Joanna Cooper on: Chinese New Year, family & fêtes

Sydney-based Food author and mother of three, Joanna Cooper, shares her favourite Chinese New Year traditions, fêtes and family feasts

Photographs Vanessa Rowe  |  Interview Natasha Inchley


  1. Tell us about your favourite New Year memory ... 
  2. Chinese New Year is a very special celebration for me. It’s one that evokes wonderful memories of growing up in Hong Kong in the late 70s ­– we always had a huge family reunion on the eve of the New Year. This dinner would involve all my Chinese relatives, (my father was one of nine children), we would book out our favourite restaurant and there would always be a lot of delicious food, people and noise.

The Food Life: At home in Tamarama, the author's cooking philosophy takes in Eastern and Western flavours with a focus on traditional Chinese medicine and its ideology. Here, her three children, from left, Felix, Scarlett and Casper.

  1. On Chinese New Year and children:
  2. One of my favourite traditions as a child was receiving Lai See, which are red packets containing money. Children always receive a lot of red packets and I remember my sisters and I counting our Lai See and working out what we would buy. It is believed that the money in the red packet protects children from evil spirits and keeps them happy and healthy. I also adored the famous traditional Chinese dragon dance, said to ward off evil spirits. As a child, I was always so fascinated by these beautiful creatures and how the people inside them made them look so lifelike and real. When my daughter Scarlett was younger, she was terrified of the dances –the noise was too much for her!
  4. This holiday is all about …
  5. Luck – during the lead up to New Year, Hong Kong will be decorated with “lucky” decorations – red lanterns in the streets and red couplets pasted on doors. The city also puts on a beautiful light show at night, where decorations on the buildings and streets are themed around the particular Zodiac year. For example, this year there will be a lot of decorations relating to the goat. One of my fondest memories is catching the Star Ferry over to Central and being mesmorised by all the pretty lights on the buildings.

  2. In The Mood For Love: Cooper celebrated her birthday by inviting friends to an epicurean tour of Hong Kong, starting at the China Club and finishing with seafood lunch on an historic junk boat.
  1. The dish her mother taught her …
  2. A traditional Cantonese dish with ginger and shallots, which is full of clean fresh flavours (recipe below). A big part of Chinese New Year is the food. Certain dishes are always eaten and each dish is carefully picked due to its auspicious symbolism. The food eaten is chosen to bring good luck for the coming year. Fish is very popular because in Chinese the word yu or yoo sounds like surplus (yu). If you have a surplus at the end of the year, then it is thought that you will make more in the following.
  4. On New Year superstitions …
    Traditionally, the fish is the last dish to be eaten and there should be some purposely left over. The head should be placed towards the honoured guest, or the elder in the group, and it can’t be eaten until the person who faces the fish head eats first. Once you place the fish on the table, it should not be moved. The two people who face the head and tail of the fish should drink together; this is considered to have a lucky meaning.


  7. Joanna’s Steamed Whole Snapper with Ginger & Shallots

  8. Having grown up in both Hong Kong and Australia, I am lucky to have experienced both Asian and Western foods. Since having my own children, I cook a lot of Asian-inspired dishes for our family. The ingredients I use are simple and recreate the tastes I love from foods I ate whilst living in Hong Kong. My mother used to make this classic Cantonese fish dish all the time; we would go with her to the wet markets to help choose the fish for our supper. I love this dish for its simplicity and clean flavours.
  9. ingredients

  10. 1 whole snapper from your fishmonger (choose one big enough to feed the number of people you wish to entertain and make sure the fish has clear eyes).
  11. 1 big bunch of shallots (cut the bunch in half so you have green tops and whites with some green. Trim the white part of the shallots, keeping some whole and slicing the rest into thin circles).
  12. 1 knob of ginger, ¾ of it sliced thinly and ¼ of it sliced into thin matchsticks
  13. 1 bunch of coriander leaves (optional)
  14. 1 long red chilli, deseeded and sliced very thinly (optional)
  15. ¼ cup of soy sauce
  16. ½ cup of peanut oil
  17. 1 bunch of Chinese broccoli
  18. method

  19. Preheat your oven to 180C. Prepare a few pieces of aluminum foil big enough to wrap and tent the fish. Place the foil onto a baking tray: on top of the foil, create a bed for the fish comprising of the green tops of the shallots and some of the sliced ginger, place the fish on top. Open up the belly of the fish and place a few stems of shallots inside along with the remaining ginger. Sprinkle some water on top of the fish (to create steam) and tent it by pulling all the sides of the foil together, creating an air pocket. Put the fish in the oven for 30 minutes. You know when the fish is cooked as the eye turns cloudy and the flesh pulls away easily from the bones. If the fish is not ready after 30 minutes, cook it in 5 minute intervals.
  21. When the fish is cooked, take it out of the oven to rest. Meanwhile, blanch the Chinese broccoli and place it on a pretty platter. Heat the peanut oil in a small saucepan on top of the stove until it starts smoking. When the oil is hot, put the fish carefully on top of the blanched broccoli. Pour the smoking oil carefully over the fish. Immediately pour the soy sauce over the fish, then sprinkle with sliced shallots and matchstick ginger pieces, coriander leaves and chilli. Serve with steamed brown rice and Asian salads. Serves 6.