As China, people of Chinese origin and other enthusiasts get ready for Chinese New Year festivities this month, several people of Chinese origin who live in India—whether for work or education, or because they’ve married Indians and have settled here—long for the trappings that go with the marking of a new year.
The festive atmosphere, the build-up to the big day, the extensive spring cleaning, the spectacular fireworks, the aromas of different dishes in the air, the shiny red Lai Shi envelopes used to gift money to children—all of it is part of welcoming the new year.
Chinese communities that have settled in India for several generations today form the demographic backbone of several China Towns, of which Kolkata’s is the most famous. Many of the original settlers, mostly speakers of Hakka and Cantonese, were immigrants who came to India perhaps as long as two centuries ago.
But besides such established communities in Kolkata and elsewhere, there are now several smaller communities today comprising of Chinese residents of a more recent vintage who have only made India their home over the past decade or two. These smaller groups can be found in Bengaluru, Delhi, Gurugram, Noida, Pune and Mumbai.
For these recent visitors trooping off to China just before the New Year’s holidays is difficult for various reasons, with jobs and schooling being the primary hurdles. Thus most must make compromises in their celebrations. For instance, on occasions when New Year’s Day falls on a holiday, the community, all extensively networked through WeChat groups, might decide to meet at someone’s house for a potluck lunch or dinner.
This year, the Chinese new year begins on a Friday—16 February.
Ping Ping, my brother Abdul’s wife, has been living in Bengaluru since 2010. I can sense how deeply she misses her family in the days leading up to New Year’s. Especially given that this is her eighth straight new year away from China. However, of late she has found a way to cope—by roping her extended Indian family into the festivities. And we are not complaining!
It all began in 2013 when she insisted we all wear red—immensely auspicious in Chinese culture. She taught us to write a few Chinese characters in brush strokes on red card. The next year, invitations went out to even more relatives and soon the Chinese New Year grew to include a barbecue followed by a game of antakshari—predictable, not very Chinese, but great fun.
A couple of years later, she invited her Chinese friends to lunch, and for this occasion, my mother offered to make biryani. While all her friends loved biryani, it was also an occasion for them to all get together and prepare jiaozi, or dumplings reminiscent of our momos.
A hotpot bubbled away on the induction stove while they chatted away in rapid Mandarin, chopsticks flicking this way and that. Children (including mine) ran around the house clutching shiny red Lai Shi envelopes—filled with cash, lucky them—and Ping Ping tried to teach them the correct way to say “Happy new year” in Mandarin.
Back in China, she says, New Year’s Eve is more important than New Year’s Day. This is when families get ready, wear new clothes and get together for a huge feast. Most of the dishes they eat are symbolic, an attempt at representing what you want in the new year.
Plenty of meat imply plenty of good fortune, and special fish dishes represent abundance. The New Year’s Eve feast is a time to indulge oneself a little—a reward for all the hard work done the previous year.
But not all are so indulgent. Emily Duan, who has been living in India since 2010, is a mother of three children. A successful businesswoman, she runs Ancient China, a Chinese healing establishment on the busy Convent Road in Bengaluru.
Emily claims that she’s not proactive about celebrating New Year’s and the most they do is visit a Chinese restaurant on that day with friends and other members of the community.
Both Ping Ping and Emily agree that Hotel Shangri-La on Palace Road in Bengaluru is the best place to visit during the Chinese New Year. Not only because of its near-authentic food, but also because of the experience it offers. This year the hotel plans to have a dragon dance in their lobby, along with a special menu at their Shang Palace restaurant.
Steven Hu, an entrepreneur whose technology company The Passage is based out of Singapore but has opened a branch in Bengaluru this past year, has been spending most of his time in the US. He has missed out on several Chinese New Year events as a result, but this year, since he’s in India and relatively closer, his family has implored him to join them in China. He’s among the lucky ones who will rush back in time.
Tracy Gomez, who lives in Gurugram but was in Bengaluru recently, has been living in India for 11 years. Gomez confesses that organizing New Year potluck lunches are slowly beginning to get challenging. As the community grows in both number and diversity—especially in the form of spouses—accommodating everyone’s tastes is no small challenge. Gomez’s favourite venue for a New Year’s do is the Chinese Embassy in Delhi.
It is early February. While the rest of the world is recovering from the excesses of the New Year, with resolutions soon fading away, in Chinese homes, and Indian homes where there are Chinese-origin residents, tentative plans are being formed, and potluck menus are being considered.
While it may not be an elaborate Chinese feast, the prospect of an entirely enjoyable meal—biryani with dumplings anyone?—at my mother’s home has the entire family abuzz. There is just one problem—time is running out and I have to buy something gorgeous in red. Ping Ping insists.
Ping Ping’s recipe for Yu wan (fish balls)
Deboned fresh fish - 500g (salmon or any fish without too many bones; fish should have firm texture and not be too soft)
Dried orange peel finely chopped – 1/4 tsp
Rice flour – 2 tsp
Pepper powder – 1/2 tsp (depends on individual tastes)
Salt to taste
Freshly squeezed ginger juice – 1 1/2 tsp
Groundnut oil – 2 tsp
Light soya sauce – 1 tsp
For stir frying
Groundnut oil – 2 tsp
Minced garlic – 1 tsp
Spring onion (white part) finely chopped – 1 tsp
Rice flour – 1 1/2 tsp rice flour
Soya Sauce – 2 tsp
Chilli Sauce – 1/2 tsp (more if you prefer)
Water – 1/2 cup
Chopped spring onion (green part) for garnish
Mix all the ingredients together and marinate for half an hour. Lightly oil palm and take a handful of the fish mixture and squeeze so that a small ball pops out from the top of the fist. Take it out with a spoon and keep aside and make small balls with the remaining mixture similarly.
Heat oil in a pan and add garlic and spring onion. Stir fry lightly and add the fish balls one by one. Lightly shallow fry them and flip the balls gently to cook the other side.
Mix sauce ingredients and pour the sauce over the fish balls. Shake the pan to ensure that the sauce coats the fish balls completely. Let it cook for another a minute and serve hot. Garnish with spring onion.
Andaleeb Wajid is a Bengaluru-based writer who loves to write about food, families and relationships and has several novels to her name.