Chinese New Year, like most celebrations from any culture, revolves a great deal around food, which happens to be the passion of Don Mee Seafood Restaurant chef Wai Sin Quon.
Quon has been the chef at Don Mee for more than 20 years. He started cooking when he immigrated to Canada with his family from Shanghai in 1980 at 25 years old, learning to cook under a former chef at Don Mee, as well as a chef at the former Mandarin Place.
Quon preps and cooks everything on Don Mee’s menu and says he enjoys all aspects of his job.
“Everything. Everything cooking. Barbecue cooking, cooking the sauce, the soup, everything,” Quon said. “I enjoy my job.”
Georgina Wong, the restaurant’s managing director, translating for Quon, said he particularly enjoys cooking for weddings and in other situations where he gets to pay a little more attention to his craft.
“It depends on how busy we are,” Wong said. “If we’re not that busy I think he can spend more time cooking the foods that are more complicated.”
Chinese New Year, which falls on Friday, Jan. 31, brings with it many food traditions, giving Quon a chance to really break out his skills.
Each Chinese New Year, Quon will develop two menus, one primarily for the non-Chinese crowd which comes to the restaurant to celebrate, and another for the more traditional crowd.
The significance of most of the dishes is found in the very sound of their name in Cantonese, which will have the same sound as another word, with an often fortuitous meaning.
“The Chinese very much like the sound of a word,” Wong said.
The translations and English-alphabet spellings here are thanks to a little help from Wong and a lot of help from an iPhone.
A traditional fish dish, for instance, consists of a whole rock cod which is called shì ban yú. The sound of the Cantonese word for this fish is the equivalent to the word meaning “abundance.”
“The fish dish means you will always have abundance,” Wong said. “It means you always have leftovers, abundance in your food, so it continues to feed you.”
A dish of slow-cooked pork hock, called ti tiu, has a meaning of good fortune in gambling. The tie to gambling is the reward of riches that should come easily to you, just as the meat does.
To finish this important meal, a New Year cake is served, called nian ago, it’s something like a sweet, fried dumpling.
“The sound of it means the kids, they will grow taller and if they study their marks will get higher, just keep going up,” Wong said. “Or if you have a job, you’ll get a promotion. Just going up.”
The dishes created by Quon are representative of only one area of China, Wong and Quon point out. Each region has its own traditions and foods and there is a great variety to how the New Year is celebrated.