Life

Chef Trevor Lui on his favourite Lunar New Year food traditions — and what to include on your table

Plus, the Steamed Whole Fish recipe he turns to for celebrations.

Plus, the Steamed Whole Fish recipe he turns to for celebrations

Overhead shot of a steamed whole fish topped with ginger and spring onions, cilantro and parsley, on a platter. Smaller dishes of food surround it, and they're all sitting on a peach colour surface.
(Photo: Suech + Beck)

On Sunday, Jan. 22, people around the world will celebrate Lunar New Year, ushering in the Year of the Rabbit (or Cat, depending on your cultural tradition). With the multi-day holiday being a particularly important time to gather with family and friends, we reached out to Trevor Lui — a chef, restaurateur and the author of The Double Happiness Cookbook to hear about some of his favourite family traditions, and get advice for hosting a memorable and meaningful Lunar New Year meal. 

Traditions old and new

"You know, our traditions growing up, even to this day, they actually haven't changed too much," said Lui. A "born-and-bred Torontonian" whose parents hail from Hong Kong, Lui grew up "in a restaurant family" — when he was a child, his father opened a Canadian-Chinese restaurant in the city's Rexdale neighbourhood. 

It's fitting, then, that Lui's family typically celebrates Chinese New Year with two restaurant feasts: one dinner to "send off the previous year" and a separate celebration to kick off the new year. At a Chinese banquet hall, his family will order a dozen or so familiar dishes for each feast. "Very specific foods that are always part of the Lunar New Year and the Chinese New Year custom," said Lui.

Two old pictures side-by-side of The Lui Family. The image on the left has ten people. The image on the right has 4.
The Lui Family. (Submitted by Trevor Lui)

Beyond the family feasts, Lui will set up an area in his home with "a tray of new year candies and clementines with leaves on them," and put up some "lucky signage all over our walls and our doors." He also gives red envelopes, with small bills or even lottery tickets inside, to his staff as well as younger members of his family. "If you're an elder, and there's kids and cousins, then, you know, you give red envelopes to everyone," he said.

In recent years, since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Lui has seen his circle of Asian friends grow, stemming from "a lot of the pain and trauma that the Chinese community, Asian community has gone through." Over this year's Lunar New Year period, he has plans to meet up with them for dim sum, hot pot and a traditional Chinese banquet. 

"We've really banded together and united a lot more, particularly a lot of us in the restaurant community," said Lui. "And we eat a lot more together now."

On the menu

"It's funny, because I find that the food that we eat on New Year's Eve is not different from the food we eat on New Year's Day or in the new year — they're very similar," said Lui. "There's always dishes that represent a level of symbolism." For instance, there will always be a whole fish on his family's table. "In Cantonese, [we'll say] yao tao, yao mei, which means you must have a head and a tail to be whole." 

Other traditional, auspicious dishes — which are typically served family-style at a Chinese New Year banquet — include "a barbecue platter…[with] jellyfish and beans and different types of barbecue meats," said Lui. "Moving down the line, there is always a dish in the new year that has black moss and dried oysters," since the Cantonese names of those ingredients — fat choy and ho see — sound like the words for gaining wealth and good things to come.  

Noodle dishes, which represent longevity, are also a must-have. "For a lot of us, the noodle dish at the end is usually served with rice, and it's like an e-fu dry noodle that's re-hydrated, and there's chopped shiitakes in it," said Lui. "We don't eat it to fill ourselves, but we eat it because it's symbolic more than anything."

Cakes are also important for Lui and his family. "We do a sugar cake called leen goh; we do a taro cake, which is woo tao goh; and we do a turnip cake, which is lo bok goh," he said. "These cakes generally come pre-made but cold. And you would have it in your fridge, and when you're ready to eat it, you cut pieces out and you would pan fry them or you would steam them." You can find these types of cakes at East Asian grocery stores, bakeries and seasonally at restaurants, he added.

A man taking a selfie with a group of people behind him. They're all standing around a dinner table with lots of dishes of food on it.
Trevor Lui and his family at a recent celebration. (Submitted by Trevor Lui)

For those entertaining guests at home this Lunar New Year, Lui recommends serving a combination of home-cooked dishes and takeout items to support local restaurants. His strategy would be to pick up a variety of barbecue from a favourite Chinese barbecue spot, buy some cakes, and then make everything else, including the noodles and dumplings — or ask friends to bring a few of their own favourite Asian or fusion dishes to fill in the gaps. 

For drinks, Lui suggests serving baijiu, a fermented sorghum liquor that he described as "the sake of the Chinese, although it's more like moonshine." It's an ideal spirit to mix into your go-to cocktail, he said. "So if you're making a Long Island iced tea, you know, pull out the vodka and put baijiu in." 

Here is Trevor Lui's Steamed Whole Fish recipe from The Double Happiness Cookbook.

Steamed Whole Fish

Overhead shot of a steamed whole fish topped with ginger and spring onions, cilantro and parsley, on a platter. Smaller dishes of food surround it, and they're all sitting on a peach colour surface.
(Photo: Suech + Beck)

Steeped in the symbolism of togetherness and unity, serving a steamed whole fish at important family gatherings is an age-old Chinese food tradition. The elders at the table were always given rights to claim the most covetable parts of the fish — the head, belly, and tail — but Mom always found a way to sneak me a fish cheek (the most tender part of the fish). I love using rockfish or bass for this dish.

Ingredients:

  • 1 (1½–2-lb) whole white fish (I prefer rockfish), cleaned, head and tail on
  • 2 slices ginger, cut into thin matchsticks (divided)
  • 2 spring onions, sliced diagonally (divided)
  • Salt and black pepper to taste
  • 3 Tbsp canola oil
  • 2 Tbsp soy sauce or tamari (divided)
  • Sprig of cilantro, coarsely chopped
  • 2 sprigs Italian parsley
  • Steamed rice, to serve

Preparation:

Rinse fish under cold running water, then pat dry with a kitchen towel. 

Bring water to a boil in a steamer. Place fish on a lipped heatproof plate, ensuring it lies flat and fully inside the plate, for even cooking. Sprinkle with half of the ginger and half of the spring onions. Season lightly with salt and pepper. Cover with plastic wrap and steam over high heat for 8–10 minutes, until cooked through. (If a chopstick can easily pierce the fish, it's fully cooked.) Remove from heat.

Heat oil in a small frying pan over high heat. Add soy sauce (or tamari) — careful, it may splatter. Remove plastic wrap from fish and pour oil mixture over fish. Garnish with the remaining ginger and spring onions, cilantro and parsley.

Serve immediately with rice.

Yield: Makes 4 servings

Excerpted from The Double Happiness Cookbook: 88 Feel-Good Recipes and Food Stories by Trevor Lui. Photographs by Suech + Beck. Copyright © 2020 by Trevor Lui. Excerpted with permission from Figure 1 Publishing. All rights reserved. 


Truc Nguyen is a Toronto-based writer, editor and stylist. Follow her at @trucnguyen. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Truc Nguyen is a Toronto-based writer, editor and stylist. Follow her at @trucnguyen.

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