Tomorrow is Chinese New Year's Eve, a day when families gather for an annual reunion dinner to mark the start of the 15-day lunar festival celebrated with elaborate meals and traditional foods that are rich in symbolism. This being the year of the dragon, the most powerful sign in the Chinese zodiac, the feasting will be exceptionally auspicious. To help spread the good fortune, we have asked local foodies to share their favourite lucky dishes, insider tips and charmed secret haunts.
Glutinous rice cakes are to the Chinese New Year what fruitcake is to Christmas. The steamed, sweet or savoury pudding-like cakes (served in round pans to symbolize family togetherness) are considered an auspicious treat to eat and give away during the lunar festival because the name, a homonym for "higher year," promises rising abundance. "Chinese New Year foods are so full of symbolism that good flavour sometimes gets pushed out of the way," says food writer Lee Man. "But my mom's sliced daikon cake, studded with loads of chopped shitake mushrooms and cured sausage from Dollar Meat Store in Chinatown [266 E. Pender St.]– their lap cheong are probably the best in the world – makes for the perfect new year's breakfast when pan-fried to golden crispness."
This sautéed vegetarian dish appears to have cleansed the conscience of many a guilt-ridden carnivore feasting for good karma. Almost everyone we asked named it as a favourite New Year's dish chock-full of good luck – white cloud-ear fungus (good fortune), black mushrooms (fulfilled wishes), fermented red bean curd (yang-fuelled energy), fat choy (prosperity), lotus seeds (fertility) and cellophane noodles (longevity). For the best lo hon jai in town, Fairchild Radio's culinary specialist Condrea Fung points to Dynasty Seafood Restaurant (108-777 W. Broadway).
Crescent shaped to resemble the gold ingots used as currency in ancient times, jiaozi dumplings are plump purses of figurative wealth. And they don't cost a bundle. Robert Sung, owner of A Wok Around Chinatown culinary tours, heaps lavish praise on the humble fun goh (steamed and filled with pork, shrimp and water chestnut) at Golden Wheat Bakery (423 Gore Ave.). "Hearty … filling … and only $2 for five."
Fa Cai Hao Shi
"It isn't the most glamorous dish, or even the tastiest," Yuen Pau Woo, president and chief executive officer of the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada, says about the popular New Year's stew braised with black hair-like moss (fat choy, a homonym for "prosperity") and dried oysters (hao shi, which sounds like "good business"). "But who can resist a generous helping of good fortune?" Vancouver city Councillor Kerry Jang, who also loves this dish, notes that overharvesting has made fat choy a rare commodity. "There are lots of fakes out there," he warns, recommending Tung Fong Hung Foods (various locations) as a reputable retailer for home cooks.
Duck represents fidelity, and the red colour of its crispy skin is considered propitious. According to Andy Yan, an urban planner with Bing Thom Architects, Chinatown's legendary Kam Gok Yuen (142 E. Pender St.) still serves Vancouver's best barbecue duck. "Lacquered with a sweet hoisin-based glaze, these juicy Long Island canards have the perfect fat-to-meat ratio." But he has recently become "obsessed" with the Korean-style Peking duck at Richmond's Man Ri Sung (8211 Westminster Hwy.), where the birds are perfumed with cherry wood. "Normally, Chinese barbeque is a straight up, no-smoke process, but this method adds a faint and delicious smokiness to the meat that's found more in American barbeque than Chinese."
Crab and lobster are dragon foods that embody the zodiac creature's powerful vital energy. For a celebratory taste of yang, Craig Stowe, founding director of the Chinese Restaurant Awards, commends the pan-fried Dungeness crab with salted egg yolk at Richmond's Big Chef Restaurant (1060-8580 Alexandra Rd.). A winner of the CRA's 2011 Critics' Choice Signature Dish Award, this extra-lucky dish is cooked with chewy, golden morsels of yolk-crusted nian gao.
Steamed Whole Fish
The Chinese word for fish, yu, is a homonym for "abundance" or "surplus." It is served whole, with head and tail attached, to symbolize a financially prosperous beginning and ending for the coming year. When cooking at home, always buy live fish (the swimming motion connotes eternity). Mr. Sung suggests Hung Win Seafood market (585 Gore Ave.) for fish so fresh they're still flopping. If dining out, food writer Joie Alvaro Kent recommends Lucky Noodle Chinese Restaurant (3377 Kingsway) – "totally under the radar and truly excellent" – for its remarkably clean-tasting steamed tilapia with soy sauce, ginger, green onion and cilantro.
Long Life Noodles
Longevity noodles are typically served at the end of the meal to wish everyone around the table a long healthy life. "A new year's dinner would not be complete without them," Mr. Jang says of the slightly chewy wheat-flour noodles that are often stir-fried with oyster sauce and shitake mushrooms and sometimes plunged into soup, but never cut or broken into shorter strands. Try not to bite through them while eating.