I’ve already started planning my dinner menu for the Chinese New Year on Jan. 23. Like many Chinese people around the world, I look forward to the lunar New Year with great excitement. My love of this holiday has nothing to do with dragon parades and red envelopes stuffed with lucky money; for me, Chinese New Year is all about the food.
New Year’s dinner is always one of the biggest meals of the year. According to Chinese tradition, several foods are considered auspicious, consumed to bring health, wealth, harmony and happiness. Chicken, usually served whole, symbolizes family unity, and noodles or long green beans express the wish for longevity. Fish and pork represent abundance, while lettuce and crispy fried spring rolls — which resemble wads of cash and bars of gold — signify money.
My family always made sure to cover all the bases. Every year, my mother cooked a feast that included boiled chicken with a soy-dipping sauce, a bacon-topped variation on Cantonese steamed fish, pig’s trotters and peanuts simmered in a piquant vinegar sauce (a tradition I’ve since dropped from my menu) and some tangerines thrown in for good luck.
But what to drink with such an eclectic spread? This year, I’ll be serving sake. Thanks to its food-friendly nature, sake pairs well with a wide range of flavors and is a great match for Chinese cuisine. In general, drier styles with good acidity such as junmai-shu and junmai-ginjo work nicely with many deep-fried and stir-fried dishes.
“A good sake partner is one that cuts the oil and tamps down the spice,” says Beau Timken, owner of sake specialty store True Sake in San Francisco. “Crisp, dry ginjo acts like a palate-cleanser that strips the oils and washes away the heavy components of many dishes, while allowing you to taste the flavors within.”
When pairing with Chinese food, restaurant consultant and chef Ema Koeda recommends warming junmai-shu to enhance the sake’s umami. “I got this idea from shokoshu (Shaoxing, or Chinese rice wine), which is sometimes served warm, and I think (warm sake) harmonizes with the spices and umami of Chinese cuisine,” she explains.
A fresh, fruity sake, such as Kamoshibito Kuheiji Kudan no Yamada junmai-ginjo nama (Aichi Prefecture), is delicious with delicate seafood dishes such as steamed fish or steamed dumplings with shrimp (another lucky food, symbolic of happiness and laughter). The sake’s green, minty notes also match aromatic herbs like cilantro.
Heavier, meat-based dishes can handle bigger kimoto, yamahai or muroka nama genshu (undiluted, unpasteurized, non-charcoal-filtered) styles.
“Light yamahai sake that is a little gamy does wonders with chicken dishes,” says Hiroko Furukawa, of Sakaya in New York. “Savory, salty and sweet pork dishes work well with bolder, sweeter sake like Narutotai nama genshu (Tokushima Prefecture) or Born Muroka nama (Fukui Prefecture).”
The one kind of sake you might want to avoid, though, is highly fragrant daiginjo, as the sake’s aromas can clash with the flavors of the food. As any Chinese person can tell you, fighting at the table, especially on New Year’s, is a definite no-no.
Kung hei fat choi!
Melinda Joe is an American journalist in Tokyo and a certified wine and sake professional. She blogs at tokyodrinkingglass.blogspot.com.