What Chinese New Year means to me

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Images by Vanessa Rowe

Joanna Cooper, food writer and mum to Scarlett, Casper and Felix, shares her favourite family traditions.

What is Chinese New Year?

Chinese New Year is a tradition I grew up with in Hong Kong and is a precious part of my Chinese heritage. It probably means more to me than it does to my children, as I was born and grew up in Asia where the whole region celebrates it. It is the most important festival in the Chinese calendar and takes place over 10 days.

There are many rituals involved with its celebration, like spring cleaning your home in the days leading up to it, setting off firecrackers during the new year to ward away evil spirits, and having a lion dance through your house or business to bring in good luck and good fortune. 

As a child, one of my favourite memories is the eve of Chinese New Year, where we would all gather to have a big family dinner. My father was one of 9 children so there would always be lots of aunties, uncles and cousins. We would all sit down to a delicious never-ending banquet of Chinese food. Each dish would have a symbolic meaning to bring in wealth, happiness and prosperity for the new year ahead. My favourite food during this period was Niangao (new year’s cake), a glutinous reddish cake made from lotus root.

The Year of the Earth Dog

The 16th February will bring in the year of the Earth Dog - the Dog is the 11th animal out of the 12 animal signs of the Chinese Zodiac. This will be a year to integrate positive change and action and what it is that you want out of life. The element of Earth will bring roundedness and stability. It will be a great year and I am excited by it.

Chinese New Year in Sydney

Since living in Sydney, my favourite Chinese New Year tradition is to organise a banquet with friends. Each year my husband and I invite about 30-40 friends to indulge in a 9-10 course banquet. I ask everyone to let me know their birth date so that I can prepare their zodiac and elemental sign, plus a forecast for their year ahead.

The ambiance and food is very special. My girlfriend Vanessa, who is the co-author of my cookbook, Our Tamarama Kitchen, has a very talented daughter who is an incredible artist. For the past few years, she has made the individual name cards for our friends.   

For the past few years, I use this evening to create awareness and to raise funds for one of my favourite charities, Hagar. It is an international organisation that helps restore the lives of victims of trafficking and severe human rights abuse in Cambodia, Afghanistan and Vietnam. It is an organisation that I am deeply passionate about. 

At home with my family, we celebrate Chinese New Year with simple, but delicious Chinese-inspired food. I cook Gung Gung’s (grandfather in Chinese) Soy Chicken, which my kids absolutely love. This was my father’s signature dish.  He used to cook it when he came to Australia to study medicine for his gui-low (white) friends at medical school in Melbourne. It’s such an easy dish to cook and has the signature Chinese flavours of ginger and soy. I serve it with brown rice and a couple of Asian-inspired salads that I have created.

New Year Hopes and Wishes

My baby is finally 5 years-old and off to school this year, which gives me the opportunity to pursue my passions. Very excitedly, I am going back to university to obtain a Bachelor in Food Nutrition and Dietetic Medicine. It will take me 6 years to complete part-time, but I am in no rush and have the passion and patience to complete it.  My end goal and dream is to help educate the wider community on food nutrition, eating well to living a longer fulfilling life. It is important to respect and care for your body, as it is with respecting and caring for planet Earth. My hope is to give people access to the easiness of nutrient dense and delicious food. 

Gung Gung’s Soy and Ginger Chicken

My dad very rarely cooked for us as children, but when he did, he always cooked his “Choi signature dish”.

It’s such an easy dish to cook and has the signature Chinese flavours of ginger and soy. I’ve substituted a couple of his original ingredients to create a healthier version. Dad’s chicken was a huge hit with all his medical friends (something which was brought up when reminiscing about him at his memorial) and is a dinner choice that my kids and husband love and request on a regular basis. It’s basically the Asian version of roast chicken!


¼ cup cup soy sauce – use ½ cup tamari if your GF and omit the dark soy

¼ cup dark soy

¼ cup oyster sauce

½ cup coconut flower sugar

¼ cup Chinese rice wine

1 cup water

5cm piece of ginger, thinly sliced

2 long red chillies, sliced in half

1 whole happy chicken

1 bunch coriander to garnish


Preheat oven to 200 degrees Celsius. 

Place the soy sauce, oyster sauce, coconut flower sugar, rice wine vinegar, water, ginger and chillies in a large pot or baking dish. Stir and bring to the boil. 

Add the chicken, breast side facing down and spoon (or use a baster) the dark liquid all over the chicken. Put the chicken in the oven, with the lid off, for about 40mins. After 40mins, take the chicken out and carefully turn it over and cook for a further 20 to 30mins.

Once cooked, remove to a serving platter, breast side up and pour the juices over the top. Garnish with coriander.

Serve with brown rice and wok fried Asian vegetables and/or Asian inspired salads and chopped tamari almonds and coriander.

Serves a family of 5 (2 adults and 3 children)