chinese new year in melbourne
Lion dance on Little Bourke Street.
I have very few actual memories of celebrating Chinese New Year in Malaysia (we migrated to Perth when I was five), so coming to Melbourne and witnessing firecrackers, everyone wishing Happy Chinese New Year and so, so many lion dances was a fabulous kind of shock and awe. On the first day of the new year, Melbourne was a riot of red, the ground peppered with papery firecracker shells and delicious smoke beckoned us to street markets. The day ended quite perfectly, with a spectacle of fireworks on the Yarra.
Anyway, I’m going to try and keep this post brief as the blog is already overloaded with Melbourne. I’m trying to get all my vacation posts out and I better hurry up – because we’ll be in Japan in a few days. (And we’re already back! Damn.)
Salmon, salmon roe and coconut salad at Gingerboy.
To be honest I bought the Gingerboy cookbook for the rather odd concept of a tofu cheesecake. Tofu cheesecake does sound weird, a contradiction of texture and ideals, but it was worth the visit to Gingerboy alone. Gingerboy is located down an alleyway and inside, the restaurant looks like a Shanghai stripper club – in a good way. The service is quick, friendly and cute – which seems to be a (very welcome) theme in Melbourne.
Left: Slightly ostentatious, Gingerboy stands out. Right: Hanoi style prawn spring rolls.
Crisp Cone Bay barramundi in yellow curry sauce.
Tofu cheesecake. Much, much better than it sounds.
There were more hits than misses, with the Hanoi style prawns and the coconut salmon salad with its herbal, earthy hits of mint and Thai basil, proving to be better choices. The cone bay barramundi was the star of lunch. The yellow curry sauce was fragrant with lemongrass and was rounded out with just enough coconut cream to bring out the sparkling clarity of the fish. Intense, spicy and punchy, this is a must order at Gingerboy.
Mother-in-law eggs with sambal.
To say the least, staying in South Yarra has its perks. MoVida Bakery is literally a hop, skip and jump away. We walked down only to be greeted by a queue snaking out the door. It’s so busy, people were squashing themselves onto crates, eating alfresco, standing and spilling onto the footpath. The counter seemed to be constantly running out.
Gorgeous breads take up residence behind the counter.
The queue. Get here early.
Donuts for breakfast equal heaven on earth.
We sneaked off with two donuts (lemon curd and a blueberry), an almond croissant and snaffled the very last bacon and egg roll which was almost too cute to eat (like that would ever happen – nothing is ever too cute to eat, except maybe baby seals). I only managed to eat the lemon curd donut, covered in a fluff of sugar and filled with a sublime, sweet and sour lemon curd. Oh baby.
You may have already guessed but Mum and I were in town to spend Chinese New Year with my sister, C. Chinese New Year (or if we’re being politically correct, Lunar New Year) is about family and on the eve of the New Year, it’s traditional for family members reunite for a fabulous dinner.
Tossing the yee sang! Lo hei!
Always on the New Year table is yee sang (or yu sheng), a raw fish salad dish that’s meant to usher in abundance for the coming year. Every component of the salad from the slivers of raw salmon to the peanuts (and my favourite, the crispy bits) has, whether by name or appearance, some sort of luck or good fortune attached. Your luck is supposed to improve tossing it together as high as possible (it gets messy!). So as far as a Chinese dish goes, this is as fun as it gets.
From the top left clockwise: steamed snapper, yee sang (raw fish salad), steamed pork with salted fish, steamed oysters, butter curry leaf prawns and eggplants with XO sauce.
Even though we’re not a family with traditional Chinese beliefs, Mum really went to town on this dinner. Oysters freshly shucked to order at the Prahran Markets were steamed with ribbons of spring onion. Fresh king prawns were fried in butter and curry leaves, while a sparkling fresh snapper was steamed then topped with fragrant herbs and scalded with hot oil. Skinny eggplants were steamed and topped with a luxurious, scallop enriched XO sauce. Mum’s signature hand minced steamed belly pork topped off a fabulous feast to usher in the year.
Market Lane Coffee
The morning after, we needed a swift caffeine kick. Market Lane Coffee has a branch just off the main hall of the Prahran Markets. It’s a bit uppity – they don’t serve soy milk and insist on steaming only organic non-homogenised local milk.
Prahran Market’s Market Lane Coffee.
Anyway, I had the cold drip on ice for breakfast and it was pretty good. Totally loved all the paraphernalia for sale and with non hipster staff, it’s a good place to hang out at the markets. As long as you aren’t lactose intolerant.
Chinese New Year on Little Bourke
We headed into Chinatown in the hope of spotting festivities. The first stroll down Little Bourke yielded nothing, just hundreds of people doing the same thing as us, tramping over the fast fading remains of firecrackers and looking for the the elusive lion dance.
Firecracker shells litter the streets.
However a few hours later (after shopping, what else) we could the distant ring of cymbals, throbbing and bells that can mean only one thing. LION DANCE!
With what seemed like half of Melbourne trailing watching on, lion dance troupes were making their rounds to each restaurant to give their blessings. With a gigantic drum on wheels and troupe of assistants clanging cymbals, the lion starts dancing to a beat. It requires strength and dexterity to manoeuvre the heavy lion head plus make the lion ‘life like’, so most troupes are kung fu or martial arts associations. After greeting the owners the lion goes inside, pays its respects to any altars within and in return for tricks, collects red packets containing money (read: a lot of money).
When the lion exits the restaurant (often bum first, it’s pretty awkward), comes the most vital and exciting part. The lion pays respects to the owners for prosperity in the coming year and with amazing acrobatic skill, the lion dancers have to reach a red packet strung from the ceiling or doorway. Sometimes, the guys inside look so tired, I’m not sure how they do it.
(The money’s probably a big motivator.)
They also have to retrieve a lettuce or mandarin attached to the red packet and ‘spit’ it back out. Really skilled lion dancers sometimes arrange the lettuce or mandarin peel into a lucky character, though this is quite rare because they’d have to be lightning fast at peeling fruit.
With the music at a crescendo, the lion dancers, who are exhausted at this point, start prancing, baying and crouching at the firecrackers. These are lit directly in front of the lion, which starts jumping up and down frantically, almost willing the firecrackers to keep exploding.
The air cracks with each shell popping off, releasing eye watering smoke that, in an alleyway, becomes a dilemma of blocking your ears or wiping up tears. It’s crazy, exciting and fun.
Paying respects to the owners. Note the lettuce hanging from the doorway.
Fireworks (and the resulting gagging, tear inducing smoke).
We follow a few lions around, witnessing this breathtaking spectacular that seems to happen at every business in Chinatown. We had to give up lion hunting for dinner, but little did we know the best lion dance (with the most fire crackers I have ever seen) was yet to come.
It’s hard to top a dinner of smoked duck and hand pulled noodles, but it is possible: add a lion dance. Like most Chinese restaurants, Bamboo House had organised a lion dance and little did we know we had the best table in the house – right under the $888 red packet hanging from the ceiling.
The lion dancers’ pay day. That’s $888 hanging from the ceiling and a lettuce to be ‘eaten’.
Second course of dinner: Bamboo House’s special Peking ribs, wombok in a delicate sauce and seafood in a potato nest. The food here is seriously good.
Batting eyelashes in return for a red packet.
My brother-in-law Luke feeding a tasty red packet to the lion.
Looking for red packets!
Oh look at those eyelashes. How could you not give money to it.
But… the real fun comes after the lion’s pay day – the firecrackers! Bamboo House had the longest string of firecrackers I had ever seen, a whole two storeys’ worth. With the cymbals and drums going gangbusters, the lion pranced up and down and looking directly into the explosives, the firecrackers were lit.
Afterwards come the firecrackers.
The lion dancers go dangerously close to the fireworks, almost willing the fireworks to crack and explode. Spectacular.
I have no idea how the lion, with all that fake fur does not catch on fire, but bathed in the crackling, golden light, it was a hypnotising show.
Lion dancers gracefully dancing around motorbikes.
By the time we paid the bill, the restaurant opposite (Shark Fin Inn) had started their lion dance, so we got to see another enormous rope of firecrackers explode (and hit us, ouch). It was so exciting, I don’t think I’ll ever get enough of it.
Not to be outdone, Shark Fin Inn had an equally long rope of firecrackers.
Chinese New Year at Crown
We headed to the Crown to check out the Lunar New Year night markets. The markets were quite junky but we stayed for the fantastic simultaneous five or six lion dances showing on the stage. They were even doing tricks on stilts. (Seriously can’t get enough.)
Crowne Casino putting on a show for Chinese New Year.
The fireworks on the Yarra afterwards were spectacular.
Hutong Dumpling House
For all the times I’ve visited Melbourne, I had never been to Hutong. I know, it’s bordering on blasphemy. Even then, I didn’t even manage to get to the original Chinatown Hutong, but this new one in Prahran. Dark wood and style aside, for the brusque service and enthusiastically perving chefs we may as well have been in Chinatown.
However, the food was fabulous. So fabulous, I’d fly over just to have this chilli chicken.
Cold cut chilli chicken. Tingly, hot and spicy.
The chilli chicken is served cold, with a stunning scarlet chilli sauce spiked with Szechuan peppercorns and peanuts. The sauce is what makes this dish. It’s tingly, hot, crunchy and smooth, with the earthy aroma of dark roasted chilli oil.
The famous Hutong wantons in chilli oil. Worth the hype.
Hutong’s famous wantons in chilli oil didn’t disappoint. Each dumpling had a plump pat of pork, which you could see through the thin, slippery skin. The slick chilli oil completed the delicate dumplings, providing heat and moisture so delicious you could slurp them up.
The sun sets over Little Bourke Street’s Chinatown.
27-29 Crossley St, Melbourne VIC 3000
T: (03) 9662 4200
3 Tivoli Rd, South Yarra VIC 3141
T: (03) 9041 4345
Market Lane Coffee
Shop 13, Prahran Market/163 Commercial Rd, South Yarra VIC 3141
T: (03) 9804 7434
47 Little Bourke St, Melbourne VIC 3000
(03) 9662 1565
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