Ring in the new: HKK restaurant in London

The celebrations begin the day before the lunar new year – which this year falls on 19 February – and run for the 15 days. Samuel Muston wishes it could be Chinese New Year every week

I dislike New Year in Britain, I've come to realise. There is just too much expectation, too much pressure to perform, drink and eat. I suppose that is why I like Chinese New Year – with 16 days of celebrations, you can stuff in an awful lot of action, and an awful lot of food.

The celebrations begin the day before the lunar new year – which this year falls on 19 February – and run for the 15 days thereafter. In China, there are two New Year traditions that are sacrosanct. First, you go on a pilgrimage. In what has been described as the world's largest annual human migration, millions of Chinese people travel to their home towns to see their aged relatives. Once there, and this is the second thing, they eat. And they eat well and they eat often.

In port cities such as London and Liverpool, the lunar New Year has long been celebrated by Chinese immigrants. The first Chinese restaurants arrived on these shores with sailors who had come here to trade. Shanghainese cafés began to appear near the docks around Limehouse in the middle of the 19th century. They were startlingly authentic – serving things such as 1,000-year egg and crucian carp – and, perhaps unsurprisingly, had little passing trade from London's dockers.

Things changed in the early 20th century, when an enterprising chef by the name of Chung Koon left his job with the Red Funnel Line and opened a restaurant in Soho. Serving Cantonese food, it became a remarkable success and spawned a thousand imitators across the UK.

The heir to Koon today is the Michelin-starred chef Tong Chee Hwee. You find him not far from Limehouse, on Worship Street, just off Bishopsgate, at HKK, a discreet, modishly designed joint serving some of the finest Chinese food in all of England.


I use the catch-all term "Chinese" here, rather than specifying the region, because the meal I had there, its New Year menu, traversed eight regions: Suzhou (Jiangsu), Beijing (Shandong), Guangdong, Fujian, Hunan, Anhui, Zhejiang and Sichuan. The "Chinese" food that most of us have come across is Cantonese – once seen as the "sophisticated" choice in China, but now supplanted by Sichuan food.

The Year of the Sheep began for me with Jiangsu cuisine. An unappetising-looking dish of marinated pork suspended in Osmanthus wine jelly, it looked like something from the War. Its flavour nearly knocked me off my seat. The pork marinade had created something marvellous, something that seemed to sweep over your taste buds in a tidal surge of flavour.

Then came Peking duck. Roasted over cherry wood in the kitchen, toothsome and slightly sweet, it comes out whole and is expertly sliced by a cleaver-wielding chef. It had skin that really did melt in the mouth and rich, moist meat. The result of cooking it in the traditional manner – slitting the skin and filling it with air – is that the skin balloons and the subcutaneous fat melts.

Meanwhile, a trio of dumplings were so light and subtle that it was like eating a highly flavoured, well-prepped bit of fog. Even the sea bass – the most boring fish in the ocean – was well done in the quiet Hunan style.

Seldom do you leave a meal both full and edified – the one often precludes the other – but this was one of those occasions. Forget Christmas – I wish it could be Chinese New Year every week.