Lunar New Year, is a two-week celebration of life, family and good fortune that kicks off on the first day of the lunisolar Chinese calendar. In 2018, that's February 16, and every capital-city Chinatown will light up with lanterns and crackers and dancing.
"We lived in the suburbs when I was growing up, but we would always come into Chinatown for New Year's and watch the lion dance," Kwong says. "I still love it. I love watching the lions jump in front of each restaurant doorway and eat the Chinese cabbage offered by the owners. It's such a spectacle, especially combined with all the drumming and firecrackers."
Kwong says that Chinese New Year, for her family, is "what Christmas is to non-Asians".
It's very much like the food scenes in 'The Joy Luck Club'.
"It's a time to catch up with everyone, particularly on Chinese New Year's Eve and Day," she says "There's lots of feasting. It's very much like the food scenes in The Joy Luck Club."
Kwong is third-generation Australian and food has always played an important role in her family.
"When mum was growing up in Sydney there were nine kids in the house, all sharing the same bed and bath water," she says. "My grandfather was a cook and he had a backyard garden where he grew watercress, coriander, chillies, chokos, snow peas, snake beans, bitter melon, ridge gourd, shallots, garlic and gai choy."
The backyard was also home to apricot, lemon, apple, nectarine, peach and plum trees, but Kwong's Auntie Connie says she never saw the plums ripen because her siblings would climb the tree with a packet of salt and eat them while they were still green.
Guests would always be popping into the Kwong house over Chinese New Year.
"Grandad would place a big red plate on the middle of the table for visitors with peanuts, celery, preserved plums, snake beans and Jaffa chocolates that my Auntie Connie thinks were probably there to signify gold," Kwong says.
"There would also be dried watermelon seeds to symbolise there were a lot of children in the family. They were very poor, but they had a very rich family life."
Symbolism and superstition are strong forces in Chinese New Year feasting. Almost every dish has a deeper meaning. Fish should be served whole, for instance, with the head and tail attached to symbolise a good beginning and ending for the year to come. ("You won't see any fish fillets at the table," says Kwong.) Crescent-shaped dumplings represent wealth because they look a little like ancient Chinese money.
Every Chinese New Year's Day, Kwong's grandfather would serve white-cut chicken (symbolising wholeness and prosperity), steamed fish with ginger and shallots, and a vegetable dish with long beans to represent long life.
"He also grew rhubarb and would boil it with sugar and serve it on the side as a little condiment," Kwong says. "Auntie Connie said she loved it when the rice came piping hot out of the cooker and you could place the sweet, amazingly textured rhubarb on top."
Other condiments included fresh chillies from the garden with soy and vinegar, lemons brined under the house, and salted, fermented school prawns.
"I have an image of all these beautiful little offerings around the table and that celebration of abundance is still a big part of our Chinese New Year meals today," Kwong says.
"Mum will take control of the white-cooked chicken and famous Uncle Jimmy will be in charge of the Hokkien noodles. I will often swing by Chinatown for the roast duck and pork, and supply Billy Kwong pickles, XO and chilli sauce, too. Auntie Connie will bring a big thermos of already-cooked choy sum and rice.
"Then my Australian aunties, Aunty June and Aunty Sue, will bring coleslaw and pineapple. There will also be tomato sauce on the table, but it all kind of works because that's who we are. That's our family."
Kwong says she has never experienced the syrupy honey chicken and prawns often associated with Australian-Chinese food.
"Mum was such a great cook and still is," she says. "Grandad taught her how to cook Cantonese food and then she kind of did her own interpretation of what that was, influenced by her surroundings and the quality of Australian produce.
"My parents would throw dinner parties every fortnight for their friends featuring a dozen courses of Cantonese, but then Mum would finish with an array of Australian Women's Weekly desserts. Butterfly cakes, pavlova, rock cakes, all that stuff. That's what Australian-Chinese cooking is to me."
Kwong is highly influenced by local produce, too, using a delicious tangle of Australian native ingredients at Billy Kwong. She says her family are big fans of the restaurant's caramelised wallaby tail with black bean and chilli, and the stir-fried Australian native greens with ginger and shiro shoyu.
Over the Chinese New Year fortnight, Kwong's family will find time for an Australian-Chinese feast at home plus a family meal in a suburban restaurant.
The feast is usually hosted by whoever has the biggest house. "With the biggest swimming pool and the biggest television," Kwong says. "It's all for the children. The kids also receive a red envelope – lai see – containing a gold coin. When I was growing up, I remember my Uncle Arthur would give all of us children a little red envelope with a crisp, new $5 note. It must have cost him a fortune because there were so many of us.
"Traditionally, there might be lots of presents, but because we're Australian-Chinese, we don't adhere too strictly to that like some of my Chinese chefs will."
As for the "Chinese restaurant affair", there's an eatery in Narwee that Kwong's Auntie Connie will book because the chef is always happy to prepare yee sang, the Chinese New Year prosperity salad.
"She loves it because he will also organise the dragon dance," says Kwong. "That meal is usually just our immediate family of about 25 people. To include the extended family would make it a party of 70 and I don't know which Chinese restaurant would be game enough to take on our mob!"
From February 16 to March 2, Billy Kwong in Potts Point will serve a New Year banquet menu, which will include Kylie Kwong's Australian-Chinese New Year good luck salad. Bookings: 02 9332 3300 or billykwong.com.au.