Passion for Pork

Ring in Chinese New Year with this pork dish!

Mijune - Friday, January 24, 2014

Happy Chinese New Year!

Deconstructing the “must have” dish during Chinese New Year and why the pig is a lucky animal.

Gong Hay Fat Choy! Gong Xi Fa Cai! Or whatever other phonetic spellings there are for it! Friday, January 31 is Chinese New Year, but most big celebrations and family dinners happen on Chinese New Year’s Eve. If you haven’t made reservations to your favourite Chinese restaurant than you’re likely out of luck… unless it’s a really bad one, then chances are you’ll still get your favourite table!

It is 15 days of celebrations, superstitions, and do’s and don’ts, and food is a significant part of the celebration. This one dish might seem unappetizing for many Westerners, but to Chinese people it’s a delicious platter of traditional Chinese delicacies. It is the one must have dish to eat during the New Year because every ingredient symbolizes good fortune. It is easily found on many Chinese New Year dinner menus around Metro Vancouver and you won’t see it outside of this time.

If you’ve never had it, let me ease you into the idea because I understand that it looks intimidating. This is the “Dried Oysters, Pork, Mushroom and Lettuce” course (not official name) that is typically part of a set Chinese New Year banquet dinner menu for 8-10 people.

Kirin-4From Kirin

Fishermans-Terrace- Chinese New Year Oyster dishFrom Fisherman’s Terrace

See! Appetizing or not? It’s okay. I’m born and raised in Vancouver and I’ve had this dish a lot, but I still think it looks unappetizing. It’s “50 Shades of Brown”… enough said. However to someone who identifies with traditional Chinese tastes this picture could have them salivating. It might even look beautiful. The dried oysters are arranged in a circular pattern, the bed of lettuce is laid out leaf by leaf underneath, and the mushroom was nicely placed in the centre. The dish is more or less neatly arranged. The visual is really just the beginning though. This dish might look like a pile of slop, but it is actually a delicacy and very well thought out dish. It is also very expensive and eaten especially during Chinese New Year and it figuratively has “good luck” all over it.

What is it?

It is braised dried oysters, Chinese Shiitake mushroom, abalone sauce, black moss (hidden underneath the black mushroom in the centre), lettuce and pork tongue. Sometimes it also comes with pieces of pork hock/pig’s feet.

What does it taste like?

The dried oysters can vary in quality, but they are soft and tender and not dry, hard or chewy. They are strong and pungent in cooked oyster flavour and can be a bit mushy or pasty.

The pork tongue is incredibly tender and soft and it tastes like super tender pulled pork. It requires very little chewing and the slices almost melt in your mouth if cooked properly.

The black moss (a type of photosynthetic bacteria) is very controversial and it is going extinct and destroying land as it gets harvested; so China has made the exporting of it illegal. This made it even more highly prized than it already was. It looks like very fine black hair and it melts in your mouth and tastes mushroomy. Most of what is sold and served these days is artificial black moss that is made to look and taste the same. The real black moss is actually dark green and extremely rare.

The abalone sauce can be a bit gluey depending on how much cornstarch is used, or sometimes it will thicken or get a bit gelatinous from the meat juices. It tastes like seafoody mushroom sauce for the most part and the higher the quality the more abalone you should taste.

The lettuce? Well, you know.

What is the significance?

This is the mother of all dishes when it comes to symbolism and every ingredient is a Chinese delicacy except for the lettuce.

Lettuce (called sang choy in Cantonese) – The literal translation is raw vegetable, but “sang” also means “to produce” and “choy” also means wealth. “Sang choy” said in a slightly different tone in Cantonese would imply “growing wealth”. This is why the lions during the lion dance eat the lettuce and find lucky red pockets with money inside.

Dried Oyster (called ho see in Cantonese) – It means dried oyster, but “ho” also means good and together “ho see” said in a slightly different tone means good things to come. The dried oyster eaten specifically with the black moss also holds significance. In Cantonese the ingredients together are “ho see fat choy”, but in a slightly different tone it would mean good business.

Chinese Shiitake Mushroom (called dong gu in Cantonese) – It is prized for its health benefits. It has been used for medicinal purposes in ancient Chinese history so it is symbolic for longevity. The bigger black Shiitake mushrooms are most valued in this dish.

Black Moss (called fat choy in Cantonese) – You should even know this one! “Gong Hay Fat Choy!” Get it?! “Fat Choy” means wealth and prosperity. Most places will only give a small pile to be shared amongst the table since it is very expensive.

Abalone Sauce (called bao yu jup in Cantonese) – “Bao yu” means abalone, but “bao” also means assurance and “yu” surplus so “bao yu” in a slightly different tone in Cantonese also means “assurance of surplus”. Abalone is a delicacy and very expensive so in this dish you only get the sauce. If you get actual abalone meat you are paying a lot for it.

Pork Tongue/Pork Hock (Pig’s feet) – The pig itself symbolizes strength, honesty, wealth and fertility and it is considered a very lucky animal. They are always well fed and they bring happiness and good fortune to the home and family. If your Chinese zodiac is a pig, then for once, being a pig is actually a very good thing! *Oink*. The reason for the pork tongue is because it sounds like the words for wealth. Sometimes the dish will also have pork hock or pigs hand/feet and this is the idea of giving money to the hands of people since the other ingredients represent wealth too. Sounds creepy, but it’s true!

Where to eat it?

In Metro Vancouver: Red Star Seafood, Kirin Seafood, Empire Seafood Restaurant, Top Gun J&C, Rainflower Restaurant, The Jade Seafood Restaurant, Fisherman’s Terrace, Sun Sui Wah Seafood Restaurant, VivaCity Seafood, Dragon’s View Chinese Cuisine, Dynasty, Grand Dynasty, Sea Harbour, Shiang Garden and many others!