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Ken Wang's Chinese New Year Memories

2019-02-12 11:01:38 Ken Wang

I grew up in Huai'an, Jiangsu Province, China. Although a small city by Chinese standards, it has a long history with a rich culture. In ancient times it was referred to as Chuzhou and was an intersection on the Beijing-Hangzhou Grand Canal, a hub dividing China's North and South. It was also where the great military strategist Han Xin and the author of Journey to the West, Wu Chengen were born. Yet Huai'an's food is what really puts it on the map as it is the birthplace of Huaiyang cuisine, one of the four great traditions in Chinese cuisine. Growing up in an environment with a strong emphasis on food strongly influenced my decision to pursue a career in the culinary arts.

When I was a child, I always looked forward to Chinese New Year. In fact, I began looking forward to it as soon as we entered the twelfth month of the lunar calendar. During this time of year, every household began to shop for the things they needed for the New Year celebrations. Just next to my home was the largest market in the city centre. Every day, people buying goods for the festive season crowded in and the shelves were filled with all kinds of goods and ingredients, most of which wasn't available during the rest of the year. It was a very exciting time. At home, my parents would take time out from their busy schedule to make new year preparations in the evenings, the same is true for the neighbours, and I could often smell the scent of fish being smoked in the middle of the night.

New Year's dinner always included an array of different dishes. The most important thing was that each dish had to have a good name as they would be symbols for the new year ahead. There had to be be fish on the menu, shrimp, meat, as well as dumplings and rice balls. A whole fish had to be cooked, and then placed on the table, not to be eaten until the next day. This was to show that there was an abundance of food, often referred to as 'nian nian you yu' meaning that year upon year food is more and more abundant. 'Yu' meaning leftover also sounds the same as 'yu' meaning fish, hence the reason why fish was used to symbolize this. Shrimp would also be cooked in a sweet or honey sauce to show our aspirations for the coming year, sweet and beautiful!

Chinese New Year's Eve was always the most joyous for us children because we were able to stay up late. The whole family would get together and start the New Year’s feast. Dinner could last up until the clocks rang at midnight. Then suddenly, the world around us would erupt with the sound of firecrackers, continuing late into the night.

The next morning, with the arrival of New Year's Day, I would always get up early, put on new clothes and go to visit my relatives and friends to celebrate the New Year. Swaggering through the lingering scent of fireworks, I would wish everyone a “Happy New Year!” Soon after, the adults would give us children a red packet filled with money to show their blessings. Over the following week, friends and relatives would take it in turns to host a meal in their home and invite everybody along. Every day there was a feast. It was very lively indeed!

Since coming to the UK ten years ago, Chinese New Year just hasn't been the same. Nowadays, each time Chinese New Year comes around l take my family to London's Chinatown to stock up on goods for the celebrations. I invite friends to my home for a reunion and prepare the traditional dinner I used to eat as a child to let my children and family relive the Chinese experience I miss so much.

Ken Wang, currently Executive Chef at JRC Global Buffet in London, began his cooking career at age 16. He trained as a chef in Jiangsu Province, China, specializing in Huaiyang cuisine, which refers to the characteristic flavours of dishes in Huai'an, Yangzhou and Zhenjiang. Huaiyang cuisine is refined, delicate and elegant. Two of Ken's five signature dishes include the Emperor’s crispy duck and five-hour slow-braised pork belly with sticky rice and gravy. Ken has over 20 years of experience with his individual style of cooking, fusing modern techniques with authentic flavours to ensure his contemporary dishes retain the essence of conventional Chinese cuisine.

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