Kylie Kwong has attended (and hosted) her fair share of Chinese New Year celebrations. The Sydney chef's earliest memories of the big celebration include the entrancing lion dances in Haymarket, receiving red envelopes of money from her grandparents and, most importantly, the food. "More food is consumed in Asia during the Chinese New Year celebrations than any other time," she says, "and I find that amazing because I thought that we ate constantly anyway, but during Chinese New Year it's just never-ending."
We caught up with her on the eve of the year of the horse to talk celebratory food, traditions and what she's got in store for this year's festivities.
GT: What's Chinese New Year at the Kwong household all about?
For me, Chinese New Year eating is all about prosperity and abundance. Every Chinese New Year we have a huge family gathering. I have a very large family - there's about 70 of us. We always hold the Chinese New Year's eve dinner at one of my aunties' homes - whoever's got the biggest and best home wins the event. The table is groaning with all our dishes. My mother has 10 brothers and sisters and they all bring a dish and I bring many dishes as well.
What are some of your favourite traditional celebratory dishes?
There's always a whole snapper or a whole ocean trout on the table. It's a whole fish, as opposed to a filleted fish, because the whole fish is meant to represent abundance and completeness. Uncle Jimmy always brings a platter of his delicious freshly made biodynamic Hokkien noodles, and he leaves them uncut for Chinese New Year's dinner because the longer the noodles, apparently, the longer your life. There are bowls of fresh oranges everywhere because the colour of orange is meant to represent prosperity and good luck, just like the colour red. We have whole white chickens, we have whole soy-sauce chickens - whole meaning the wings, the parson's nose, the head and the neck attached - again, symbolising wholeness in life. There's so much symbolism in the Chinese New Year menu.
What about Chinese New Year's Day?
On New Year's Day we serve a vegetarian dish called Buddha's delight, the ingredients of which have special meanings. For example, lotus seed is believed to confer many male offspring, while the Chinese name for black moss seaweed is a homonym for exceeding in wealth, and the word for bamboo shoots sounds like "wishing that everything would be well".
And the set-up?
For Chinese New Year my mother always insists that the house is clean from top to toe. A beautiful clean house and clean energy before welcoming in the New Year is meant to be of very high importance, you know, to get rid of all the bad, evil spirits from last year and welcome in the new year. She always fills the house as well with beautiful flowers and blooming plants, which is meant to represent rebirth and new growth.
Being Australian-Chinese, do you bend the rules a little bit when it comes to your spread?
Because we are Australian-Chinese - three generations Australian, 29th generation Kwong - we have lots of Australian dishes on the menu as well. I, for example, take a lot of my Australian native dishes to Chinese New Year. I do a stir-fried native blue swimmer crab with black bean and our house chilli sauce; I'll throw a few native greens in there, too. So that's really a reflection of who I am - I'm an Australian-Chinese person, so even though we adhere to some of the traditional Chinese New Year rituals, we also adhere to many new ones because we're Australian. I'll be taking my vegetable dumplings, which we make in the restaurant, and I'll be filling those with warrigal greens. Traditionally, northern-style dumplings are eaten for Chinese New Year because they represent Chinese gold ingots.
What's on the cards for Chinese New Year at Billy Kwong this year?
Each Chinese New Year I hold a special dinner. This year, the year of the horse, I'm going to do something different. It's the year of the wood horse - wood horses are meant to be stable and steady, clever, kind, energetic, perceptive and very imaginative - so we're going to do a Billy Kwong Chinese New Year pop-up in collaboration with Carriageworks. We're going to do a wonderful sit-down dinner at one of the warehouse spaces. I'll be serving Billy Kwong-style food with that mix of Australian-Chinese flavours and ingredients which I feel so passionately about, and I've also invited Giorgio de Maria of 121BC as the guest sommelier. So while you're enjoying Australian-Chinese food you'll also be washing it down with fantastic natural Italian wines.
How does it feel to have your face on a postage stamp?
It feels absolutely amazing! I am just so touched and I feel incredibly humbled - it just makes me want to do more and more for my local community and this extraordinary country of ours.