Koi dishes use symbolic ingredients for Lunar New Year

Rachel Yang, Reporter

Lunar New Year is this Thursday, and for many Chinese families around the world this means cleaning the house to ward off bad spirits, exchanging red envelopes called hong bao which are filled with money and, most importantly, indulging in a special New Year feast.

To honor this tradition, Koi, an Asian-fusion restaurant in Evanston, is presenting a special Chinese New Year menu available until Mar. 5, which includes 18 unique dishes. Each features at least one ingredient with an important meaning in traditional Chinese culture.

Sandy Chen, Koi’s owner and manager, said the New Year’s menu, as well as the restaurant’s regular menu, reflects interesting tidbits from Chinese history. 

Back in the old days in China, Chen said, many families didn’t have the means to buy meat like chicken during the year, so they had to wait until the New Year feast to indulge in it. Indeed, Koi’s New Year menu features a stir-fried Lychee Chicken dish that combines chicken, which represents prosperity, with lychee nuts, which signify family relations, Chen said.

The Smoked Tea Duck, which is marinated in ingredients such as tea leaves and ginger, is another display of the frugal measures Chinese families had to take in less prosperous times.

“In the wintertime, we don’t have the luxury to have a fridge,” Chen said, “So what people do is they smoke and marinate aged duck. So in the cold winter season, we can preserve and eat through the New Year’s time.”

Other dishes, like the Dragon and Phoenix and Szechwan Won Ton with Peanut Sauce, also feature symbolic ingredients.

Chen, who is from a big family and was the oldest of the children, learned to cook at an early age to help her mother and said it brought her a lot of happiness providing for her family.

Chen said her biggest goal is for the Chinese New Year menu is to inspire Western diners to learn about Chinese culture and its traditions.

“I want Koi to make the difference that we’re not only serving food,” Chen said. “We also represent China. We deliver the culture to Western countries.”

Koi has been offering the Chinese New Year menu every year since the restaurant opened in 2004, Chen said, although the dishes featured usually vary. The reception has been so positive that sometimes people order from the menu even after it’s no longer offered.

Even though sushi is a traditionally Japanese food, Andy Galsan, the sushi chef at Koi, said he’s thinking about creating a roll just for the New Year occasion. Sushi has become so international, Galsan said. If there’s a California roll and Philadelphia roll, why not a “Double Dragon Roll” for Chinese New Year?

Koi’s dedication to educating the community about Chinese culture doesn’t just stop at the Chinese New Year menu. Its regular menu offers traditional dishes from eight regions of China, such as Sichuan, Hunan and Zhejiang, where Chen is originally from.

For Ken Zaleski, a first-timer at Koi, this menu setup differentiates the restaurant from other Chinese eateries.

“When I order Chinese food somewhere else, you don’t know where it came from,” Zaleski said. “I didn’t realize they had a specific cuisine in each province or area.”

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