Food and Drink

How Food and Drink Professionals Are Celebrating Lunar New Year This Year

Plus all the delicious dishes they'll be making.

Design by Grace Han for Thrillist
Design by Grace Han for Thrillist
Design by Grace Han for Thrillist

Lunar New Year is a time for cleaning the house, lighting incense on the altar, red envelopes stuffed with crisp bills, and-most important of all-delicious food. Every family does it differently. For some, bubbling hot pot with thin slices of fatty beef and assorted fish balls is the way to go. Others have whole roasted duck with crispy skin, or expertly folded dumplings with neat pleats. Some families eat only vegetarian food during this momentous occasion; and don’t forget desserts of sticky rice and baskets of fresh fruit.

To celebrate Lunar New Year, we asked experts in the food and drink world-the founder of a Taiwanese tea brand, an R&D chef who creates preservative-free fish sauce, and more-about how they’ve traditionally celebrated, what’s typically on the table at their new year’s feast, and what plans they have to ring in the year of the ox.

Maggie Xu

Founder at Us Two Tea

Lunar New Year was always my favorite holiday growing up. It was the one time a year when I got to see everyone in the family and didn’t need to worry about school. My family lived all over China, so Lunar New Year was the only time I was able to visit and stay with my grandparents. My Grandpa would always make a rotation of my favorite dishes, and we would have guests visit us every day to greet my grandparents. It was tradition that the younger family would bring gifts and snacks while visiting the elderly which was great because then I would have new snacks to eat every day.

I was born in the North of China and in our family tradition, we usually eat at least two to three different kinds of dumplings at midnight along with fish and veggies. We believe what we eat on New Year’s Eve is a good forecast of the upcoming new year, so we try to eat as much seafood and meat as possible. It’s all tied to tradition and the belief that you get more prosperous in the New Year because you are able to afford these “expensive” foods.

Diep Tran

R&D Chef at Red Boat Fish Sauce

Lunar New Year is definitely a feasting holiday and our family pulled out all the stops. Preparations started months ahead, beginning with the three-month fermentation of sweet rice for rice alcohol. There were the holiday pickles that will need a couple of weeks to mature, and the candied winter melons to be turned into candies. Of course, no Tet is complete without banh chung, so all the aunties used to come to my grandparents’ house for an all-day banh chung marathon. The kitchen might have looked like a Kansas tornado swept through it at the end of the day-with banana leaves and sweet rice kernels scattered on the table and floor, but it was all worth it.

Nowadays, my annual tradition is to make banh chung with friends and strangers. Many queer folks have complicated relationships with their families. I started the Banh Chung Collective to offer an inclusive space to celebrate Tet and engage in community. In the before times, we’d gather in person. Luckily, thanks to Zoom, we can still make Banh Chung together, but apart.

Jimmy Ly

Chef & Owner of Madame Vo

Lunar New Year is such a big holiday in our home. It is the only New Year we celebrate, and my family takes superstitions to new levels. New Years Eve is most important to my father. We all have to be at home and have dinner together as a family no matter what. We cook [and] eat dishes that are symbolic to the upcoming year for luck and prosperity. [This includes] fish for increase in prosperity, spring rolls for wealth, noodles for happiness and longevity, dumplings for wealth, sweet rice balls, rice cakes, and oranges and tangerines.

Then, on actual New Years Day, my mother makes us vegetarian food for 24 hours. She says that eating vegetarian on this day is equivalent to the entire year. We sacrifice so others in our circle [of] life can gain. And of course, we would gamble and receive red envelopes when we were kids. Now that I’m married, I no longer receive red envelopes. Instead my wife, Yen, and I give envelopes to our parents now. 

Emshika Alberini

Founder of Thai Iced Tea byEmshika 

My dad said his great great grandfather was part Chinese and I remember how much fun we had when I was growing up getting to experience this tradition. We woke up early in the morning and my parents would prepare food and make an offering to the spirits and our predecessors. There would always be plenty of dishes: fruits, desserts and drinks, roasted duck, boiled whole chicken, three layers pork, pig’s head, Thai rice flour muffins, stuffed dough, year cake, Chinese steamed buns, Chinese pears, apple, and oranges.

As a kid, I also loved getting ang pao, or lucky money. Lucky money was typically given to the unmarried by the married. It is also traditional to put brand new notes inside red envelopes. My parents would pray outside with incense and when it finished burning, we would eat the food that we offered. It’s always such a good time and continues to show me how food is so meaningful to the way of life.

Alex Wu and Ting Lin

Owners of Bao’d Up

Chinese New Year is very similar to Thanksgiving, in that our traditions are centered around family and food. It is an important holiday where you return to your hometown to spend time with extended family and share a large meal on Chinese New Year’s Eve, typically with 20-30 dishes! Depending on which region of China you are from, dumplings and bao are commonly found on the dinner table, along with other family favorites. Once the meal is over, we enjoy watching the New Year’s Gala on tv, which features performances by comedians, dancers, musicians, and more.

Calvin Eng

Chef & Co-founder of Loud Grandma

Almost every weekend as a kid, I would visit my grandparents, who lived in Chinatown, while my mom ran errands and shopped for groceries. I enjoyed spending time with them, and especially loved hanging out at their apartment during the New Year to watch the parades and lion dances. We’d hear the drums getting louder and louder as they got closer to our apartment, and when the lion dances turned on to our street, we would run downstairs to watch from the sidewalks.

I intend to preserve and carry on the Lunar New Year superstitions and traditions that my mom taught me. The Chinese are big believers in luck and prosperity, so my family always deep cleans the whole home to get rid of any bad luck in preparation of the New Year. My mom likes to leave little candy plates with mandarins by our bed so the first thing we eat in the morning is something sweet, for a sweet start to the New Year. On the day of, we don’t sweep or take out the trash because it’s associated with sweeping your wealth and luck away. We also avoid scissors and knives because it represents cutting away your wealth. This means we prep and mise out all the ingredients the day before that are needed for our large vegetarian meal on New Year’s morning to ensure a prosperous and lucky year ahead!

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Kat Thompson is a staff writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @katthompsonn

Food and Drink

What We Learned About Fish From Spending An Afternoon With Josh Niland

It’s time to stop putting your fish in water, you’re killing the flavour

fish in coolroom
Photo By Natasha Bazika

“How do you want your fish,” says a fishmonger dressed head to toe in black, to a customer ordering a kilo of Greenback Flounder from Coorong, SA. The customer is unsure of how he wants the fish but asks the fishmonger for advice after telling him what he plans to do with the fish. Immediately the fishmonger knows how to cut the flounder, wraps it in paper, and hands it off to the customer—but not before giving a tip or two on how to cook it. 

“This is how we sell trust and instil confidence,” says Josh Niland who appeared from around the counter, donning his chef whites and a crisp white apron. We’re in Fish Butchery, Niland’s fish shop in Paddington, 20-metres down the road from his two-hatted seafood restaurant, Saint Peter. It’s a humble fish shop that feels luxurious when you walk in. Perhaps, it’s the cased sausages hanging in the front window, or the glass cabinet with one of everything they’re selling that day on display. You won’t find piles of fish or large blue trays of ice with fish lying on top. Everything is in controlled cabinets, including the oysters.

The shop is long and narrow with exposed brick walls, which Niland explains had a previous life as a hair salon. “I never wanted the shop to be uptight, but I did want it to be beautiful, a place you could walk in, order fish and chips, or a piece of fish to cook at home,” says Niland. In the middle of the room, there is a slab of white-marble serving as the backbone. This is where the fish is descaled with what Niland likes to call a ‘beartrap on a stick’. Although some fishmongers wield the beartrap, flinging scales up their arms, others use a knife, slicing the scales in one long strip, resembling snakeskin. 

“The fish here will be used for sushi and sashimi,” Niland explains pointing at the fish being scaled by a knife. “What we’re trying to do here is to get between the scale and the fish, so we can control the texture of the fish and remove moisture from the fish.” 

Removing moisture from the fish is something we don’t see often, but as Niland explains, it is the most important step in preparing the fish. “You know that fishy fish smell you get a waft of walking into a fish market or other fish shop,” Niland asks. I briefly pause to remember smelling nothing when I walked into Fish Butchery, except the faint smell of fries sizzling in the fryer. “Well that’s because moisture gets into the skin, and when that happens water rapidly breaks down into ammonia, resulting in a fishy smell.” It’s another reason Niland often gets lost when a customer asks for a fish that’s not too fishy.

As he explains, fishy fish are only “fishy” because of the way it’s stored and handled. Which explains why the fish scaled with the bear claw are immediately hung, away from moisture. 

descaling fish
Photo By Natasha Bazika

“When the scaler rips up the scale, it leaves an open pocket where the scale used to be. This pocket is quite deep and what usually happens is the fish is washed down then dipped in water. The water sits in that pocket, and after some time creates a fishy smell,” explains Niland. 

This is the core of Niland’s philosophy. Removing moisture from the fish opens up a realm of opportunities that exists beyond the conventional method, according to Niland.

Our next step takes us to the cool room, where rows of gutted fish are hung up on silver hooks as butchers do to meat. They’re not swimming in buckets of ice or water, instead, they are dangling a safe distance from each other, careful not to touch one another. The coolroom is set to an optimal temperature, there is no fan blowing in the room, and only when the fish is ready to be served, then it will be unhooked and dealt with accordingly. 

“Every step from the catching, killing, and preparing is important in achieving flavour,” says Niland who points out a row of garfish in a dry tray. “If you kill a fish properly, there shouldn’t be any lactic acid, which you can tell by the flesh—it looks cooked.” 

So what’s the best way to humanely and effectively kill a fish? According to Niland, brain spike or bleeding the fish keeps the fish from flopping around, building up chemicals that can affect the flavour later on. 

Bringing the attention back to the garfish, Niland explains there are moments when fish tastes better. This tray of Garfish is ready to go, but then Niland points to a hanging coral trout which has until Friday before it’s served on someone’s plate. 

chef showing fish in coolroom
Photo By Natasha Bazika

“This fish arrived today, it’s been scaled and gutted, but it won’t be ready until the end of the week. That’s not the case for all fish though, this tuna I would serve on day 8 or 9,” says Niland. “There’s a point where a fish’s fat is more prominent, which again comes back to removing as much moisture as we can and controlling the handling and environment from day one.”

Niland sources produce from fisherman around Australia and he takes only whatever he can get. 

“I go to the airport to pick up fish once or twice a week from my sources, and I’ll visit the Sydney Fish Market daily to see what they have, but at my shop, I serve whatever I can get my hands on,” explains Niland. “Our customers ask for recommendations so we tell them, King George Whiting is excellent today, and we might offer tips on storing it at home, how to cook it, and if I have a recipe card, I’m more than happy to share.”

As Niland explains it, not everyone knows how to cook a certain fish, and he wants more people to choose an unfamiliar fish, something they haven’t had before or cooked before. The best way to do so is by helping his customers understand the product. “The bottom line is we want people to have a better experience with fish,” says Niland. 

This stays true to his sustainable approach to fishing and his pioneering nose-to-tail eating method for fish. “The global standard is that half goes in the bin, which breaks down to about a 45% fillet yield,” says Niland who remains unaffected after 10-minutes of chatting in the cool room. “For every two fish, we only need one. I use about 95% of the fish.”

We finally leave the coolroom, to approach a small fridge, where fish are being dry-aged, but in a different control to the dry ageing fish in the coolroom. “It’s just another way to experiment with the flavour and natural method of prolonging shelf life,” says Niland. 

“I’m always thinking, how can I articulate the flavour of fish differences between coral trout and snapper.”

cuts of fish
Photo By Natasha Bazika

Niland’s experimentation finds him continually exploring low-temperature storage, probing which fish works best for it, and noting when a fish reaches its sweet spot. More like a mad scientist, Niland is far from a conventional fishmonger, as he dives deep to push boundaries on how seafood is caught, shopped, and cooked whether at home or at Saint Peter. 

One look at his book, The Whole Fish Cookbook, is enough to convince you of his outrageous, funny, and loopy suggestions on what to cook, including coaxing delicious dishes from fish eyeballs. liver and even fish blood. 

If there is anything we can take away from spending an afternoon with Josh Niland, it would be his pioneering penchant for demystifying fish, his care and attention to preparing fish, and his sustainable seafood philosophy, that we hope catches on around the world. 

Niland enjoys the complexity of fish, yet breaks it down for us so that we can enjoy and achieve a perfectly cooked piece of fish at home. His humble approach to seafood is nothing short of inspiring. He wants to change the world, but it’s not going to be easy and you get the sense he knows that, but he continues, one fish at a time, to change how we cook, eat, and look at fish.

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