It seems fitting to call 2020 the year of fresh starts: not only did we usher in a whole new decade on January 1, but on January 25, we’ll also welcome the Year of the Rat and a new twelve-year cycle of the Chinese zodiac. Independent and resourceful, the Rat signifies many new opportunities and successes to come.
In this period of new beginnings, it’s important to start on the right foot (and with the right food). And there’s plenty of that to look forward to when Chinese New Year celebrations swing into full gear, from homemade dumplings and slurp-able noodles to lucky cakes and succulent barbecue meats. It’s an ideal time to visit Vancouver’s Chinatown, not only for the annual festivities, but also for the diverse array of eateries and restaurants, bakeries, and specialty shops, nestled among heritage buildings.
Here are a few ideas for eating your way through Vancouver’s Chinatown while celebrating the Year of the Rat!
Photo: Deanna Chan
Meat in the middle
It’s hard to walk by a fishmonger’s or butcher’s shop in Chinatown without peeking in, and resistance is futile anyway at Chinese New Year, with seafood and meat being important parts of the traditional feast. Besides being delicious, the golden skin of roast pork and barbecue pork’s reddish hue add auspicious colour to the table, while a whole chicken symbolizes family and togetherness. Steamed fish is also a popular dish, as ‘fish’ 魚 in Chinese sounds like ‘surplus’ 餘, and starting the year with a surplus is definitely a good sign—so good, in fact, that it’s the basis for one of the most common New Year wishes: 年年有餘 (“May you always have more than you need.”)
Live long and prosper
A good noodle goes a long way, and that’s especially true with yi mein. Golden and chewy, these noodles take on the mantle of ‘longevity noodles’ at birthdays and the New Year, their length representing the eater’s own life. Even if you forego the traditional longevity noodle dish at Chinese New Year, there are plenty of other noodle options in Chinatown, including Fat Mao and Jade Dynasty. True NOSH will also be serving hot mixed grain bowls to ward off the winter cold at the Garden’s Year of the Rat Temple Fair on January 26.
It’s all there in the name, but spring rolls are a must at Chinese New Year and the Spring Festival. Though eaten year-round, they take on added significance during this period, as the crispy golden rolls are likened to gold bars and the associated prosperity. Spring rolls are simple to prepare yourself, but you can also enjoy them ready-made at one of Chinatown’s Cantonese restaurants, where they’re a staple at dim sum. The Garden also offers a Dim Sum Experience for anyone wishing to learn about the culture and history behind the delectable morsels.
Photo: William Luk (Mayowill Photography)
Toast to tea
Any celebration is a good excuse to gather around the table with friends, family, and a pot of fragrant Chinese tea. Tea may take a backseat during this food-heavy festival, but it provides a welcome palate cleanser between dishes, as well as a great gift. As recommended by tea expert Lillian Li, black tea and aged pu’erh are most effective against the winter chill, while fresh green tea is the star of the coming spring. Taste teas from different vendors at Temple Fair, or pay a visit to Chinatown’s range of tea merchants, which include Treasure Green Tea Company and The Chinese Tea Shop.
Sweeten the deal
For all the savoury dishes that are enjoyed during New Year festivities, there’s no shortage of sugar either. Lucky golden fruits like oranges, pomelos, and tangerines are a welcome presence at any table – and mean that you can bring prosperity to your family while supporting your local Chinatown greengrocer! And since you’re in the neighbourhood, it doesn’t hurt to stop at a Chinese bakery and pick up a nian gao (glutinous rice cake); literally translated as ‘year cake’, this delightfully sticky treat almost flies off the shelves whenever a new year rolls around.