Chefs, bakers and food writers on celebrating Chinese New Year with nostalgic desserts
Sweets that those in the know suggest you seek out this time of year
"Hurry up and clean your room!" my mom would yell to me in Cantonese from the kitchen, where she'd be attending to multiple pots and pans on the stove. When I was growing up, the flurry in our Toronto home on the eve of Chinese New Year was due to preparations for the most flavourful spread of the year and the busyness of household chores. The anticipation — with sounds of food sizzling in hot oil and scents wafting through the house — would motivate me to quickly get through the new year housework. The laundry had to be done, surfaces dusted, floors swept. "Sweep away the dirt," my parents would say. As the Chinese tradition goes, it's customary to sweep away the old year — and particularly, any of its bad luck — to welcome the start of a new year.
When everything was finally tidy and clean, we'd sit down to a feast of glistening savoury dishes like "long life" noodles, steamed whole fish with ginger and scallions, and fried turnip cake, among others that had symbolic meanings of vitality, prosperity and good luck. I would eat to excess and swear I couldn't eat another bite. But then, my dad would declare, "Tim ban is ready." And I'd find a way to make room in my distended belly for dessert.
Tim ban (as pronounced in Cantonese) or tián pǐn (in Mandarin) is the Chinese word for dessert — loosely translated as "sweet item." As with many celebratory dinners, it signifies the completion of a joyous meal with family and friends.
As a second-generation Canadian kid, the lunar holiday was the one time of year I got a better sense of my culture and the customs that seemed far removed from my everyday experience. It was a time when I got to eat special dishes in a feast like no other, always finishing with tim ban.
In recognition of the holiday, I got in touch with Canadian chefs and culinary enthusiasts of Chinese heritage to share their memories, favourite foods — and the sweet desserts not to miss out on at this time of year.
Susur Lee, award-winning chef and owner of Lee Restaurant in Toronto
On a fond memory: As a kid growing up in Hong Kong, Susur Lee looked forward to going to his father's boss's house in the Mid-Levels, an affluent area of the island, for a Chinese New Year gathering. Decked out in the new clothes his mom would buy him for the new year, they would travel by double-decker bus and be welcomed with an abundance of treats in what's known as a treasure box, filled with dried lotus seeds, persimmons and chocolate coins in gold-coloured wrappers, to name a few. "My father would keep telling me, '[Stop] eating so much; [you're] being so rude!'" Lee says. There would be winter melon candy, fried dumplings, crispy taro balls, and pun coi, a classic hot dish with layers of ingredients like conpoy, red dates and chicken. The bus ride back, on the curvy roads of the Mid-Levels, never went well. "I'd always get sick on the way home, sitting on the top deck," Lee says. For him, though, despite his mother's reprimand for throwing up on his new clothes, it was all worth it. "Every year, I'd go through the same kind of thing, and I enjoyed every single part of it," he says, laughing.
The dessert he'd recommend: Tong jyun or tāng yuán, a glutinous rice ball soup "like a Chinese mochi," Lee explains. The rice balls contain different fillings, like rock sugar, black sesame, white sesame or peanut. "Tong jyun means 'perfection of circle;' it means everything is perfect," he says. It's a dessert his mom always made and that he makes for his own kids for the holiday. "You can buy that at any grocery store — in Asian grocery [stores] in the freezer — so it's very easy to make," says Lee. He recommends adding brown sugar and ginger to the broth to cook the rice balls "to sort of balance the yin and yang."
Jackie Kai Ellis, author, pastry chef and founder of Beaucoup Bakery & Café in Vancouver
On a fond memory: Jackie Kai Ellis vividly recalls the Tray of Togetherness: a platter of candy, seeds and nuts divided into eight compartments — eight being a lucky number in Chinese culture, symbolizing prosperity. "I loved that so much because my mom never let us eat sugar as a kid except for around Chinese New Year," she said. "There would just be a free for all." This year, Kai Ellis is looking forward to making man tou — a steamed white bun — with her parents to deliver to their family. "That type of food is actually from our heritage from northern China," says Kai Ellis, whose grandparents were from the coastal province of Shandong. "I'm hoping that we can make them in an ox shape [to commemorate the Year of the Ox]," she says.
The dessert she'd recommend: Nián gāo is a cake made with glutinous rice flour and is a traditional food served for Chinese New Year. Not necessarily served at the end of a meal, it's sweet enough to be a dessert or eaten as a snack or side dish — which is what Kai Ellis does. "When you pan-fry it, it gets really crispy; it's soft, and it's gooey, so I love that," she says. "We used to dip it in egg and pan-fry it as well." Another favourite of hers is black sesame soup, a dessert she has a soft spot for. "That, to me, is one of the best, best Chinese desserts ... there is," she says.
Andrew Fung, chef and owner of Nineteen in Edmonton
On a fond memory: Andrew Fung remembers visiting different households of relatives growing up in Hong Kong, eating candy from the treasure box they would have open, and receiving lucky money in red envelopes, typically given by older relatives to kids for the new year. "It was pretty fun because it was the only time we get money from people," he jokes.
The dessert he'd recommend: Chinese twisted doughnuts, deep-fried and coated with sugar. "Those are my favourite," says Fung who makes them himself for Chinese New Year.
Nick Liu, chef and owner of DaiLo in Toronto
On a fond memory: Being part of a large South African Chinese community in Toronto, Nick Liu's Chinese New Year's gatherings were big, with a minimum of at least 30 people, and included a mix of cuisines from their heritage: Chinese South African dishes, Chinese Indian dishes and Indian food. For more prosperous years, like the Year of the Dragon, in which he was born, they would have a Chinese banquet at a restaurant. He remembers jellies tossed in cornstarch or powdered sugar that, as kids, they would use to play the quarter game with. "We used to ... bounce this jelly off the table and try to get it into the teacup," Liu says. "But because of the shape — it's a square — it used to go all over the place."
The dessert he'd recommend: "I think my favourite Chinese dessert growing up were egg tarts," says Liu. But he also recommends almond cookies and fried dough sweets called koeksisters, a South African specialty his aunt would make every year. "It's kind of [a cross] between a doughnut and a cookie. And then sometimes they're glazed with something sweet [like] honey," he says. "Sometimes they put sweet shredded coconut on top."
Pay Chen, food writer and TV host
On a fond memory: Growing up in Halifax with all their extended family in Taiwan, Chinese New Year didn't feel like a big celebration in Pay Chen's household. "The only reason I ever knew that it was Chinese New Year is because family friends would give us the lucky money envelopes," she recalls. "I'm sure people dropped off sweets and those sorts of customary things, but for my brother and I, it was like, 'Yeah, man, we're getting money in a red envelope. It's a great time of year!'"
The dessert she'd recommend: Sweet red bean soup — a dessert of whole beans cooked in a sweet broth that can be served hot or cold depending on the season. And it's one Chen says she didn't appreciate as a kid. "I remember having a white friend at a Chinese banquet dinner, and they're like, 'What is this?' And I'm like, 'It's dessert ... It's beeeeans, and it's soup, and it's sweet, and it's your dessert,'" she says, laughing. "I think, as an adult, there are certain things about your upbringing that you took for granted ... also because, when it's different, you're like, 'I don't want that. I want chocolate cake instead.' And as you get older and you don't experience those things so much anymore, you do kind of long for it in a very nostalgic way."
Chris Lam, chef and owner of Straight and Marrow in Vancouver
On a fond memory: A fourth-generation chef and restaurateur, Chris Lam spent a portion of his childhood in Victoria. And with his chef dad being friends with fishermen, he always had easy access to fresh crab, oysters and other seafood for the holiday. When celebrating at his mom's gatherings, it would be hot pot. "It was always a big gathering and a big smorgasbord of everything," he says. "It's still my favourite food."
The dessert he'd recommend: "Tong jyun is probably one of the most iconic Chinese New Year desserts," says Lam, who has been making the glutinous rice balls since he was five or six years old. He remembers his grandmother teaching him how to make them for Chinese New Year at that early age. "It's actually pretty easy. They kind of explained ... it's just like Play-Doh," he said. "You roll some balls; you put some sugar in there." In the last couple of years, he's been experimenting with the fillings — in particular, using White Rabbit candy (a popular Chinese confectionery) — and he shows his son how to make them. His runner-up for desserts is nián gāo, which he makes similarly to Kai Ellis. "I prepare them pretty simply," he says. "I coat them in egg and pan-fry them."
Janet Ho is a writer and hobby artist. You can follow her at @janetonpaper.