Want to get lucky during the Chinese lunar Year of the Water Snake? Then exchange your old bills for new ones at a bank, buy three kumquats with green twigs and tie them with a red string or ribbon, and pick up some “lucky” pastries at a Chinese bakery.
So says Toronto culinary historian Shirley Lum who operates Taste the World Neighbourhood Walks, including a series of Chinese New Year’s Tours.
Don’t forget, those pastries should be wallet shaped, look like fire crackers and have smiling faces. It’s a good idea, too, to buy three sesame balls and put them on a red plate with a spotlight so they’ll glow like “three golden nuggets,” symbolizing money, she advises.
Traditions, superstitions abound
Gung Hei Fatt Choi (Cantonese), Gong Xi Fa Cai (Mandarin), Chuc Mung Nam Mui (Vietnamese) – or Happy New Year.
However you say it, the lunar New Year starting on Feb. 9 launches a festive 15 days of the longest and most important festivity in the Chinese calendar.
With the snake taking over from the dragon, expectations are for a year of “reflective calm and time for self-improvement,” Lum said.
On a previous walking tour, she immersed us in the fascinating traditions and folklore of this holiday.
Meeting with a small group under the “prosperity” moose sculpture above the Lucky Moose Mart on Dundas Street West, we headed off for an adventure to regale the senses.
We are greeted by Lum with New Year “lucky candies” and learn about the customs as we walk quickly to get out of the cold at the aromatic Jin Cheng Bakery.
A sampling of treats includes cracked hardboiled eggs soaked in Chinese tea, soya sauce and spices as well as variety of steamed buns, munchies and Hong Kong tea.
We then visit a natural herb shop to sip New Year's fragrant tea and nosh on dried snacks and afterwards joined crowds of pre-holiday shoppers and diners in Toronto's "second" Chinatown, the Dundas-Spadina neighbourhood.
Asian grandmas push through the crowds to select the freshest ingredients at outdoor and crammed specialty supermarkets. Families with children pick out special toys as treats and stock up on traditional snacks.
Festive feasts await as food shops with Chinese delicacies such as whole roasted pigs and steamed chickens with their heads still attached, "paying tribute" to the animal's life.
The aroma of warm bakery products, spices and herbs, teas and a dim sum feast make this a cultural journey that pleases all the senses.
There’s a trip through outdoor produce stands, a bustling food market and a trading company with all kinds of Asian gifts and cooking products. Then we sample pork sliced from a boar hanging in a window display at a meat shop.
Over lunch, Lum shows everyone how to use chopsticks and orders a "harmonious blend" of the five Chinese meal elements – colour, aroma, flavour, shape and texture.
There are chuckles around the table as everyone reads out his or her fortune for the year ahead from a Chinese animal horoscope book.
These gastronomic tours throughout this month start at 10 a.m. and run for 3 1/2 hours.
Eat, drink, and be merry
This year Lum has added a Lantern Festival Banquet on the 15th day of the first moon that formally ends the New Year celebrations.
This nine-course feast on Feb. 23 from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. is at the Taste of China Seafood Restaurant on Spadina Road.
The menu includes crab meat and fish maw soup; scallops with meat; big tiger shrimps; crispy whole chicken with salt/pepper flavour and shrimp chips; traditionally braised dish of tofu, meat and vegetables; double lobsters with ginger, garlic and green onions; steamed whole fish; Jasmine rice; and sweet dessert soup.
There’s also the sixth annual Chinese New Year’s Eve 11-course banquet, Feb. 9 from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. at the same restaurant.
Need to know
There are 11 spots available for each of the Chinese New Year's walks costing $45; $40, seniors and students; $30, ages three to 12 and includes all pre-ordered food and non-alcoholic drinks.
The Lantern Festival Banquet costs $50 ($470 for a table of 10) while the Chinese New Year’s Eve banquet is $58 ($500 for a table of 10).