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The Chinese year is based on a lunar calendar. For this reason, Chinese New Year is celebrated on a different date each year, typically some time in January or February. This year, the 1st day of Chinese New Year fell on Thursday 19 February.
Now, if there’s one thing you need to know about Chinese people, it’s this – we love to eat. All social gatherings are based around food. Lots of it. If you haven’t prepared enough food for there to be leftovers, you haven’t prepared enough. Bad host! When you visit or call an older relative, they won’t ask you how you are or how your day has been, they’ll ask you, “Have you eaten yet?” It doesn’t matter what time of day it is. It could be 4pm in the afternoon or 11 o’clock at night – that really is the first question my mum and dad ask me when I call them each weekend.
Naturally, the way we celebrate our biggest holiday of the year is by none other than eating. Or rather, feasting. Traditionally known as the reunion dinner because this is when the whole family gets together for a meal, this feast is usually eaten on the eve or on the 1st day of Chinese New Year. Or both. Often, there is ongoing snacking for the entire duration of Chinese New Year celebrations, with another feast on the 15th and last day.
Why am I telling you all this while I’m in Japan? Well, it’s because today is the 15th day of Chinese New Year, known in the Hokkien dialect as Chap Goh Meh, which literally translated means “15th night”. We Chinese are not particularly imaginative folk. We just like to eat!
Anyway, whilst I’m clearly not celebrating this 15th night with my friends and family who are currently miles away, I actually enjoyed not 1, or even 2, but 3 celebratory New Year feasts while I was still in Australia. I was just pondering whether or not the Japanese also celebrate this festival over 15 days, and thought I would share some photos from the 3 banquets I enjoyed.
I celebrated Chinese New Year Eve with a group of friends at Canton Bay Restaurant in Perth. We had the first sitting (6pm) for the set banquet of 10 dishes for 10 people for $688. Additional guests over 10 were charged at $68 per person.
The menu was fairly standard for Chinese New Year, beginning with the raw salmon and pickles appetiser. Known in Cantonese as yu sang, this dish is served with each component arranged separately on a large platter. The idea is that everyone at the table should stand up, stick their chopsticks into the dish and toss the components together to mix them thoroughly, thus ensuring happiness, health and prosperity for the year ahead. The higher you toss the elements of the dish, the greater your fortune. The Canton Bay version of this dish was very fresh, the crisp crunchy julienned vegetables contrasting nicely with the generous serve of salmon. There was a nice contrast between salty, sweet and sour, and for once, I did not find the ginger overpowering.
Next came a seafood soup. The soup had a lovely thick texture but was slightly bland. It definitely needed vinegar to improve the flavour, which we asked for, but we felt they were quite stingy with the amount of vinegar that was brought out to us initially, as there wasn’t enough to go around the entire table. We ended up having to ask for another dish of vinegar.
This was followed by lobster noodles. The photo doesn’t look too pretty as the noodles were dished out into individual plates and served to us as depicted. This was definitely a case of the dish tasting a lot better than it looked. I was impressed with the rich buttery flavour and the fact that the noodles retained their springiness. I’m not fond of soggy noodles. Or soggy anything for that matter! You all know how much I love texture!
At this point, the lion dance commenced. The noise and “fearsome” lions are meant to ward off evil spirits. I think. I’ve never been too impressed with lion dances in restaurants as all they need to do is find their way around a crowded room with a cursory jump up to “devour” a lettuce suspended from the ceiling. I recommend watching a real lion dance outdoors in an Asian country if possible. One where the lettuce is suspended from the highest point of the house (like the roof), and acrobatic moves on stacked tables and chairs are required to reach it, all the while avoiding the firecrackers that are being lit around them!
By this stage, the restaurant began to realise there was no way they were going to get us out of there on time for the 2nd sitting at 8pm, which wasn’t our fault really. There had been long delays between each of the first 3 dishes, with service suspended during the lion dance.
As a result, the last few dishes came out thick and fast. They included a scallop dish, fried rice wrapped in lotus leaf, tofu and mushrooms, steamed fish, pork and vegetables, crispy chicken, and a dessert of red bean soup (not pictured) and fresh fruits.
This blog post was actually commenced while I was still in Australia, so I don’t remember the food in enough detail to give as thorough an account as the previous dishes. However, I do recall thinking that the scallop dish was incredibly generous with the scallops, while the tofu dish had too strong of a herbal taste for my liking. I guess the other dishes must have been average to me. Neither bad nor stand out.
The following night, on the very day itself, I joined another bunch of friends at Good Fortune Roast Duck House. As there were only 6 of us, we decided to order a la carte instead of selecting a banquet menu. We simply couldn’t break with tradition though, so once again our meal began with the yu sang appetiser. Which was good, because this time I remembered to take some photos of the action. However, I thought the Canton Bay version was tastier.
Lobster noodles again made an appearance. Having had the Canton Bay version just the night before, I was able to make an almost direct comparison. Which meant that I found the Good Fortune version a little disappointing in terms of both flavour and a slightly soggy texture to the noodles. The presentation was a lot better though, as they plonked the entire dish on the table before us so that we could help ourselves instead of dividing it all into individual portions.
Since they’re known for their roast duck, we also ordered a plate of their specialty. I’ve actually never been a fan of roast duck, but I suppose as far as roast duck goes, this truly is one of the better ones in Perth.
We completed our meal with some green vegetables (not pictured) and a platter of pork cutlets with roast pork and squid. I can’t say I was too fond of the pork and squid dish either, which all tasted fairly bland to me.
The bill came to just under $300, or roughly $50 per person.
Finally, I found myself in Brisbane celebrating the 3rd day of Chinese New Year with my family at Shangri La. We had a set banquet, and though I can’t remember the exact cost as it was paid for by my dad, I think it was comparable to the amount paid at Good Fortune. I was too busy admiring my beautiful 3 year old nieces to take any photos of the food, but it was similar to the banquet at Canton Bay. Instead, I’ll share this photo of one of my nieces refusing to “feed” the lion. Note how she has her fingers firmly stuffed into her ears. Bless. She wasn’t a fan of the giant Merlion in Singapore, and it looks like these lions aren’t winning any brownie points with her either!
And the verdict?
You really do get what you pay for. Although the Canton Bay staff seemed harassed and behind schedule, you could tell they were trying very hard to keep things going and maintain the service. They were always polite despite being so busy. And most importantly, the food was of a higher quality than both Good Fortune or Shangri La. This, in and of itself, is quite some feat, as mass produced banquet style dining for special occasions such as this often results in somewhat compromised quality. I hope to return for a more formal review!
Canton Bay: 130 Mounts Bay Road, Perth. At the foot of Jacob’s Ladder.
Good fortune: 884 Albany Highway, East Victoria Park, Perth.
Shangri La: 1/309 Mains Road, Sunnybank, Brisbane.
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