Chinese New Year dinner in the eyes of my partner: Not eating seafood and thinking half the food is scary.
This was our family’s Chinese New Year dinner. My parents wanted to keep it safe with a place they have been before and one they have liked in the past. Knowing it would be busy, my mother made the reservation earlier on and for an earlier time: 5:30pm, the first seating, in order to avoid the need to wait. A clever strategy, as we later found ourselves being prodded to wrap our meal up, in order for the restaurant to seat the other families waiting at the door. I suspected that they took too many reservations and that the restaurant had over booked. Given the occasion and the day this Chinese New Year’s eve fell on, and the fact that it was also a statutory holiday the following day; the extra traffic made sense. Driving up to our destination we could see other like Chinese restaurants filling up quickly, their parking lots to capacity, and a slew of diners waiting outside.
My French Canadian partner was invited to partake in our dinner, knowing he doesn’t prefer the cuisine or would eat much of it, if any. He doesn’t like seafood and essentially all Chinese restaurants are seafood restaurants. He doesn’t take garlic and onion, and Chinese cuisine is flavoured heavily with both. He simply attended out of a sign of respect. So I put him to work pouring tea and taking photos, to occupy his time; as we ate and he looked away at some of the dishes in awe and fear. This is a common occurrence at such events, one both sides have grown to expect and often laugh about when we have Chinese food. We don’t force him to eat anything he doesn’t want to or feels uncomfortable to. And he doesn’t expect or want anyone to order or accommodate his particular preferences. He often eats before he attends, and so comes for the companionship and conversation, as an extended family member. But I give him props for trying three new dishes and coming out as a sign of respect towards my family and appreciate for their invitation.
So today, given my partner’s inexperience with the cuisine, I thought it interesting to enlist his opinions in describing the scene before us. And to then pepper my review with his raw and unfiltered assessment of food and culture. I have grown up with the food and have accepted our traditions and practices as norm. So wanted to see what someone on the other side of the fence thought.
Warning, I have asked for his honest thoughts. Some of it might seem harsh, some of it might even offend. But I take it as a revealing look at what we find “normal” might be bizzare to others. Leading to the larger question, is anything really “normal”? Is there another culture that sucks on the feet of chicken or chews through the joints of knees? There are some cultures that drink pig’s blood and munch on still born baby chicks, and others that eat the meat of elk and seal raw. Still beating hearts, squirming tentacles, sea snails, and puppy dog tails. If you think half this list is disgusting, then you are no different than my partner, adventuring in to the unknown of a culture foreign to him. It is refreshing to be able to be honest with oneself and one another, and to evoke such conversations on what is food and how far is one able to go outside their comfort zone to try some of it. Albeit, I don’t have as many reservations as he does, as I find the Asian culture is one of the most adventurous in this respect.
When we walked up to the restaurant we saw the manager engage in tradition by paying respect to the gods. With three of everything I deduced that he was specifically praying to the three Chinese gods: “Fu Lu Shou”. Each deity personifies a different attribute, and praying to them invokes said attributes, earning you their favour. Good Fortune (Fu), Prosperity (Lu), and Longevity (Shou). On a table outside he neatly presented three bowls of rice, three saucers of soup, three cups of water, and three servings of sauce. And before that, a tray of four large dishes offered up as tribute. A slab of fried pork with crispy skin, a whole fried fish, a whole stewed chicken, and a dish of mixed vegetables.
Nearby stood a red can used for burning and the plastic wrapping that once held paper denominations. Paper fortunes are burnt and incense are lit as part of the ritual. I missed the spectacle, but would have loved to have watched the cultural practice.
Tonight their yellow awning perfectly matched their Chinese New Year decorations. Red paper lanterns with tassels and gold script. Well wishes painted on the pots of plants. And string of paper fireworks flanking either sides of the front door. Everything was in the lucky colours of metallic gold against bold red, just as it was inside.
Inside, the foyer was blocked off by a sectional shelf showcasing various cauldrons behind glass. Covered soup pots in clay, porcelain, and brass. Some were ornate with patterns; the others plain, serving a more practical use.
A table was situated right by the entrance, it was in an awkward position, right in front of the bar and in the way of the isle. Those seated there probably felt the eyes of those who waited for their own table. Luckily we had our reservation and secured a table in the centre of the room.
The bar was outfitted with monkeys. Several red furred monkeys wielding bananas or the traditional Chinese gold bouillon, shaped liked a boat. This year is the year of the monkey, 2016, so there were a few of them dangling above in clusters. And above them, a festive banner in celebration.
The entire restaurant was in celebration. The ceiling was strung with lanterns and fish made out of red pockets. The walls were plastered with banners creeping down its side. It certainly made it feel like we were in here celebrating. A day to enjoy with a fury of colour. That is a good way to describe the Chinese culture as a whole: expressive. The colours are bold, the flavours are in your face, and the embellishments are a-plenty.
The only thing that stood in contrast to this was the television, set to Super Bowl 50. This was to accommodate those following the sporting match and the blended families who many not be as engaged in the dinner and conversation. My partner certainly found the television screen enticing.
We came in knowing the food would be subpar given the influx of business during celebration days. Often the dishes are prepared in mass to keep up with the increase in traffic. The limitations of the menus presented, also helped the kitchen keep up. It was limited to set dinners only. Courses determined based on number of members in your party. Our group of eight went for the “Alway good set dinner” over the “Smiles set dinner” because it had a chicken dish that my partner would actually try. It listed what we would have in Chinese and English, but the dishes came in a different order than what was printed. Here are the dishes as it came to our table.
Traditionally, most Chinese meals start off with a soup course to warm up the stomach for the feast ahead. The “Soup of the day” ended up being chayote, a type of squash that looks like a bright green pear. The pealed melon was stewed with beef bone and served in a clay urn. The soup scooped before us into individual bowls at table side.
The remainder is left for us to divide ourselves, as a table. But the meat and squash bits were separated out on to a plate for us to pick at. My partner commented that the meat looked old and that it probably wouldn’t have any flavour cause it was swimming in water. I explained how you would only use old meat and bones to make such a soup. This is done to not waste anything, which is a hallmark of the cuisine. As for the flavour of the meat, you typically enjoy it with soy sauce. He found the soup flavourful but watery, given his penchant for thick and creamy western style soups.
He avoided the “Gai lan vegetable with seafood” because of the “white rubbery looking things”. He doesn’t partake in seafood so the squid curls and scallop rounds were off putting to him. And he refused to try the vegetable cause they were touching said seafood. But he noted that the green stalks looked great with their bright colour. He questioned if the dish was bland without a sauce. I explained that he dish was exactly as expected. Crisp vegetable with chewy seafood chunks. And that there was flavour in the clear sauce made with garlic and ginger.
He took a photo of the “Lobster with ginger and onion over fried noodles” to send to his family back in Quebec. The dish looked alien to him with two boiled lobsters, their heads included, flanking the dish to prove it. He found it scary to have the faces of the animal you are eating presented before you. Whereas in Chinese culture it is done so to ensure the diner knows that they are getting everything. That no part of the animal is being wasted, unless you don’t eat it yourself, or take home to eat later. Not wasting food is important in Chinese culture. Though he did acknowledge that this was an impressive dish and probably an expensive one. I am not a fan of shellfish as I dislike working for my food. Once it is cooked, it shouldn’t be a struggle to eat. Having to pry back the shell with a nut cracker and gouge meat from nooks and crannies, while making a mess of yourself. I particularly don’t like getting my hands dirty while I dine. Though with such a plate, it almost seems inevitable. Luckily they provided a wet napkin at every place setting and exchanged plates after this round. They took your pile of bones and shells and gave you a new side plate to eat off of. The lobster was cooked well and the noodles delicious in its flavouring. I just wished there was more noodles to go around and that the lobster meat was already shelled on the plate. Though that defeats the presentation and the desire to see the seafood in its entirety before you.
The “Dried oyster and pork tongue with vegetable” was the most visually unappealing dish. A mound of brown hiding wilted leaves of green. Once a few members of our table realized that the pork meat was tongue meat, it put them off to trying any of it. My partner declared that his mother never fed him tongue or organ meats growing up, as he contorted his face to one of disgust. I did have to remind him that he ate chunks of tongue in Japan. And that then it actually looked like tongue meat with the papillae visible. Here the pieces of tongue were cut thin enough and braised long enough that you couldn’t tell what part of the pig you were eating just by looking at it. It also just tasted like pork meat. As a whole, I did not like this dish based on the texture of the soggy leafy greens and the fried oysters. The oysters were dried and you could tell, coupled with the fact that they were over cooked, it made them hard chew. Soggy vegetables are just the worst texture to me, I avoid them at all cost.
My partner was willing to try the “Pork chop with onion in a Peking sauce”. He is not a fan of gristle so was immediately put off when he bit into a particularly fatty piece of pork. Served in large slabs, many of the pieces were on the fattier side, even my standards. The ones I got felt like they didn’t even have meat on them, like I was chewing on gummy pockets of fat. I wished they were served in more manageable bite sized pieces with more consideration of leaner cuts. Especially since it was harder to grasp with chopsticks drenched in this too sweet and very sticky honey sauce.
Typically the rice dish comes last, as a way to guarantee that everyone leaves full and content. However I was happy to have earlier, to be able to enjoy it with the pork chop above. The rice made a great base, helpful in toning down the over flavouring. “Cindy’s rice” was prepared with dried shrimp, dried scallop, Chinese sausage, and egg. It was light and fluffy, having been wok fried in oil on high heat.
The “Steamed whole fish with soy sauce” was another whole and impressive presentation. The red snapper was served head to tail, and meant to be carved at the table. However in my need to take a photo, I sent the sever away before she was able to cut the fish, only for her to forget and never come back. So my father took over the carving, deboning the spine clumsily with communal fork and knife. The fish was light and extra tender drenched in the clear broth. It had a mild favour best enjoyed in small bites, as it. Everyone passed on the eyeballs and the cheeks, though both are known as delicacies.
They forgot the chicken, and my family noticed. This was the whole reason we went with this set menu, and the only thing they were banking on my partner being able to have. We had to inquire about it with several staff members. One thought we wanted chicken to go. Another attempted to persuade us to have it packed to go, in order to free up our table. However we insisted on having it here and now. Despite the rest of us being full, up to this point my partner only tasted and didn’t really eat anything. This was described to him has fried chicken. So to see it arrive without golden brown batter confused him. This was a flash fried chicken, where the skin was the only thing to get the crispy brown treatment, rendering the meat beneath it white and juicy. The chicken’s feet and face was left out, so for him this was a most attractive looking plate of the night. A neatly assembled chopping of dark and white meat with some crispy starch chips on top for crunch. He ate two pieces of chicken, only to crave for some gravy with it. It lacked flavour and moisture that a bowl of gravy would have easily rectified.
The unlisted dessert with the common “Red bean” soup. Most Chinese desserts aren’t sweet or overly sweet. The soup included orange zest. Orange is a popular flavour to end on as it cleanses the palette. I skimmed the top for the sugary soup, trying to avoid the beans due to their grainy texture. The soup wasn’t too sweet and the thicker syrup-like consistency was a nice one to sip on. But the true highlight of the dessert was the bonus of a glutinous rice ball filled with black sesame paste bobbing in the middle. It was the best part with its chewy texture and creamy centre.
As a parting gift, along with the bill, we were given a full “Nian Gao”. This is a cake traditionally consumed during Chinese New Year, with the same intention and affection as a Christmas fruit cake. Its name literally translates to “year cake”. It is prepared from glutinous rice and considered good luck to eat during this time. “Nian gao” is a homonym for “higher year”, and as such, eating it symbolizes the raising of oneself in each coming year. Its texture is chewy and sticky and it really doesn’t have much taste. Traditionally my mother coats it in egg and pan fries it for some crunch and additional flavour. Truth be told is enjoyed more for its tradition and symbolism.
For his efforts my partner also enjoyed in the long practiced tradition of showing respect to your elders and wishing them a happy new year in exchange for red pockets. Red and gold foiled envelopes filled with money, given by parents and older relatives to the younger generation and those still unmarried.
Would I come back? – Yes.
Would I line up for it? – No.
Would I recommend it? – No.
Would I suggest this to someone visiting from out of town? – No.
I wouldn’t necessarily come back nor would I be a posed to coming back. I find most Chinese seafood restaurants the same, and at the end of the day, as I don’t pay for the meal, I don’t get a say in where we go. A good enough place to celebrate Chinese New Year at, although anywhere else would be just as suitable. Happy year of the monkey! Don’t deny your cravings.
1796 Nanaimo St, Vancouver BC