How to Celebrate Chinese New Year in Manchester24th Jan 2020
As Manchester's Badly Drawn Boy once sang: "Everybody needs to know it's the year of the rat".
This weekend, Chinese New Year celebrations take place across the city with the start of the 15 day Spring Festival, which welcomes in the new lunar cycle and the Year of the Rat; named in honour of the animal, which in Chinese culture, is associated with wealth, abundance, and the midnight hours.
In the Ancient Chinese philosophical terms of yin and yang, the rat is yang and represents the beginning of a new day.
We spoke to two of the best Chinese restaurants in Manchester to find out how they will be celebrating.
The highly-acclaimed Tai Pan, above the WH Lung Chinese Cash & Carry on Upper Brook Street, is certainly the place to go for an authentic Hong Kong or Cantonese experience, with a special menu served over the fifteen day period, starting on New Year's Eve (Friday 24th Jan 2020).
Manager Johnny "Hong Kong" Lee, an incredibly popular face on the Manchester restaurant scene - who can probably boast of being in most local footballer's speed dial list - talked us through the traditions, whilst showcasing the fantastic menu.
"It all kicks off on Friday," he explained. "New Year's Eve sees the biggest movement of people anywhere in the world, and the numbers get larger and larger every year, as everybody in China returns to their hometown to celebrate a dinner with their family and see in the Spring Festival, the beginning of the new lunar cycle.
"Everybody in the family has to return home, and, if for some reason, they can't do, an empty spot will be left at the table for them.
"From lanterns to street signs, like our restaurant, everything is decorated in red and gold. Red is seen as being a very lucky colour in China, as it is said to bring happiness and good fortune. It's possibly why everybody there supports either United or Liverpool," he said, before adding, "although we could do with a bit more happiness and good fortune at Old Trafford this season.
"New Year's Eve itself sees everybody lighting firecrackers. It is believed that they were introduced by a young child to scare away the evil spirits and a horrible monster called Nián, who is said to visit during Spring."
"For the 15 days of the Spring Festival, Chinese people eat gyoza-like dumplings every day. In Hong Kong and the south of China, they are mainly filled with shrimps and chicken, whilst further north they'll contain pork.
"The reason we eat dumplings - and also the other dishes on Tai Pan's special Chinese New Year's Menu - is all to do with phonetics. In Chinese, 'dumplings' is 'jiăo zi' ('chow zi'), which sounds like 'jiāo zi', which means something like 'exchange' and 'midnight'.
At that point, a basket of three delicious steamed Chive & Prawn Dumplings (£3.90) arrived at the table. Absolutely devine, we could see how the Chinese could live on a diet of these for fifteen days.
Another speciality, the "tail of gold" Pan Fried Chinese New Year's Puddings (£3.90), were incredible. Like a donut, wrapped in steamed rice and coconut, these are a must-try whilst they are on the menu.
Two other specialities during the Spring Festival are the Pan Fried Oyster & Sea Moss Patties (£4.30). "In Chinese, these are 'Facai hao shi bing', which sounds a bit like 'Fat chow hao see'," - or at least that's what we thought John said - "which means 'prosperity with good things'."
It was all starting to sound like a Cantonese and Mandarin version of "Give Us A Clue" or "Catchphrase", and by the time the lid had been lifted off the wicker basket containing New Year special Pigs Trotters with Sea Moss (£3.90), I had given up trying to translate and just accepted John's explanation that whatever they were called in Chinese, more often than not phonetically sounded something along the lines of "Fat chow", meaning "prosperity".
Talking of "fat chow", I had to undo the buttons on my waistcoat as more mouth-watering dishes started to appear.
"Normally, most Chinese would eat fish at New Year, as the word for fish, 'yú', has the same pronunciation as that for 'abundance'." - of course! - "However, because the fish dishes at Tai Pan are so large, with the full fish served on the plate, I have ordered you a variety of smaller dishes so you can get a better idea of what we eat during the Spring Festival."
Celebrating the Spring season, Tou Mui (£13.80) was a delicious plate of handpicked mangetout sprouts, with the middle of the stalk cooked in a Supreme Stock. Light and healthy, like much of Tai Pan's menu, it is also available as a vegetarian dish.
A plate of Mixed Seafood with Egg Tofu (£13.80) contained deep-fried dumplings crammed with king prawn, scallop and squid, accompanied by more healthy greens to welcome in the Spring season.
The star of the show, however, was the Szechuan Gung Bao Chicken (£13.80); a delectable dish of succulent chicken thighs, sliced with vegetables, mushrooms and peanuts. It was given a mildly sweet and spicy kick by a thinly chopped Sichuan pepper.
As we enthused over the dish, John started laughing. "The two ladies on the table next to you have just ordered 'whatever that dish is' you are eating."
As it turned out, their approval rating was equally as high as ours and, like us, they also questioned how it had taken them this long to be introduced to such a delightful dish. Fortunately, it is on the Szechuan Menu at Tai Pan all year round, as is a less spicy Cantonese version - Kung Po chicken (with cashews instead of peanuts) - also available as a lamb, duck, beef, king prawn or bean curd alternative. Try it and thank us forever.
By now, we were completely stuffed like Great King Rats and hadn't anticipated John sending even more New Year specials our way.
"Tangyuan are sweet rice dumplings served on the 15th day of the lunar cycle, during The Lantern Festival. 'Tangyuan' sounds like 'Tuányuán', which means 'Reunion', and is a nod to the fact families come together to celebrate.
"Most popular though are the 'Nian gao' New Year cakes," he said, pulling out two plastic dishes with lucky red New Year stickers on; one containing a savory red mooli cake, made up of dried pork and sundried shrimp, the other a sticky white glutinous rice flour cake. "Most of our Chinese customers buy these to take home with them after their meal."
As the meal finally came to an end, a plate containing two red envelopes, fortune cookies and a tangerine-like fruit was delivered to the table.
"The hóng bāo red pockets are an important part of the New Year celebrations. Elders fill them with 'lucky money' for the youngsters, as a way of passing on a year of good fortune and prosperity. Although when you get married, you become an elder and then have to give instead."
"That's the same with Western marriages," I joked.
"The Chinese tangerine is called 'Gat', like 'kumquat', or, 'jú', which sounds like 'Gam', or 'jí', meaning 'gold' or 'prosperity' and are considered traditional symbols of abundance and good fortune because of their colour. They are normally displayed as decoration," he gestured to a kumquat tree at the restaurant's entrance. "We present these as gifts to friends, family, or business associates."
Tai Pan's Chinese New Year menu runs from Friday 24th January 2020 for the 15 days of the Spring Festival, until Saturday 8th February 2020. Fortunately, some of the dishes remain on the menu all year round. A traditional dragon dance on New Year's Day (Saturday 25th January), sees many local Chinese families flock to the 350 seater venue.
The manager, Lily, pointed out the red Chinese lantern decorations which adorn the room. "Red is the main colour for the festival, as it is believed to be an auspicious colour."
She repeated John's words that "Chinese New Year's Eve is the most important time of year for families, as, wherever they are, people are expected to be home to celebrate the festival with their families, exchange lucky red money envelopes and to set off firecrackers from the first minute of the new lunar cycle."
Fish, "for an increase in prosperity."
The most well-known Chinese Spring Festival dish: Spring Rolls, "for great wealth."
Chinese dumplings, "for great wealth"
and Glutinous Rice Cakes, "for a higher income or position."
Amongst other inviting dining deals, Pinwei are also offering free Aromatic Crispy Duck in January, when you spend over £30.
Meanwhile, over at the luxurious Asian-influenced Tattu in Spinningfields, a special selection of dishes inspired by traditional Chinese New Year's feasting, will be served throughout the Spring Festival, from January 24th until February 8th, and there's also 30% off food in January.
As usual, Manchester city centre has been decorated with plenty of red lanterns and golden dragons, with the highlight being the popular 175ft dragon parade, with its traditional Lion and Ribbon dances, Chinese opera singers, and family activities, making its way from Albert Square at 12:30 on Sunday 26th January, to Chinatown where a spectacular firework display takes place at 18:00.
Kung Hei Fat Choy!
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