The Cantonese do not eat to live, but live to eat, and the celebration of Chinese New Year is no exception. In Hong Kong, the festivities are all about sharing good wishes with family and friends—in the form of festive foods imbued with auspicious meanings.
Nin Gou (Year Cake)
Cakes are very popular Chinese New Year dishes because traditionally, the women of the household only had three days of rest after cooking up a feast for the whole clan on New Year’s Eve; puddings were concocted in advance so that the only chore women had to do when one’s family became hungry was to steam or pan-fry the cakes, then serve. The simple rice cake has been a ceremonial offering since antiquity, and is still the star of the Lunar New Year table. Northern Chinese varieties are not flavored and white in color, but the Cantonese variety is sweetened with brown sugar and tinted a dark amber. Nin gou literally means “Year Cake” but it’s also a homonym for “Year High”—symbolizing growth, a higher income, or exalted position. The health-conscious opt for minimalist steaming, while kids will prefer to eat pan-fried versions, often dipped into an egg batter, so that the outside packs a caramelized crunch while the inside remains gooey and stretchy. For an authentic souvenir, try cook and food writer Theresa Mak Lai-man’s artisanal version of nin gou, spiced with fragrant ginger. Her line of traditional cakes and puddings, Da Shi Jie, is available at most Hong Kong upscale supermarkets like city’super and Great. 852-5131/3230; dashijie.com.hk/retailers.
Lo Baak Gou (Turnip Cake)
Though a perennial favorite on dim sum menus throughout the year, turnip cake, or lo baak gou, is another New Year classic. Despite the name, the savory pudding is actually made with daikon, the Asian white radish. The winter root vegetable is grated, then mixed with rice flour. Velvety soft when steamed, and golden crisp when pan-fried, the dish often includes other ingredients like dried shrimp, dried black mushrooms, lap cheung (preserved sausages) and Jinhua ham stir-fried and added to the batter for extra umami. Go for the upscale version at Michelin two-star Yan Toh Heen at the InterContinental Hong Kong; there, they use high-end Japanese pork for their Kagoshima Thick Cut Daikon Pudding. B/F, 18 Salisbury Rd., Tsim Sha Tsui, Kowloon; 852-2313-2323, hongkong-ic.intercontinental.com.
Ma Tai Gou (Water Chestnut Cake)
Another steamed or pan-fried cake, ma tai gou, or chestnut cake, is bright, translucent yellow in color and made from water chestnut powder sweetened with sugarcane juice. The texture is like a firm jelly, with a delightful crunch from pieces of water chestnut that stud the dish. An excellent version is served at Fook Lam Moon—“Hong Kong millionaire’s canteen”—where they switch it up with Korean grain sugar to bring out the natural sweetness of the water chestnuts 35-45 Johnston Rd., Wanchai; 852-2866-0663; fooklammoon-grp.com.
Mutton Hot Pot
What better way to celebrate the Year of the Ram with a Beijing-style hot pot served with delicate wafer-thin mutton. In cold, frozen Northern China, hot pots and dumplings keep the people warm throughout the winter. While Hong Kong is predominantly Cantonese, all the major regional Chinese cooking styles are represented and loved here. Dong Lai Shun, which opened in Beijing in 1903, specializes in mutton hot pot, selecting only specific marbled cuts of young black-headed white rams from Inner Mongolia—castrated so that the meat remains tender and free of the gamey odor. The mutton dumplings are also delicious, especially when dipped in their creamy signature peanut and sesame sauce. Basement 2, The Royal Garden, 69 Mody Rd., Tsimshatsui East, Kowloon; 852-2733-2020; rghk.com.hk.
Faat Choy Hou Si (Hair Vegetable and Dried Oysters)
This dish may seem quite alien to non-Chinese, but it’s indispensable for Cantonese New Year—it’s as important as the turkey at American Thanksgiving. In posh restaurants with English menus, faat choy may be labeled as “sea moss,” but it’s not a marine plant, it’s actually a photosynthetic bacteria from the Gobi Desert. When cooked, it is reminiscent of seaweed or fine vermicelli, and looks like strands of black Asian hair. Faat choy literally means “hair vegetable” and since it rhymes with “get rich,” it’s paired with plump sun-dried oysters, hou si, which sounds like “good market.” Order this quintessential CNY dish at Duddell’s, an art gallery cum Chinese restaurant, where it’s written on the menu as “braised conpoy (dried scallop) with dried oyster and sea moss.” 3 & 4/F, Shanghai Tang Mansion, 1 Duddell St., Central; 852-2525-9191; duddells.co.
Lo Hei Yue Saang (Raw Fish Salad)
Lo Hei means “mix up/raise up” and signifies making it big in the world as a mover and shaker. Yue is “fish,” a homonym for abundance and surplus, and saang, “raw,” stands for life, vigor and prosperity. This old-school Cantonese sashimi salad was first brought to Southeast Asia by Chinese immigrants; the contemporary version, usually made with salmon, was popularized in the ’60s by Singaporean chefs. There’s a whole ritual with this dish: Shredded carrot, cucumber, daikon, celery, sesame, pepper, and five-spice powder all have propitious connotations, and auspicious statements are declared by the most senior diner or the server as each ingredient is added. All the diners then stand up on cue and proceed to toss the components into the air with their chopsticks, chanting their mantra “Lo hei! Lo hei!” enthusiastically. Café Renaissance will be serving up this salad with other Chinese New Year classics at their Year of the Goat Auspicious Dinner Buffet from February 19-22. From $75; Renaissance Harbour View Hotel Hong Kong; 1 Harbour Rd., Wanchai; 852-2802-8888; marriott.com.
Sheep were not traditionally raised for consumption in the seafood-obsessed south, but one of the classic winter dishes in the Cantonese culinary canon is a bubbling hot lamb stew with sheets of tofu skin and flavored with fuyue, a muscular fermented bean curd. For a modern take on the casserole, head to Little Bao, a modern Asian diner where the talented young chef May Chow takes classic Chinese dishes and flips them around with a few quirky, creative twists. Her new lamb tartare is a deliciously cool reimagining of the classic Cantonese dish, with fermented bean curd mayo, takana pickles, and crisp tofu chips. G/F, 66 Staunton St., SoHo, Central; 852-2194-0202; little-bao.com.