Though the Year of the Monkey didn’t begin until Monday, the Dublin Chinese New Year Festival was in full swing over the weekend, with a colourful fair in the CHQ building on Custom House Quay.
Children danced in traditional Chinese costumes. Dragons floated and trailed around the crowds, carried by men in red satin trousers.
And, of course, there was traditional Chinese grub to sample. Many of the kids got sticky fingers munching on sugar-coated hawthorns.
They resembled ice-pops: about four hawthorns filled with red-bean paste stacked on a skewer and covered in a golden syrup. An ancient Chinese treat, the bitterness of the fruit contrasts with the sweetness of the coating.
Not coincidentally, these hawthorn ice-pops can be found in the frozen-food aisle of Asia Market on Drury Street. It’s sponsoring all the festival’s food events over the next two weeks.
A Sweet Start to the New Year
Some sweet treats are available just for this time of year, says Eva Pau, Asia Market’s director of business development.
“Chinese New Year is kind of like the Asian form of Christmas, so you go to your relatives’ houses and they will have a little box where they put all different types of sweets,” she says.
A variety of these are available in the store: sweet winter melon, lotus nuts, lotus roots, dried persimmons (also known as sharon fruit), and some small crunchy cookies.
The pale, yellow sugar-coated lotus roots taste like dried pineapple, but aren’t quite as sweet. And they’re crunchy and crumbly, instead of sticky.
“We like to eat sweet for the new beginning, so it’s like a sweet new beginning,” says Pau. “There’s all kinds of meaning and metaphors to all the different types of candied, dried fruit.”
Lotus nuts symbolise having children in the coming year, while lotus roots signify abundance.
There’s cake too. A plastic container holds an orange-and-white fish-shaped new-year cake. Made of rice flour and brown sugar, it’s usually sliced up, dipped in egg and pan fried.
There are savoury treats too, like dumplings from the north of China. Traditionally made on new year’s eve and eaten at midnight, their half-moon shape resembles an old-fashioned piece of gold. They represent good fortune.
A Bite of China
As part of this year’s Dublin Chinese New Year Festival, Pau will be running an event called “A Bite of China with Asia Market”.
The €5 charge covers what is essentially a tour of the supermarket, and a beginners guide to Asian food, as well as a goody bag.
Entering the shop can be daunting for someone who is not Asian, says Pau. They might not know what things are. Or they might be looking for a specific thing for a recipe, but find that there’s loads of different types.
A recipe might call for soy sauce, for example, but Asia Market stocks around eight different varieties. The Japanese brand goes really well with sushi, says Pau, while in Chinese cooking there’s a light soy sauce and a dark soy sauce.
The light is for adding flavour and is quite salty. It’s not to be confused with a diet version, says Pau. The dark adds colour and is great for jazzing up pasty looking stir-fried rice.
On the tour, Pau gets people acquainted with some mysterious Asian veggies and introduces them to the store’s layout. There’s a Japanese section, a Korean section and a whole section just for noodles.
“It’s really just to help people expand their knowledge of Asian food and to try more ingredients,” she says.
Pau used to run these tours once a month, but as interest dwindled, she stopped. She still does them for the annual festival, for schools and on request.
She enjoys introducing children to Asian food, she says, and usually makes dumplings when a school comes in. And she’s quite fond of the adults that have done the tour too, she says.
“I bump into them in the store and it’s lovely, I think of them as my students,” she says.
A Different Take on Tea
Asia Market is also sponsoring an event in the Chester Beatty Library to teach Dubliners all about Chinese tea ceremonies.
Free of charge, Lei Xue will discuss and demonstrate the ceremony, which is completely different to the Irish habit of drinking tea. Tiny teapots are used to fill even tinier cups for shot-sized tastes of tea.
“It looks like a kid’s play set in some ways,” says Pau. “But the whole thing about it is that you are trying to taste the flavour of the tea.”
Once the teapot is empty, it is refilled with hot water to reveal a different flavour from the tea leaves. Then the tea leaves can be changed to sample varieties of green and dark teas.
And of course, you never add milk, says Pau.
Central to Dublin’s Asian Community
As part of the new year’s festival, Le Cool will be introducing a group of people to different members of the Chinese community. Along the way, they’ll be dropping into Asia Market.
“I’ll have to get them a translator,” laughs Pau. “Sometimes it’s like you’re in China.”
Asia Market is a longtime fixture of Drury Street. Set up here in 1981 as a family business in a smaller space, it later moved to its current, larger premises on the same road.
“The idea came along when my dad’s brother married an Irish lady and they set up a Chinese takeaway,” says Pau. “They couldn’t find the ingredients to cook the Chinese food that they wanted. So my dad set up the business, initially to supply him.”
As more and more Asian takeaways opened, the business expanded. Now Asia Market supplies takeaways and restaurants nationwide, and has a second premises in an industrial estate in Ballymount, as well as a small restaurant, Duck, on Fade Street.
Thirty-four years ago, a big Chinese supermarket in Dublin would have been empty, Pau says. Nowadays, Asia Market is bustling. “It’s just grown so much, especially in the last few years,” she says.
Pau believes more people are coming to Asia Market because they’ve been to Asia, tasted something delicious, come home, and are eager to try it again. In the last five years, she’s noticed more people looking to make Thai food, and, even more recently, Japanese and Korean food.
“You can definitely see people travelling abroad and coming back with more fusion taste buds,” she says.
The final event of the Dublin Chinese New Year Festival will be a cooking demonstration with Kwanghi Chan, culinary director at Soder + Ko, a fusion restaurant on George’s Street.
At a steeper price than other events, €25, the chef, who is from Hong Kong, will be teaching participants how to make a fusion fish dish.
But for those on a budget, Pau’s advice for transforming their Chinese cooking skills is to pick up just two extra ingredients.
A lot of people would have soy sauce and sweet chilli sauce at home, she says, but they might also want to try some sesame oil and some cooking wine.
“These two ingredients will transform the flavour profile and add another layer to your stir-fry,” she says.
If you want to go to these, or other events, you can check out the full festival programme, including food events and other cultural events, here. There’s something on every day.