For many cultures, Lunar New Year is a time to come together, spend quality time with family, reflect on the year that was and bestow upon loved ones well-wishes for a prosperous year ahead. Most of this is done around a table (or multiple tables depending on how large the gathering) brimming with nostalgic dishes steeped in tradition and symbolism.
At the core of all good family feasts are good ingredients. Inspired by the experts in fresh and easy and authentic Asian, Asian Inspirations, we spoke to four Australian creatives about what LNY means to them and asked them what their favourite dish is to eat at home during the festivities.
Read on to hear acclaimed Sydney bartender and owner of Cash Only Diner and Burrow Bar, Chau Tran, Sydney-based digital designer, Tai Pham, Brisbane-based ceramicist, Wendy Ma, and Sydney podcast producer, Bernadette Phương Nam Nguyễn’s fave LNY moments and most importantly, fave snacks.
Chau Tran, Cash Only Diner, Burrow Bar
Chau Tran understands the power of food to bring people together. The day Tran and her business partner, Bryce McDonough, were slated to open Cash Only Diner upstairs from their beloved basement bar in the CBD, Burrow Bar, Sydney went into its second lockdown. Pivoting their energy, and a fully stocked team and kitchen, they produced over 10,000 meals for hospitality workers and Sydney’s most vulnerable over the course of the lockdown.
This understanding of the power that food has to bring people together is evident when Tran talks about her favourite aspects of the annual end-of-year celebrations. “Lunar New Year is such a special time of year. In Vietnam, Lunar New Year is called Tết. No matter where you are, you get your arse back home.”
And once you get back home, food is the central pillar. “Cuisine is the soul of our culture. A meal shared is the apex of showing love, sharing stories, passing on history and tradition.” But there’s a bit of preparation and elbow grease that’s required before the feasting begins.
“The first thing you do in preparation for Tết is clean the house, and the kitchen is the first room you start with. Everything is cleaned, scrubbed and polished. I love that, it seems so beautiful how important the kitchen and food are in our culture. It’s how we show love. It’s how we connect. It’s how we educate each other.”
Asked what dish typifies the end-of-year celebrations, Tran has no hesitation in her response, “It wouldn’t be Tét without Bánh Tét.” Taking a minimum of six hours to cook, this dish exemplifies the togetherness of Tết and the power of food in unifying families—the process provides an opportunity for family members to bond and come together to celebrate the holiday. And it’s a delicious outcome, too.
“Made of sticky rice, green bean paste, and decadent pork belly, it’s wrapped with banana leaves and then steamed. It takes a very long time to cook to perfection and is eaten with “dưa món” (a special sweet pickle) and "củ kiệu" (little shallot pickles). People often eat it as is and slice it into discs, but I love it the next day when my mum would pan-fry it for breakfast. It’s so naughty but soo good.”
Wendy Ma, Kaomoji Ceramics
Wendy Ma’s ceramics practice is an ever-evolving process, ebbing and flowing with her mood, and reflected in the moniker Kaomoji Ceramics—borrowed from the Japanese art of using symbols of a keyboard to convey emotions. In an atmosphere of flux, Lunar New Year celebrations are a welcome constant and an opportunity to mentally and physically prepare for a prosperous year ahead while warding off any negative energy.
The annual celebrations represent togetherness for Ma, “Lunar New Year is family time for us. I have been decorating the house for the last few years.” They’re also a time for comforting and grounding traditions, “Wearing a new pair of red underwear on LNY eve is a must too, for good luck.”
The biggest family moments for Ma, like many, come when gathered around the dining table. “We cook a big feast together after all our hard work cleaning. If I was in Hong Kong we’d hang out with family all the time and have amazing banquets together and all the malls and streets would be decorated and festive. I will never get sick of lion dancing—it’s performed for luck and fortune as well as to ward off bad juju. I love the intense powerful energy, it makes my heart race. Learning all the different traditions from my mum and my grandparents warms my heart.”
When it comes to her favourite LNY food, Ma has put her sweet tooth first. Her favourite dish is Tongyuen. “You usually have them for dessert after new years dinner. They’re these glutinous rice dumplings with different fillings inside. The sesame one is my favourite. You can get them in the frozen aisle at Chinese supermarkets and cook them in a soup of hot water, ginger and honey. I just use lots of ginger to make it spicy, and sometimes leave the sweetener out of the soup, I think it goes better with the sweet gooey dumplings.”
For Brisbane locals, Ma’s top pick for a secret LNY ingredient worth the wait is Burlington BBQ in Sunnybank. “You’ll have to line up for ages around Lunar New Year but get the roast duck and make DIY pancakes—perfect for a snack or as a dish for LNY dinner.”
Bernadette Phương Nam Nguyễn, Podcast Producer
There’s a certain intimacy to be found in podcasts that film and television can never quite achieve, and it’s this intimacy that threads a common line between Bernadette Phương Nam Nguyễn’s profession and her favourite aspects of the Lunar New Year. “When given the space to play, audio storytelling can be goosebump-inducing and incredibly joyful.” Almost as joyful as watching her young nieces and nephews rush through their route phrases when opening their lì xì (red pocket) to see how much money they received.
“When given lì xì you’re meant to list the things you wish for the person giving you the red pocket in the year ahead. It could be wishing this person “khỏe tốt” (good health) or “nhiều tiền” (lots of money), or “sống lâu trăm tuổi” (live up to 100 years).” Alongside the well-wishes, LNY is an opportunity for Nguyễn to check in and reset after the sometimes hectic start to the work year. “It’s a second fresh start to the year, one that’s more about reconnecting with family and culture and less about figuring out how to make the hangover pass quickly.”
And the dining table is the centre of the occasion and is intrinsically tied to Nguyễn's mental image of her favourite LNY dish. “One dish that’s tradition to have at the Vietnamese new year's table is thịt kho (caramelised pork and egg) which is normally served with dưa giá (pickled bean sprout) and cơm (rice). It’s the perfect texture and flavour combination and always tastes the best when made by my aunties.”
Traditionally, thịt kho is meant to represent family and well wishes for the year ahead. “I associate the dish with fold-out tables and red plastic chairs that are only pulled out for a big Vietnamese gathering, which really mirrors the meaning of this dish.”
Tai Pham, Digital Designer
After navigating the world of creative freelancing for the last few years, Tai Pham decided to pivot into digital design in 2021 and joined the Urban List team in 2022 to jump back into the full-time lifestyle. Pham’s decision to put freelance life on the shelf has opened up the door to a strong in-person connection, and a consistent community of creatives in his daily life. The connection and togetherness of having everyone under one roof in his professional life reflect Pham’s favourite things about Lunar New year celebrations with his family.
“Lunar New Year means lots of laughter and sharing with my family. Sharing of food, reflections and stories. My favourite part is seeing everyone together under one roof.” Growing up, Pham’s house would be the gathering ground for the extended family coming together. With his father being one of ten siblings, the house would be humming with celebratory energy.
Nowadays, LNY is even more of a coming together, with Pham making the trip back from Sydney to Brisbane, and many of his family travelling from Melbourne. It’s a celebration of time spent intentionally with family and an opportunity to reconnect, around tables filled with good food. “There are a couple of dishes & snacks I love, including the Vietnamese trays of Mut Tet—his favourite being the candied coconut ribbon. But none more than 'Bánh Tét'.” That’s two points on the NYE fave snack scorecard for the banana leaf-wrapped, savoury dish.
“My favourite way to enjoy it is pan-fried. It reminds me of breezy summer afternoons.”
Feeling inspired to slow down and spend some time with your nearest and dearest over your favourite LNY-style dishes? Head over here for some recipe inspo and find all the ingredients to create your fest over here.
Image: Wendy Ma, Waiting Room Gallery, sourced from Instagram
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