Lemon-pepper shrimp with chives and sprouts
To celebrate Chinese New Year and the arrival of spring, the Chinese host big family gatherings, partake in traditional feasts featuring foods meant to bring good luck in the new year, exchange gifts and participate in traditional folk celebrations with singing and dancing. These joyous festivities last 15 days, culminating in the Festival of the Lanterns. Here is how you can celebrate this lucky event for yourself.
We have wrapped up Christmas, Hanukah, and New Year, most of us are now hunkering down for the end of the Winter with nothing more than the hope that springtime will deliver us to Daffodils and Butterflies sometime soon. Paul and Charlie Billington, two of my dearest friends, find this resignation totally unacceptable.
Instead, they prefer to spend London’s bleakest winter month in the rapturous warmth of the two-week-long ceremonies and celebrations for the Chinese New Year. Every February, they bundle up like Polartec snowmen and head to Chinatown, where the Lantern Festival that marks the end of the holiday floods the streets with a parade of brightly burning lanterns, colourful decorations, and fireworks displays.
This year, however, they decided to bring the happy occasion of a Chinese New Year to their house (where it’s a little warmer) and they asked yours truly to make it happen.
I absolutely loved the idea of shaking up the plodding mood of late winter by celebrating a different kind of holiday – and I, myself, love Chinese New Year. What could be better than a holiday honouring luck, loved ones, and abundance for the upcoming year, replete with ornate dragon kites, drums, and delectable culinary treats. It’s is like Christmas and Guy Fawkes mashed together in the most beautiful way: a tribute to family,food, and good tidings with some nifty pyrotechnics thrown in. But I knew I would have to take it even further for Paul and Charlie because when it comes to holiday celebrations, they think so far outside the box they don’t even know it exists. So, instead of carefully re-creating every official rite of the holiday, I made their party reflect that same glorious melting pot. The results were stunning, but simple. With bamboo floor mats to cover the concrete, some candles and pillows, a few bolts of red satiny fabric and Chinese silk, and an inspired Asian-fusion menu, the fireworks were entirely figurative.
The Look – Red, Pink and Orange Hues
If one of the fundamental charms of a holiday is the way it can make one day seem utterly out of the ordinary, then one of the greatest holiday charms of this party is the amazing sense of warmth it generates in such frigid times. Surely the spirits rise with the coming of the New Year itself, but it is the décor of the party – more than the furnace or even the occasion – that expresses the positive energy and heat that will thaw out your guests.
This party all began with the high temperature of the colour scheme, which I took directly from some of my favourite lanterns that were in the Lantern Festival. I enveloped the entire space, including the tent-style cloth that covered the ceiling, in deep tones of crimson, fuchsia, and pale orange. The warmth and consistency of these tones surrounded guests in a truly happy colour palette, from the tablecloth to the napkins, made guests feel comfortable in what could have otherwise been a drafty and cavernous space.
Never underestimate the power of colour to create a mood or a feeling. It’s one of my favourite tricks. Of course, the flickering light cast by clusters of red pillar candles of various heights also contributed to the festive glow of the evening. As their candlelight combined with that of the orange Chinese lanterns scattered about the corners of the room and hanging from the ceiling, guests wondered at the strange and alluring shadows they cast. As glamorous and hypnotic as all of these innovative lighting designs are however, it’s important to remain practical,too. That’s why I strategically positioned pebble-coated votive all over the surface of the table to illuminate the space between dishes. Not only did they draw out the dramatic lines of the place settings, but they also guarded against accidental spills that might have disturbed the scene. Most important of all, however, the minimalist lines and soft colours of the floral arrangement brought a vital serenity to the bold and romantic elements of the holiday décor: the evening should feel warm and exceptional, not oppressive in its uniform intensity.
For the table runner, I assembled pale green moss, dried and fresh bamboo, and a variety of orchids in a low-lying arrangement that took up a limited amount of table space. The result was like a peaceful garden spanning the length of the table. A bamboo chandelier, made from four pieces of bamboo wired together and accented with orchids and smilax vine, brought the details of the table to a higher level. These delicate details not only united what I think are some of the most simple, beautiful, and symbolic elements of Pan-Asian floral design (bamboo is for luck), they allowed me to satisfy what has become an absolute passion for orchids. If you have a passion for another kind of flower, take advantage of the freedom you have in establishing a new tradition of holiday celebration and use it to bring warmth to your Chinese New Year. Just make sure that it offers either an innovative counterpoint to the décor as a whole or a quiet continuity to it.
Seeing is Believing:
The final visual detail that brought all these elements from the East and West into harmony was the unusual take on a typical place setting. Here are a few fun tips:
– In a playful nod to your chic take-out meal, serve the first course in a cute, bright red Chinese take-out box.
– Set geometric plates, an assortment of minimalist glassware and bamboo-style flatware on an angle to create clean, simple lines.
– Pick luxe materials that draw from traditional elements of Chinese design like lacquer and gilt, and make sure they maintain the warmth, rich colour scheme of the room. Here, I used glazed black plates and gold plated flatware.
– Offer black lacquer chopsticks for your more agile guests. In the arrangement I use, they not only present an appropriately stylish alternative to Western tradition of dining, they accent the finish of the plates.
– Pluck a colour from the larger colour scheme and use it somewhere in the setting to unify all elements. The double-rolled pink napkin that sits with two orchid heads in the centre of this particular setting brings a much needed splash of colour into the mix.
– Tickle the curiosity of your guests with a chic dinner menu. Simply download the Chinese character for “dinner” from the internet and print it, along with a various courses of the evening, on sleek red vellum paper.
– Provide guests with a traditional tea glass to accompany their dessert course. The pale green ones I would use add a cool counterpoint to the prevalent tones of red and pink.
The Scent – Orange Blossoms Blooming
Unless you’re stuck in rush-hour traffic in London’s Chinatown, the scents and perfumes sold there are most often simple, clean, calming, and subtle. Think jasmine, ginger, and citrus, and before you fall into a restful state of aromatherapy bliss, don’t forget to bring these scents into your entertaining space. I firmly believe these restful scents can transform the feel of any room. Traditionally Chinese families decorate their living rooms with vases of fragrant blossoms and platters of oranges, tangerines,and candy before the big day. I recommend you put a spin on this by using orange blossom water to freshen the bathrooms and the entrance of the event.
The Touch – Satin Robes and Silk Slippers
While the red and orange visuals work magic on the eyes, the textures of silk and satin cushions and smooth bamboo mats will work magic on the skin. I would offer guests the option of removing winter shoes and going sock-footed, or slip into some velvet Chinese slippers.
Lower the Tables
To reinvent the space create a low table and surrounding cushions. It is so Asian, relaxing, and easy to create. You can use any rectangle table that has folding legs.
– Tuck the legs under and then place at least two sturdy crates or supports (with a height of about 12 to 18 inches) beneath it. The key is that the supports are exactly the same height and wide enough to support the tabletop without letting it tilt even the slightest. I would use 6 large crates filled with bricks.
– Surround the table with large flat sofa cushions, If you have patio furniture with waterproof cushion pads, use them.
– Place the cushions around the table to form a soft, seamless “bench”.
– Then, cover them with heavy fabric, decorative rugs, or with a lighter fabric.
– Cover the table with a colourful fabric, preferably red, fuchsia, or orange-coloured, and then accent with a chic silk or satin runner.
– Finally toss extra cushions onto the “benches” to make the setting even cosier.
The Taste – Pan-Asian Perfection
Cooking dishes that come from the cuisine of another culture can be a daunting affair, especially when you’re doing it for company. In fact the mere prospect intimidates a lot of amateur chefs who would otherwise love to celebrate foreign flavours and occasions. But who says ordering Chinese should be reserved for characters on Netflix? If you want to bring authentic flavours to the scene of the event, nothing beats it. You don’t have to choose any menu that has come through your mailbox, instead go high brow and choose from your favourite Asian-fusion restaurant. Or if I may be of any help why not try my go to Asian Invasion Menu:
A Chinese New Year Menu
Crab wontons with plum sauce
Mango chicken with coconut rice
Banana spring rolls with coconut ice cream
Selection of herbal teas
Why not try it with a Green Tea Martini?
3 ounces of Vodka
1 ounce green tea
and a splash of ginger liqueur
Shake with ice, strain, pour into a Martini glass, and accent with an orchid head.
The Sound – Gentle Chimes in the Wind
While the sounds of cars zooming past are certainly stimulating, I would opt for the soundtrack of another true China: one that is filled with gardens, rivers and gentle chimes. I would hang wood chimes along the driveway or entrance of the dining room, but please be sparing with these sound effects: you want to achieve a graceful tinkling of sounds, rather then a chorus of clangs.
I would add to this a selection of soothing ambient music that has echoes of traditional Chinese melodies:
Enya: A Day without Rain
Karunesh: Nirvana Cafe’
Zingaia: Dancers of Twilight Buddha-Bar, Vol VI
Steven Halpern: Music for Sound Healing
What should begin as an innovative expression of warmth, cheer, and togetherness should become something more: it should become a tradition of togetherness and the celebration of luck and fortune. I often provide each guest with a fortune cookie with their drink or tea. You can find a few places online where you can create personalised fortune cookies.
Some More Party Tips
– If you use plastic Chinese take out containers (like the red ones I suggest) you can wash and reuse them for your next party – a clever and cost effective idea
– For a truly stroking Chinese New Year invitation, go for gold. Start with a red, square “self mailer” envelope and attach layers of alternating gold and red papers. Top the layered paper with a square sheet of gold vellum printed with the party information.
– When having a party with seating on the floor, remember that the ceiling will need to have décor added too. It is about having balance – a little ying and yang.
– Orchids, although pricey, are a hardy and a strong flower. Use potted orchids as decor and you will enjoy them for years to come
– Create a draw to the party. Hang lanterns and chimes from the trees along the walkway to the entrance.
– Allow your guests to remove shoes when you have got a cushioned seating arrangement. While you are at it, leave a few extra-strength jasmine candles burning near the shoe depot.
– Spray paint plain white paper lanterns for a custom look. Always spray outside or in a well-ventilated area.
– Your entertainment does not have to be Asian inspired or even themed, they only have to be good.
Now I know that no matter the place or time what will always be true is that whether it is the year of the horse, monkey, dog, rat or dragon, “You will find happiness for many years to come!”.