Revelers can treat themselves next Saturday to a bevy of nian cai (年菜), or traditional Lunar New Year dishes, from Tainan — with an extra serving of history and culture on the side.
Lulu Han (韓良露), head of South Village (南村落) and a devoted foodie, is serving as chef and host for the second round of annual Lunar New Year dinner parties at the arts and culture center near Shida Park (師大公園). Each dinner, which includes a cooking demonstration, is limited to 35 guests and costs NT$1,200 per person. Han will be preparing and introducing Shanghainese dishes tomorrow (call South Village to see if there are still places available) and Tainan dishes on Jan. 17.
Many people now get their nian cai in take-out packages from restaurants or in the frozen-food aisles of supermarkets, which Han says compelled her to start the Lunar New Year dinners.
“If we don’t understand food, then we don’t understand culture,” says Han. “You might not always have time to cook, but if you can’t at least stop once a year and appreciate good food, then it really is a pity.”
Han decided to showcase Shanghainese and Tainan cuisine in order to honor her father, whose family lived near Shanghai, and her late grandmother, who cooked for her granddaughter when Han visited relatives in Tainan.
“Food doesn’t just nourish the body. It is also a spiritual experience. It is a transmitter of culture and of each family’s own memories, too,” says Han.
Tainan cuisine traces its roots back to the Ming Dynasty and China’s Fujian Province, says Han. One of the area’s most important Lunar New Year dishes is lu noodles (魯麵), which are also served as a gesture of respect to older family members on special occasions. The noodles were originally prepared as temple offerings during religious festivals, when cooks would add vegetables to the dish and serve it to worshippers. Lu noodles are known for their cornucopia of toppings: Han uses shrimp, two different types of mushrooms, spinach, flounder, daikon, Chinese red radish, bok choy, chicken and red onions.
Other Lunar New Year treats from Tainan include the area’s own version of pea soup (豌豆仁鹹湯), which evolved from a dish Dutch colonialists brought over in the 17th century, and traditional han bing (漢餅) from a Tainan bakery. The pastry is filled with minced meat, powdered peanuts and sugar, resulting in a complex sweet-savory flavor.
Han isn’t limiting her introduction of food culture to Lunar New Year dishes. Meat lovers will go pop-eyed at the Tainan dinner’s sausage buffet. The spread includes area favorites like traditional fatty pork sausages, seasoned red pork sausages, pig liver sausages, daikon sausages, leek sausages, smoked sausages, chicken sausages, sticky rice and pork sausages — and that is just a partial listing.
“In Tainan, if someone asks you if you want to grab coffee or a snack, it means that they just want to chat for a bit,” says Han. “But if they ask if you want to go out for sausage, it means that they really want to sit and spend time with you.”