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MasterChef’s Melissa Leong: Why Lunar New Year Is My Perfect Time To Reset

TV host lifts the lid on Asia’s most-famous holiday.

For those of us who celebrate the Lunar New Year, it’s a time to reflect on the year that was, and to set intentions for success, prosperity and happiness in the coming Lunar calendar.

As a kid growing up in Australia, I always felt fortunate to have the Lunar New Year to look forward to. With Christmas and (the other) New Year over, it was a way of letting the good times roll just a little longer… plus who doesn’t love fireworks, good food and being handed little red envelopes of cash?!

These days, it’s the symbolism it represents that stays with me, and of course right now, we’re all looking for meaning in the chaos that is our COVID world.

Melissa Leong reflects on Lunar New Year: "These days, it’s the symbolism it represents that stays with me".
Melissa Leong reflects on Lunar New Year: "These days, it’s the symbolism it represents that stays with me".

For those for whom the Lunar New Year is steeped in mystery, allow me to open the curtain and let you in on what it means to me. It usually starts with a reunion dinner on the eve of the new year.

Family stream in from everywhere, to share a table laden with symbolic foods that invite prosperity into the new year for all those who partake. Whole fish for abundance, noodles for longevity, dumplings for prosperity, the list goes on.

Like many cultures across the world, the end and the beginning is a chance to reset and forgive. It’s also a time to reflect, consolidate and project hopes as a family and a community.

As an aside, it’s also my excuse to go to town on those luxe menu items I dream of, like huge hunks of juicy black pepper mud crab meat, bronze-lacquered Peking duck delicately tucked inside whisper-thin pancakes, and piles of glossy pippies in XO sauce.

A trip to Chinatown anywhere in the world during this festival period is unmissable, no matter your origin story. Lion and dragon dancers scare away the ghosts of the past (I think we can all relate), shopkeepers inviting dancers and drummers in, because apparently bad energy doesn’t like to party.

"As a kid growing up in Australia, I always felt fortunate to have the Lunar New Year to look forward to" - Melissa Leong
"As a kid growing up in Australia, I always felt fortunate to have the Lunar New Year to look forward to" - Melissa Leong

We give red envelopes emblazoned with wishes of good fortune and filled with cash to our young and old ones to bring them luck and wealth, and while I’ve reached the age where I’m giving rather than receiving, the tradition gives me no less joy.

This year, we head into the year of the metal ox. In the calendar, the ox represents diligence, dependability, strength, determination and honesty. The sentiment being that if you put in the work, you’ll reap the reward. Pretty apt for the times, really.

In recent years, I’ve on occasion found myself without family or Asian friends to celebrate on this most meaningful of holidays and to be honest, it doesn’t quite feel the same without children running around, lots of noise and too much food.

This year many more will no doubt experience the same, with the obvious limitations on travel and the trepidation that comes with even crossing state lines here in Australia, lest you drown your sorrows in quarantinis on the way home.

Rather than focusing on what can’t be, I’m choosing to honour my roots in other ways. Sending surprise packages to friends and family, but mostly by cooking.

They’re usually dishes that represent meaning and comfort to me, like lo mai gai (sticky rice parcels, filled with juicy braised chicken and salted egg yolk), steamed fish with shallots, ginger and garlic, or fān qié chǎo dàn, a simple dish of scrambled eggs, cooked in a mess of gently collapsed tomatoes, perfumed with garlic, ginger and shallots (the holy trinity of Cantonese flavours).

Others are new recipes from my soul sister Hetty McKinnon’s new book To Asia With Love, which she shot, wrote and styled from her home in New York while in lockdown away from her family who are based here in Australia.

Suffice to say, the longing for connection and the easing of those pangs through writing about cooking, and most crucially eating food, is something truly special.

Food, I find, has a magical ability to provide a soothing balm from the aches of the world, and generate hope. Is that a lot to ask for? Sure. But it’s pretty powerful, this stuff that sustains us.

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