Chopsticks at the ready - ‘Each restaurant has a dish from a specific region’
Chinese New Year celebrations are underway in the capital, and the colourful programme of events is a foodie's delight. Aoife Carrigy gets a sneak preview of the highlights
Ask any Irish person who has smuggled sausages, nestled in amongst teabags and cheese and onion crisps, through a customs checkpoint, and they will confirm that food can both trigger and treat homesickness. For Mei Chin, a Dublin-based Chinese-American food writer, the homesickness she feels for her Connecticut-based family will be particularly intense today - and it's mostly down to dumplings, as she will explain in today's lunchtime talk at the Asia Market on Drury Street, Dublin 2.
Today marks the first day of the Year of the Dog in the Asian lunar calendar and celebrations of the Chinese New Year are kicking off in cities all around the world. Unlike our own New Year celebrations, which are condensed into one big shindig, the Chinese New Year is an extended celebratory holiday full of family gatherings and beloved traditions. The 11th annual Dublin Chinese New Year Festival runs in full festive spirit right through to Sunday, March 4.
Events range from workshops on New Year traditions such as Chinese lantern painting and red envelope making to pooch-themed talks and activities (life drawing of dogs, anyone?). Not surprisingly, food features large in the celebrations, and Mei's talk is one of many food-focussed festival events.
As well as being an introduction to dumplings, their different kinds and what they symbolise, Mei's talk will explore the likely routes that dumplings took to reach China in the first place. Fossilised dumplings found in the Xinjiang province in the west of China date back about 1,700 years, but it's likely that dumplings were introduced to China from Asia or central Asia. "There was a gateway to the west on the spice-silk route but there was also a gateway between China and India," Mei explains, "so they could be coming from India or they could be coming from the west."
Mei's talk will also offer people an insight into regional diversity within China. "I'm hoping it can be a microcosm to understand the different regions of China and the personalities of each region," she says. In the north of China, the dumpling is strongly associated with New Year traditions and with the family coming together to make dumplings. "It's very much grandma's cooking," she says, whereas "in the south when you have dim sum it's not family-made; it's something you go out to eat and there's a real refinement to their dumplings.
"My family is northern Chinese," she continues, "and when we get together to make dumplings, there's always a lot of wine involved - and a lot of trash-talk."
Making dumplings, Mei insists, is very much a communal activity.
"The only way anyone is ever going to love making them is to make them in a crowd," she says. "Making them on your own is one of the most depressing tasks there is."
The trick for relishing this time-consuming and repetitive chore is in dividing the work with someone to roll, someone to pleat, someone to steam - and, presumably, someone to keep the wine flowing. "Every dumpling party is a party," she emphasises. "The fun is in getting your hands dirty."
Mei and her Irish boyfriend like to eat dumplings at least six or seven times a month, so she has acquired a few clever cheats for when she wants a fix without the faff that goes with making dumplings from scratch. "I love to buy yuba (tofu skins) at the Asia Market and to wrap wild mushrooms in the tofu skins and braise it and slice it up. It's my comfort food."
Wonton is another low-maintenance favourite. "You wouldn't get people together for wonton; it's more of a private food," Mei says - she adds that they're great for freezing and then popping into a soup.
If you'd like to get a Chinese food fix but can't make it into the Asia Market (asiamarket.ie) for Mei's talk today, you could pop in over the weekend when the newly-revamped supermarket will treat visitors to tastings of exotic fruits, snacks, sweet treats and drinks.
Or you could sign up to one of several tasting tours taking place over the next few weeks. These include an 'Asian Flavours' electric bike tour with Hugh Flood of the Lazy Bike Tour Company, which takes in the Asia Market as well as several restaurants in the city.
"Each restaurant is briefed to give a local dish from a specific region," Hugh explains, "so it could be anything from dumplings to duck to something that people mightn't order because it's unfamiliar.
"The idea is to encourage people to try restaurants and dishes that they mightn't otherwise."
Meanwhile, Adrian Tien, who is Sam Lam Associate Professor in Chinese Studies at Trinity College Dublin, will take a different approach to exploring the history and culture of Chinese cuisine at his lecture on Thursday, February 22.
"As I am a linguist and will not be speaking as a professional cook, I will be introducing the audience to aspects of the Chinese language that reflect important cultural elements to do with the Chinese culinary tradition," Adrian explains.
"Different words and phrases connected with different kinds of food preparation and cooking methods have a lot to reveal about the world that Chinese people live in or lived in."
He gives the example of the many different verbs that the Chinese have for frying, some of which we might translate as deep-frying, stir-frying, pan-frying, quick wok-frying and so on.
But often these words and phrases evade true translation.
"They reflect a culture-specific way of thinking which has no equivalence in other languages and cultures," Adrian says.
Just as the only way to know a 'soft day' is to go out in one and see just how wet you can get, so too the only way to really understand Chinese food is to experience it first-hand.
The Dublin Chinese New Year Festival is your chance to do just that.