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Food, family and fresh starts: what Chinese New Year means to me

28 Jan 2017

Chinese New Year is the celebration of the beginning of the new lunar year. This is why it changes date in the Roman calendar every year: its date is determined by when the new moon appears between 21 January and 20 February. This year, we’re welcoming in the year of the Rooster (my year, and probably yours too if you were born in 1993).

The celebrations last for fifteen days (Hogmanay, eat your heart out) but my family and I have always celebrated Chinese New Year in a fairly small way. To give some context, my family consists of my Chinese-Malay mum, white dad, and my sister and I who were born and raised in Scotland. The Chinese dishes my mum cooked for us throughout the year included various stir fries and her wonderful black fungus pork soup but when the New Year rolled around, we were treated to more intricate dishes.

My most vivid memory is of my sister and I sitting at the vast expanse of our wooden kitchen table, a stack of wonton skins between us with a dish of water and a bowl of pork. We watched eagerly as my mum showed us (yet again) how to fold the little sailor hat parcels, before we sat and competed over how many we could make whilst still keeping them neat. Once we had a dish of them, we would watch as my mum tipped them into hot oil and they turned crisp and golden. When they were finally served at dinner, my sister inevitably dipped all of hers in ketchup to complete the ritual.

We’d often have friends round, particularly the few who also celebrated CNY, and my mum would –and still does– say she’s going to spring clean the house. Traditionally this was to sweep away bad luck to make way for the good; we’ve interpreted it more as seizing any opportunity for a fresh start.

Since moving away from home I’ve gone from being an avid meat eater to vegan. The change has definitely improved my cooking and this year I thought I’d share some of the recipes for vegan dim sum which I’ve come up with over the past few years of celebrating CNY meat and dairy free. The three bao recipes I will be sharing have been thoroughly tested by my housemates and the wonton were tested by myself and a friend – with great success.

Chinese New Year is a complex celebration for me: it’s the time of year when I get most homesick and the time of year when the differences between me and my friends of other ethnicities are most apparent. It’s also the time of year when my mixed heritage brings out insecurities again. Tonight I’m celebrating Burns Night and cooking vegan haggis, neeps and tatties and reading poetry in my terrible thick Scottish accent; on Saturday I’ll be following my own dim sum recipes and supplementing them with stir fry, clearing out my room and having a quiet night in with some of my favourite Chinese films.

The past few years I’ve cooked up feasts for friends and although bringing people together is always wonderful, it’s been lonely. So this year I’m steering away from the more traditional and trying to satisfy those identity insecurities. Instead, I will be celebrating in my own quiet way, knowing that whatever I do is valid. As there is no one way to be a woman, there’s no one way to be Chinese or to celebrate Chinese New Year. Whatever you choose to do, I hope you have a beautiful time and that this year of the Rooster is kind to you.

Here are my recipes for –

Vegan Char Siu Bao

Vegan nai wong bao (steamed custard buns)