Family and friends gather at Lunar New Year to share traditional food. Our guide, Patrick Young, explains that serving a whole chicken including the head and feet symbolizes unity and family. Eating chicken feet at Lunar New Year is supposed to lead to good fortune. I grimace slightly at the thought.
Lunar New Year means Chicken Feet
Some in our small group have eaten chicken feet. They describe the texture as glutenous and not at all unpleasant. I take a breath and step far outside my comfort zone to ask Patrick if he would order chicken feet “just to try”. After all, if I don’t try them now, I probably never will. He adds chicken feet to his order of walnut bao.
We’re sitting around a shiny black table at Mr Stonebowl in Hurstville, the first stop of our Lunar New Year Food Tour.
Taste Cultural Food Tours is a social enterprise that provides training and employment opportunities to refugees and new arrivals in Australia. Patrick’s mum is a refugee from Cambodia. She also works as a Taste Tour Guide.
The waiter places a walnut bao in front of me. The steamed honey-coloured dumpling has little marks etched into it resembling a walnut. When I bite through the doughy exterior a warm sweet syrup surrounding walnut pieces unexpectedly oozes out. It is remarkable for its difference and flavour.
“It smells like my house right now”
When a white bowl filled with chicken feet arrives, Patrick says “Ooh I just got a whiff of that. It smells like my house right now”.
Layered lengthwise across the bowl, there’s no disguising the shape of each piece or pretending that they’re not what they are. I swallow my anxiety. As I ordered them, I’ll have to eat one.
Carefully removing a chicken foot from the bowl, I’m surprised by the soft sticky texture. My friend says to ditch the chopsticks and use my fingers adding “there are bones”. She tells me to eat the flesh off and around the little bones.
Managing not to think about what it is that I am eating, I bite a piece off. Spiced with Chinese 5 spice powder and a faint hint of chili (or is it pepper?), I don’t mind the taste. I manoueuvre the flesh off the bone and chew the soft gelatinous ‘meat’. While I eat most of the chicken foot, and find it quite tasty, I’m not sure I’ll repeat the experience.
Lunar New Year Traditions
Today is the first day of the Lunar New Year. Some shops in Hurstville are closed, the owners not wishing to tempt fate. Working on New Year’s Day sets you up for a year of hard work. Experiencing misfortune on the first day of the Lunar New Year could mean a year of bad luck and people usually eat vegetarian on New Year’s Day “To start the year with a good conscience” explains Patrick.
He hands us each a Red Envelope. The gold Chinese characters on the front represent good luck and wealth. Red and gold decorations and signs hanging in shop windows wish customers wealth and luck in the coming year.
At Diamond 888 Bakery & Café, we eat radish cake. Not a sweet baked cake, this fried savoury cake has a chewy consistency, it’s neutral flavour enhanced by sweetened chili sauce. The chewy texture, also described as bouncy or rubbery is called ‘Q’ in Taiwanese, a new taste texture for me.
Bubble Tea and Haw Flakes
The bouncy black pearls in my milky bubble tea (another first) are according to Patrick “soft and fun to eat”. They slide up the wide mouthed straw with ease.
Outside a traditional medicine shop Patrick hands out little tubes of wrapped sweets which “Remind me of my childhood” he says. After taking traditional Chinese Herbal medicine “which tastes pretty bad” children are often given this hawthorn fruit candy or Haw flakes. They remind me of the tamarind flakes I enjoyed in Myanmar.
Hong Kong Egg Tarts
Customers placed orders for their Hong Kong egg tarts at the Golden Palace Bakery two months in advance. Our freshly made golden yellow egg tarts with puff pastry shell are light and melt in the mouth.
I have an ‘aha moment’ when Patrick explains that the Chinese egg tart originated in Macau, a former Portuguese colony. It’s very similar to the Portuguese custard tart or pastel de nata. The pastry is made with lard.
The Sydney Dumpling King specialises in food from China’s north. “Dumplings are the poster child of the New Year” says Patrick groaning that he has eaten far too many in the past few days.
The Dumpling Story
Shaped like Chinese ingots they are a sign of good fortune or wealth. The story goes that many years ago a physician returned home to find the villagers suffering from frostbite on their ears. He cooked up meat and herbs, pinched small amounts of the mixture into thin rounds of dough and boiled the little parcels. This is said to have cured the frostbite.
After sampling three varieties of dumplings: traditional pork and chives, lamb and vegetarian I have no need for lunch.
And my year ahead should be fortunate with all the auspicious food I’ve consumed on this Lunar New Year Day.
If you prefer to explore independently read my Hurstville post here to set you on your way.