Top tips for dining out at Chinese New Year

Updated on 19 September 2011 | 0 Comments

When it comes to eating out, the Chinese do it better. Find out how to dine out the Chinese way this New Year.

When it comes to eating out, the Chinese do it better. As a little girl growing up in Singapore, my world was one of huge circular tables groaning with Cantonese delicacies, surrounded by several generations of faux-relatives. My parents weren’t Chinese, but it didn’t matter – we were always treated as one of the family.

And so it was, in a bustling Singaporean restaurant, my little legs dangling far from the ground, that I witnessed my first mass-murder: ‘drunken’ prawns, boiled alive at the table. Hapless crustaceans, plucked from their murky tanks, would be doused in rice wine, then shut into a glass pot.

I’d lean in, awestruck, as the prawns would claw fiercely at the sides, before slipping into a drunken stupor, only to be transferred to a raging pot. Once cooked, the tender flesh is exquisite. That’s rule number one: the food comes first. 

But there’s more to Chinese dining than generosity and culinary theatre. It’s about observing time-honoured traditions with your nearest and dearest, and is particularly suited to celebrations. So with Chinese New Year fast approaching, here’s a simple how-to guide. 

Who to invite

Your family. No, not just your husband/ wife and children. We’re talking your brothers, sisters, children, parents, in-laws and great-aunt Gertrude. Don’t forget your boss. And his family. 

How to order

Throw away that menu! Or, if you must, use it as a loose guide to the kitchen’s strong suits. The authentic approach is to find out what’s fresh today, then ask for it to be cooked in a particular style. You can’t get away with this in every restaurant – especially if you’re not using the native lingo – but it’s always worth a shot. 

What do order

Pedants may wish to point out that there are at least four major styles of regional Chinese cooking, but here in the UK, the most commonly found come from these two areas: 


What most of us call Chinese is actually Cantonese. Having the luxury of fresh produce, the cooks of this coastal region developed a subtle, delicate style with an emphasis on different textures. Even the much-prized Abalone mushroom is essentially an extremely expensive flavour ‘sponge’. Other favourite ingredients include garlic, ginger, spring onions and oyster sauce. 


Increasingly popular amongst London’s diners, the cooking of the land-locked Szechuan province is bold and gutsy: think chilli, garlic, oil and eye-wateringly fiery peppercorns. These strong flavours work particularly well with cheaper cuts of meat and offal, so be brave and try those thinly-sliced pigs’ ears. 

A word on chopsticks

Chinese restaurants should provide two sets of chopsticks – those for serving and those for eating. Even if they haven’t – or some modish so-and-so has swiped them for an instant hair accessory – it’s considered rude to eat straight from a shared plate. Let the oldest or most respected person at the table dish up, then tuck in. Chopsticks are not for drumming, so unless you’re Phil Collins, use them quietly.  

Bottomless tea

Tea forms a huge part of Chinese dining, so you never want to run dry. To show that you’re ready for a refill, try this insider’s trick – turn the lid of your tea-pot on its side.

The origins of this tradition comes in several versions, but my favourite involves the Emperor who once found a sick bird and put it in his warm, empty teapot, before replacing the lid to keep it safe. Without checking the contents his waiter refilled the pot with hot water, instantly killing the bird.

Distraught, the Emperor ruled that teapots should be refilled when – and only when – the lids were lifted. A far-fetched but charming tale.  

Saying thank-you

It’s nice to say thank-you. It’s even nicer if you do it with a traditional gesture: the silent kow-tow. You put the three fingers of one hand out (as if doing a Brownie salute - tucking your thumb and little finger underneath). Then tap the middle finger of the same hand on the table. 

Legend has it that Emperor Qing used to travel ingnito, sometimes serving his own entourage, so his servants would use three fingers – the middle to represent the head, the two either side to represent arms – as a way of ‘bowing’ to their master. 

Where to go

While there are outstanding Chinese restaurants outside of Chinatown - Royal China Club in Marylebone, Hunan in Pimlico, Kai in Mayfair, to name a few - when it comes to celebrating Chinese New Year, heading into the beating heart of the Chinese community is a must. Here are six good places to start: 

- Empress of SichuanFiery Sichuan cooking in comfortable surroundings. 6 Lisle Street, London WC2H 7BG; 020 7734 8128. 

- Joy King Lau: Old-school Cantonese restaurant on a tiny side street. 3 Leicester St, London WC2H 7BL; 020 7437 1132.

- New world: Vast Chinatown stalwart serving all the Cantonese classics. 1 Gerrard Place, London W1D 5PA; 020 7734 0396 

- Happy GatheringMuch-loved Cardiff stalwart, popular for dim sum and piscine-leaning Cantonese classics. 233 Cowbridge Road East, Cardiff, South Wales CF11 9AL; 029 2039 7531.

- KweilinSmart Edinburgh old-timer, offering Cantonese with the occasional bonny twist. 19-21 Dundas Street, Edinburgh EH3 6QG; 0131 557 1875.

- Red ChilliTrue to its name, Red Chilli majors in the best of fiery chilli-laden Szechuan cuisine. 70-72 Portland Street, Manchester, Merseyside & Lancs M1 4GU; 0161 236 2888

Gung Hay Fat Choy!

Happy new year! 

Also worth your attention:

- Recipe by Fay Ripley: Sweet Marinated Pork Fillet 

- Recipe by Ching-He Huang: Crispy twice-cooked pork

- Recipe by Jamie Oliver: Rib-eye stir-fry, Dan Dan noodles and chilled hibiscus tea

Written by Tania Ballantine


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