It’s that time of year again—Chinese New Year (CNY) or Spring Festival, as it is sometimes called. For those readers in Hong Kong, CNY usually signifies hopping on a plane to bask in the sun on the beaches of Bali or Phuket, or, for those whose idea of fun is to strap on a set of skis or a snowboard, it could be heading to the ski slopes of Japan, and most likely, Nisseko.
However, we must not forget the importance this 4,000-plus year festival holds for the estimated 1.5 billion people of Chinese ethnicity in the PRC (China, Hong Kong and Macau) and around the globe. That’s just under 20% of the world’s population celebrating the Year of the Dog!
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This year, CNY falls on February 16. The dog is considered an auspicious animal. They say that if a dog visits a house, it symbolises the coming of good fortune. So, for all those dog owners out there, come visit me this CNY, I won’t say no to good fortune!
CNY is a time of festive red lanterns, auspicious door decorations, new clothes and haircuts, but mainly it is a time when families get together and eat, eat, eat! Many symbolic foods are eaten during the holiday—especially on New Year’s Eve—to bring good luck for the coming year.
Did you know that most of the meaning behind these dishes has to do with their appearance or how we pronounce them? Some traditional dishes, and probably the most well-known ones, are dumplings (symbolizing wealth/money), fish (prosperity), spring rolls (wealth/money), noodles (longevity) and turnip cake luo buo gao (fortune).
Many people say that white wine pairs better with Chinese dishes because the acidity cuts through the fattiness and oiliness, and a white that is aromatic such as a Gewürztraminer or an off-dry Riesling works best. However, because red is associated with good luck and good health, many prefer a red wine with their Chinese food. Something fruity and medium bodied matches well with most dishes. Stay away from anything that is high in tannins, as they clash with soy sauce—not pleasant. My advice? Why not have a bottle (or two) of both red and white handy so you can just switch as you go!
Dumplings—Wealth and Money
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The dumpling shape resembles old-style gold ingots/money and hence why they symbolize wealth. They say the more you eat, the more money you can make in the upcoming year! Your typical steamed dumplings are made with minced pork and chopped vegetables and dipped in a soy sauce-based chilli dip.
Pairing: Usually quite elegant and subtle in taste, dumplings would pair well with Riesling, a Pinot Gris or a new world Pinot Noir because the acidity of these varietals will complement the red chilli sauce used for dipping. The lightness of these wines will also offset the dumplings' tendency towards oiliness. Alternatively if you are a fan of bubbles, try a sparkling rosé.
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Steamed whole and topped with an intense flavourful topping of ginger, black beans and cilantro, this dish will help entice some prosperity your way. A whole fish is served as it symbolises unity. Don’t forget to keep some to eat the next day. In Chinese, fish is Yu which sounds like the word surplus, so the leftovers signify that you will have overflowing prosperity.
Pairing: The ginger and black beans accent the fish's mild flavour. To match the more intense flavours of the toppings, a dish like this still calls for a lighter white, such as a fragrant but dry Riesling from Alsace.
Spring rolls—Wealth and Money
Their shape resembles gold bars and the typical filling is pork with chopped scallions and other vegetables.
Pairing: You want something to cut through the oiliness of the spring roll, regardless of the filling. Try to find wines that are slightly herbaceous and aromatic to mimic the fresh herbs in the rolls, and high in acidity to balance out the sauce. Pinot Gris, Riesling, and Gewürztraminer can all work very well with this dish.
Noodles—Long Life and Happiness
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Fried with oyster sauce and bok choy this simple dish will grant you that wish for a long and happy life. While the long uncut noodles are usually eaten during CNY, if you are in a pinch, just order any noodle dish on the menu!
Pairing: Pair this with a fruity sparkling wine. Prosecco's lemon-lime flavour is great with all types of noodles. If you are keen for a red and if the noodles contain meat, a lighter style Burgundy Pinot Noir will work as well.
Turnip Cake—Good Fortune
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Cantonese love their savoury turnip cake, and it usually is fried with lots of different ingredients such as preserved meat and sausages, dried shrimps, dried scallops and mushrooms and topped off with a rich and flavourful XO sauce, this is the perfect dish any time of the year!
Pairing: Because of its rich, deep flavour of the XO sauce, a medium-bodied red such as New Zealand Pinot Noir, Italian Montalcino or a rich white Chardonnay would go well.
Here’s another little bit of trivia: by 2020, China is forecast to become the second-largest, wine-consuming nation in the world. Perhaps winemakers should consider producing wines that pair well with all types of Chinese cuisine, and CNY dishes in particular? Just a thought.