Born and raised in Richmond, BC, Chef Nicole Gomes has been celebrating Chinese New Year ever since she can remember. The west coast city, just a stone’s throw from Vancouver, is known across North America for its dynamic Chinese food scene and famous night market brimming with all sorts of delicious eats.
The Top Chef Canada alum has been calling Calgary home for over 16 years, where she runs a high-end catering company (Nicole Gourmet) and the uber-popular fried chicken eatery, Cluck ‘N’ Cleaver. But with strong family ties in Richmond, she always heads back west to celebrate the holiday with her family.
“Most of my memories about Chinese New Year just revolve around spending time with my family,” says Gomes, smiling. “Well, spending time with family and then eating and eating and eating. There’s always so much food!”
So when it comes to Chinese New Year cooking, Nicole Gomes is something of an expert. Here are some top tips she has picked up over the years, plus how to make perfect Chinese dumplings.
The Perfect Dumplings for Chinese New Year
While Gomes says food has always been central to her upbringing, one of her most fond food memories is spending weekend afternoons learning to make dumplings (jiaozi) with her grandmother and younger sister.
“We would make dumplings all of the time with my grandma. Hundreds and hundreds of them,” says Gomes. “That is one of the best things about dumplings. You can make a huge batch, freeze them and eat them when you want.”
After years of making dough, rolling, filling and pinching, Gomes has become quite the dumpling expert, practically making them with her eyes closed. Though the filling can be flexible, Gomes’ favourite filling is a classic one made with ground pork and Shanghai bok choy.
If you’re celebrating the Lunar New Year at home this year, you should definitely have some dumplings on the table — so why not make some that are chef-approved?
Tips for a Great Chinese New Year:
It’s a numbers game
The number eight is regarded as the luckiest number. That’s a good baseline to work with when you’re preparing dinner. Eight dishes can easily feed a big group of family or friends. On the other end, stay away from four in any shape or form (i.e. guests or dishes). Its pronunciation is the same as the word for death, so it’s considered very bad luck.
The longer the noodle you’re cooking with, the better
Noodles represent longevity in life. You will always see them on the table at Chinese New Year, but in a lot of different forms, like stir-fried or steamed with vegetables and soy-based sauces. Never cut the noodles — it is bad luck!
You don’t need to cook everything yourself
Popular dishes like suckling pig, barbecue pork and peking-style chicken or duck aren’t ideal for a home cook to make, especially if it’s their first time. Most Canadian cities have great Chinatown neighbourhoods with Chinese barbecue restaurants. Order these from a good quality spot and spend your time in the kitchen making delicious side dishes.
Not every dish has to be hot
Many dishes in Chinese culture are served cold; a lot of people forget about that. Marinating soft tofu in a soy garlic sauce overnight in the fridge, for example, is really delicious and doesn’t take much prep at all.
Plan for some surf and turf
It isn’t a Chinese New Year dinner without lobster. Whole lobster is usually served because of its resemblance to a dragon (a creature that is synonymous with Chinese culture). It is usually paired with chicken. The presentation of a whole chicken represents family and prosperity.
What you should be drinking
Simple drinks are served along with Lunar New Year celebrations. Red and white wine to sip on throughout dinner, and finishing off with cognac when dessert comes around is perfect.
Always accept an invitation to someone’s New Year dinner, if possible
It is a real honour to be invited to someone’s Chinese New Year celebration, and one big plus is then you don’t have to worry about any of the cooking or the dishes afterwards.
Check out these 15 mouth-watering dumpling recipes for Chinese New Year.
Pork and Bok Choy Filling
Always cook off a bit of your filling in a pan and taste it first before filling your dumplings. Add more seasoning if needed.
For the pork and bok choy filling: Place all ingredients in a bowl and stir until combined.
For the dumpling dough: Mix flour and water together in a medium bowl and knead until smooth.
Split dough into six equal logs, roll to ¾-inch thickness (approximately) and cut into 5 pieces per log for a total of 30 dumplings.
Roll out into rounds and fill with approximately prepared pork and bok choy filling.
To seal, lightly dab water around the edge of one half of the dumplings. Bring sides together and gently pinch along seam to seal.
For the dipping sauce: Place black vinegar, garlic chili paste and chili flakes in a small bowl and stir to combine.
To cook the dumplings: Pour 1 ½ Tbsp canola oil in a large pan to evenly coat and turn to medium-high heat. Place dumplings into pan and cook until bottoms start to brown, about 3 minutes.
Next, pour in 1 ½ cups water, cover with lid and let steam for about 8 minutes or until water is absorbed.
Remove lid to allow any remaining water to evaporate. Dumpling should be tender on top and golden brown on the bottom.
Transfer from pan to serving dish and let cool slightly before serving.