The Chinese New Year is celebrated on the first day of the First Moon of the lunar calendar. The corresponding date in the solar calendar varies from as early as January 21st to as late as February 19th. Chinese New Year traditionally signifies turning over a new leaf. To celebrate getting through the past year, to then put the past behind you as look optimistically into the future.
Socially, it is a time for family reunions, and for visiting friends and relatives. This holiday, more than any other Chinese holiday, stresses the importance of family ties. The Chinese New Year's Eve dinner gathering is the most important family occasion of the year. In the days to come the new year is ushered in with a succession of family feasts and the gathering of friends.
I am the first to admit that the Hong Kong Chinese side of my family is eccentric. Lunar New Year is our big annual celebration which usually nullifies Christmas and Birthdays, but this year it passed as more of a whimper. We did not hook up with my parents until the fifth day of the year of The Rat as they were busy with friends. And Dad decided when we did celebrate, we'd be eating Malaysian food. Here goes nothing, I thought.
But I was wrong.
My parents are mad keen Tai Chi enthusiasts and Dad is rapidly becoming a born again Buddhist - go figure? After many years of practice, my Grandfather had reached such a high level of Tai Chi expertise that he could apparently bring on a self induced coma when he was unwell, in order to recover. I suspect my father is aiming to tread the same path and is seeking Buddhist enlightenment. So he has immersed himself in the culture with a group of like minded retirees.
Enter into the picture a Buddhist who according to his friends is quite enlightened, and who magnificently toppled a battle with cancer. This man also happens to be a gifted Baba - Malay Chinese - Chef hailing from Kuala Lumpur. His name is Bill and he met my parents at their Tai Chi group.
So last night, Mr Stickyfingers and I beat a path to the unknown reaches of Heidelberg Heights - getting a little lost enroute - to Bill's unpretentious little venue. Had we not stopped at the traffic lights outside, we would have missed the place entirely. As it happened I noticed another Malaysian restaurant next door that had a roller door firmly shut over the facade and instantly presumed the owners must have gone back to the old country for a holiday. And then my eyes moved across to Jade Kingdom. Bingo!
We were greeted by my parents inside with cries of "Kung Hei Fat Choy!" and were introduced to Bill, the owner and occasional Chef of Jade Kingdom. Resplendent in a blue Batik shirt, he was fit and tanned. This is not the first of his ventures, my parents recall that they were also regulars at his place in Springvale Road, Glen Waverley, years before they met him.
In a sea of wood grain veneer, Melamine and vinyl, a Chinese Dragon puppet sat decorously in a corner. Gaudy modern Chinese paper decorations were festively suspended from the ceiling. At our table my folks were snacking on achar - spicy pickled vegetables and candied walnuts. It was a good start. Both dishes had the required amount of crunch.
Next came Yu Sang also known in Mandarin as Yee Sheng. The name is a Homonym for the Chinese words for good luck and it is a sweet, sour, raw fish salad made up of many elements including daikon, shredded raw yam died to be colourful, carrot, pickled ginger and shallot, coriander, sesame, crispy flat noodles, pomelo, peanuts and sashimi grade salmon. I think this one also featured jellyfish. (If you want to make it yourself here's a recipe)
Now the popularity of this dish hails from its presentation as Lucky Raw Fish Salad in 1963, in a restaurant in Singapore. It is said to have principally originated in Guangzhou, Southern China - aka the rice bowl of China - where raw fish salads were regularly made with fresh water fish such as carp. Although the fashion for the serving of the dish quickly migrated to Malaysia as a feature of New Years celebrations, it never made it to Hong Kong, where the locals considered that the waters were not clean enough to risk eating raw carp.
It is the tradition that the elements that make up the dish be piled up at the table with certain sayings pronounced at each stage. Then all at the table must dip in with their chopsticks to toss it together. It is said to be throwing luck up into the air, which is considered good fortune. It's a bit of contemporary hocus pocus, but there is obviously comfort in certain rituals. I just couldn't wait to dive in and eat it.
The flavours and textures of this dish present as a mouthful of fine citrus sweet and tangy string with the soft sliver of salmon wrapping itself around the palate while nuts and noodle chips provide crunch. It's very satisfying, especially with the slight heat you get from the sticky pickled ginger and shallots.
The next jaw dropping dish was a Fu Pei Goon. Fu Pei is a sheet of tofu which is skimmed off the top of a vat of beancurd and left to dry. Goon means roll, as in Spring Roll (Chun goon). The Fu Pei had been wrapped around fish paste and seaweed and carrot, then deep fried. Sliced on the diagonal, it was served with more pickles and a sweet dipping sauce.
The comfort factor was provided by a huge mound of Sambal Balanchan KangKung. Kang Kung is the Water Convulvulous plant with long leaves and a hollow stem. In this dish it is tossed at high heat in a blend of garlic, dried, fermented shrimp paste and chilli. It is said that a good Malaysian restaurant can be judged by the quality of their Balanchan. This was certainly a ripper!
For me the dish of the night was the Nonya Fish. On the plate, all I could see was lettuce, decorative spring onion shreds and coriander supporting a yellow sauce flecked with red chilli. And then I noticed a fin. A succulent whole fish was buried in this thick, rich tamarind based sauce, made fiery with the chilli. The nose dripping factor was high as we broke into a sweat and chugged down mouthful after mouthful of this slippery sour hot concoction.
As I nursed a bulging stomach, more Tai Chi friends arrived and lurid pink coconut and lychee jellies were served. Dad was spoilt however, with a single serve of cold, sweet snow ear fungus soup with lotus seeds. I slurped the cool jelly happily and wondered whether I would ever eat again after feeling so magnificently full.
Ph. 03 9458 3188