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Beyond the box

The Shang Palace Chinese restaurant's yee sang, a dish that's traditionally served on the seventh day of the Chinese New Year. Delores Johnson / The National

When you think of Chinese food, do images of soggy prawn crackers, radioactive orange sweet and sour chicken balls and globules of monosodium glutamate spring to mind? If so, you’re probably reliving a flashback of a torpid takeaway, or a dismal dinner in a less than salubrious restaurant with flea-bitten flock wallpaper and a badly maintained fish tank.

Chinese food outside of mainland China has been much maligned over the years, perhaps because of the lingering reputation of a few bad chop sueys, all-day buffets (which really do look like they’ve been left out all day) and an all-round lack of imagination. But if you’ve been put off visiting a Chinese restaurant because of this sometimes unfair image, you may be missing out.

While many high-end traditional Chinese restaurants have been quietly plying their trade for some years now, a recent trend in chic, inventive and exciting Chinese food in designer surroundings has been putting the spring back into the humble spring roll. London’s Hakkasan was the first Chinese restaurant ever to be awarded a Michelin star, not least for its lavish Christian Liaigre-designed interior and its inspired brand of contemporary Chinese food.

It was the brainchild of the Hong Kong-born restaurateur Alan Yau, who was also the driving force behind the Wagamama chain of Japanese noodle bars launched in the 1990s. Yau’s philosophy has spawned many imitators in London and around the world since Hakkasan opened in 2001, and he added the highly acclaimed dim sum restaurant Yauatcha to his portfolio – much to the approval of critics, restaurant-goers and celebrities alike – before selling both brands to the Tasameem arm of the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority for around $60 million (Dh220m) in 2008.

Soon the Hakkasan concept will be arriving at Abu Dhabi’s Emirates Palace hotel, but that doesn’t mean discerning diners have to wait before sampling upmarket Chinese food in the UAE. Abu Dhabi’s Shang Palace at the Shangri-La and Dubai’s Noble House at Raffles represent two sides of a distinctly extravagant coin: one traditional and one thoroughly modern. And what better time to inhale this breath of fresh air in an ancient cuisine than during a festival of renewal, optimism and hope: Chinese new year?

The Noble House is an award-winning contemporary Chinese restaurant that reflects much of Yau’s original vision and inspiration. Its forward-thinking outlook and plush setting – in the capstone of the pyramid-shaped Raffles hotel in Dubai – has won numerous plaudits, especially for its creative use of luxury ingredients such as abalone, foie gras and wagyu beef. But while it clearly embraces a bright new future for Chinese food, the restaurant manager Zul Jumaat is also mindful of the traditions and symbolism inherent in Chinese culture, especially at new year.

“One example would be the number eight,” he says. “Eight is a very lucky number because of the way it sounds. In Cantonese it sounds like the word for wealth and fortune. The Chinese believe that by saying or using this number, it will help bring more money, wealth and luck.” Jumaat should know about good luck. In 2008, The Noble House swept all before it in the Time Out Dubai restaurant awards.

“We won three awards,” Jumaat says, the pride swelling in his voice. “Restaurant of the Year, Best Chinese and Best Newcomer. We are putting in lots of effort to make sure that our standards are consistent this year. We’re trying to revise our menu and the chef is bringing fresh new items so there’s a new reason to come to The Noble House. Nonetheless, we are quite confident about our service and product delivery. Hopefully the Year of the Ox will bring more success for us.”

Whatever the new year brings, there is sure to be a host of delicious and intriguing dishes on the special Chinese new year menu at The Noble House. One such recipe is yee sang (yusheng). “Yee sang is a dish that’s only served during the Chinese new year period, and traditionally on the seventh day of the new year,” says Jumaat. “But it’s also very popular the night before Chinese new year. It’s a raw tuna dish, which has a lot of significance for the Chinese people.

“There are a lot of parts to the salad – people don’t eat it just like that. All the ingredients are laid out separately. Then the ingredients are mixed together by everybody at the table, one by one. Each ingredient represents something different, for example sesame and cashew nuts symbolise good health for the coming year. When everything has been added everyone tosses the salad together, then they wish each other prosperity and health for the coming year.

“It’s very popular in Singapore, Malaysia and the southern part of China, but in the northern part of China it’s not common. There they consume dumplings (jiaozi), not done in restaurants but by the families themselves. The mother or grandmother will actually put coins in the dumplings to symbolise wealth. They are hoping that in the next year you’ll receive a lot of money. They’re real coins, so you don’t eat them, it’s just the whole act that’s symbolic.”

The raw fish of yee sang may be more popular among the Straits Chinese than it is on the mainland, but cooked fish certainly plays a big part in the new year feast. Again, the words for “fish” and “surpluses” sound very similar, and the fish is often served whole, rather than sliced into portions.

“In Chinese, just like in many cultures, people like to serve whatever they are cooking whole, so people can see the wholeness of the dish,” Jumaat says. “You don’t take parts of it, because for the Chinese every part of the animal is edible. So when you’re giving something, you don’t just give part of it, you give the whole thing, like the whole duck itself. It’s a symbolic thing.”

The Shang Palace at the Shangri-La Hotel in Abu Dhabi retains its traditional roots, yet the execution and delivery of its recipes is no less upmarket than the new generation of Chinese restaurants such as The Noble House. It will also be offering a special menu for Chinese new year, and its chef, Chan Yiu So, has been busy preparing for what he believes is still a significant family occasion.

“People usually meet at home, but these days they meet in restaurants to save themselves the trouble. Nonetheless, the idea is to have dinner together as a family,” he says.

Today, So might be the head chef at The Shangri-La hotel’s flagship restaurant, but he still remembers childhood new year celebrations in Hong Kong with affection. “The one food that my mother always cooked is fa choi (a type of edible algae) which has the appearance of black hair,” he says with a hint of nostalgia. “Fa choi is a pun on the phrase ‘strike it rich’.”

Indeed, many of the foods prepared at Chinese new year are laden with symbolism, not least because of the way their names sound in Chinese.

“Noodles in mandarin Chinese is ‘mian’, which sounds similar to ‘ming’, which means ‘life’,” Chef So says. “So, eating noodles that are not cut symbolises longevity. Pumpkin signifies gold, abalone signifies satisfaction and contentment, prawns signify happiness and scallops signify abundance.”

There’s a whole bowl full of symbolism to be found in poon choi, a communal dish that’s also known as pen cai. “Poon choi is a dish made up of many ingredients like mushroom, abalone, whole fish, oyster, chicken, duck, yam and lettuce,” says Chef So. Traditionally, the ingredients would be built in layers in a wooden bowl, with each layer being eaten in turn as opposed to having the ingredients mixed. “The symbolism is having everything and wanting nothing.”

Another emblematic dish essential to the new year celebrations is nian gao, which as Chef So says “symbolises excellence in studies”. Translating literally as “year cake”, nian gao is made from glutinous rice flour and brown sugar, or a Chinese confection called peen tong, and steamed. Traditionally, nian gao that was served to the kitchen god, Zao Jun, as a means to keep him sweet. These days, it can be eaten as a dessert, as it is in Cantonese cuisine, or as part of a savoury stir-fry, as in many Shanghai recipes. The sweet variety is widely eaten at Chinese new year in the Philippines, owing to the large number of Filipinos who originate from the Guangdong province of China.

Yet regardless of cultural heritage, it seems that Chinese new year is a celebration that attracts people from all backgrounds. Zul Jumaat originally hails from Singapore. Though he is not of Chinese descent, the Spring Festival holds a special place in his heart. “In Singapore, we celebrate all the public holidays, and Chinese new year is a very big celebration. Regardless of your race or religion, we’ll all go out and visit each other.

“Gifts are not exactly part of the Chinese new year festivities, but they have ‘hong bao’ or red packets. They give them out with money in them. It’s mainly the married people who give the packets to the people who are not married, whether they are older or younger than them. Whoever is married has to give red packets out, so it’s a very expensive time,” says Jumaat with a hearty laugh. “As children, we got a lot of red packets given to us. The most exciting thing as a child was to go and taste all the goodies and get all the red packets from our family members.”

The celebrations of the past might have left a lasting impression on Jumaat, but what about the future? “What’s very interesting is, looking at the world economy and recession right now, the ox is a very good symbol,” he says optimistically. “The ox symbolises hard work, loyalty and patience, so maybe in 2009 people will have to be more like the ox – strong, patient and put in a lot of hard work and effort to make sure this year goes through smoothly. For me it’s a very symbolic thing that this is the Year of the Ox.”

One thing is certain, with the imminent arrival of Hakkasan in Abu Dhabi, the Year of the Ox is sure to bring a welcome boost to upmarket Chinese dining in the UAE. And those soggy prawn crackers can remain but a bad memory.


Source: James Brennan, The National

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