10 things we love about Chinese New Year
Peter Ho, the Singaporean-Chinese executive chef of London's MiMi Mei Fair, tells us what makes Chinese New Year celebrations so special for him
Want to learn more about Chinese cuisine? Looking for Chinese dishes to try? Read our guide below then check out our guide to Chinese recipes, best Chinese restaurants in London and podcast with chef and School of Wok owner Jeremy Pang on the 10 things you need to know about Chinese New Year. We also have the 10 things we love about Hong Kong-style cuisine.
Peter started his culinary career at his family’s Chinese restaurant in Singapore, where his father taught him the fine art of carving meats during the school holidays. In 2013, he made the move to London to join the Hakkasan Group, before helming the kitchen at MiMi Mei Fair in 2021. Peter’s dishes take inspiration from Singapore, as well as Hong Kong and mainland China.
10 things we love about Chinese New Year
1. Red envelopes, blessings and tangerines
On the first day of the new year, we wake up early and wear new clothes from head to toe to symbolise a new beginning of a good year. We take turns to pay respects to our elders by offering two tangerines and giving auspicious new year greetings. In return, we receive red envelopes of money as a blessing.
2. All-night mahjong
Mahjong is a Chinese game for four players seated around a square table, which we have always played during Chinese New Year in my household. Each player is given mahjong tiles with different characters and suits. The tiles are shuffled noisily at the beginning of every game, knocking against each other, creating an atmosphere of liveliness in the home. Often, this game goes on through the night, and snacks such as the ones below are eaten to keep stamina up.
3. Bak kwa
Bak kwa is a thinly sliced sweet-marinated barbecued pork and is a must-have during celebrations, especially when you have guests over. The popular bak kwa stores always have hour-long queues wrapping around the streets leading up to the festivities.
4. Chinese New Year snacks
A week before celebrations begin, my mother and sisters would be busy making snacks for our guests. These snacks include ‘love letters’ (crêpes), sweet rice cakes, pineapple tarts, almond tarts, peanut cookies and shrimp sambal mini spring rolls.
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5. Lion and dragon dances
This is a traditional Chinese martial art form of dance. There are troops who visit businesses, households and public spaces to perform the dance, and give blessings for a prosperous new year. In Chinatown in Singapore, the lion dancers take over the whole area.
6. Firecrackers or sparklers
Children play with firecrackers or sparklers throughout the 15 days of celebration. This tradition is to symbolise warding off bad energy and evil spirits. It is very noisy.
7. Lo hei
Lo hei is a raw fish salad which is popular in Singapore and one of my favourite dishes. This salad is the most important dish on the seventh day of celebrations, as legend says that this was the day that the gods created man and it marked the birthday of the Chinese race. The salad comes with more than 20 ingredients, each symbolising different auspicious wishes for the new year. For example, the main ingredient being raw fish symbolises one always having more than enough, and vibrant ingredients such as carrot, white and green radishes, plum sauce, sweetened orange and sweetened melon mean that the year ahead will be full of colour.
Fish in Chinese sounds similar to our translation of ‘extra’, and it also symbolises abundance and wealth, so fish is a must during Chinese New Year feasting. My personal favourite is steamed dover sole with pickled chilli. It’s healthy and refreshing, and the pickle brings out the natural sweetness of the fish.
9. Tang yuan
On the 15th day of celebrations, the family gathers to make sticky glutinous rice balls in pandan and ginger soup, as the sticky rice symbolises unity within the family and the round shape symbolises eternity. Rice balls come with fillings such as black sesame, peanut and red bean.
10. Reunion dinner
On the last day of the Lunar New Year, the whole family gathers to have a feast, which we call the ‘reunion dinner’, very similar to Christmas in Western culture. During this time, we prepare to invite and receive good fortune for the new year. When I was a child, this was always the one day of the year that I was allowed to stay up late. The whole family would gather round to listen to my grandmother telling us all folk tales and legends of our culture.