THEY have had the most novel gastronomic experiences and are gourmands of high repute. But, at this time of the year, their favourite family dishes are on their minds. 'I can still remember the dumplings during the reunion dinners. They said luck would go to the one who got the dumpling with a coin inside. But everyone ended up finding one,' said Willie Mark, president of the Federation of Hong Kong Restaurant Owners. 'We didn't mind. It made our day, although we all knew it was a trick even when we were kids. It was the time when symbolism came before the taste of the food.' Mark, who lived in a big family of three generations in Guangzhou, remembers Lunar New Year as a time of greetings and laughter. 'It was a hilarious time that we always looked forward to. We had a big family and needed three tables for the dinner. 'It was the time we got together asking for lai see. We set off firecrackers and gambled crazily, which wasn't allowed at any other time,' he said. The dumpling with a lucky coin filling can still be made easily these days, but, sadly, homemade Shunde-style dried fish is destined to remain a childhood memory. 'All shops were closed during New Year at that time and my family used to prepare more than 20 mud carp to eat until yan yat [everybody's birthday],' said Mark. The mud carp were heavily marinated with salt and compressed overnight, which squeezed away extra juice and yielded a dry fish with a rich flavour. 'It tasted so nice after frying. But we don't have it here any more,' he said. It is still possible to preserve some family recipes. And internationally renowned Chinese chef Yeung Koon-yat's homely roast duck with conpoy is a perfect example. 'My father used to make this dish over a charcoal fire during our reunion dinner in China. The juice of the conpoy mixed with the duck and tasted remarkably good,' said the owner of Forum restaurant. 'No one would go out during the night. My father used to make a huge wok of rice, plenty of auspicious dishes, and started preaching to us on philosophy and talking about literature after the meal. He was a school principal, after all,' said Yeung. 'We still keep the dish in our family reunion dinner every year and I've also included it in our restaurant menu. I used to make it by myself for the family gathering. 'My father used a charcoal fire for cooking and I still follow it when making certain dishes such as abalone. 'It is an old method but it works well. It radiates a richer and more natural aroma.' Law Yip-lam, the Chinese executive chef at the Grand Hyatt used to spend hours after the reunion dinner peeling gingko and chestnuts with his mother to prepare for the first breakfast of the year. Now a father himself, his teenage son takes his place as second chef in the family kitchen, taking orders from his mother. 'It is our family tradition to prepare a big pot of sweet soup and leave it for the first meal the next morning. You can't go out until you have had a whole bowl of it. It ensures our well-being for the year,' said Law. The Shunde-style sweet soup, Thousand Offspring, containing green bean vermicelli, peanuts, an assortment of beans, red dates, chestnuts and gingko, takes enormous patience and many hours to prepare. 'My mother made us stay after the reunion dinner to help prepare it. Now it has to be my son's turn to help,' said Law. 'It involves strenuous work but we all love it. We have it once a year and it is probably the sweetest breakfast of all.' A mother's homemade delicacies are probably the best dishes, even for the most sophisticated palates. And it's often from her that chefs learn the art of cooking. Sichuan chef Guan Liyan at the Metropole hotel, who arrived in Hong Kong five months ago, will spend his first Lunar New Year away from home. 'Lunar New Year is the biggest festival on the mainland. Everyone stays home for the year-end reunion dinner, playing mahjong and watching television, which broadcasts the celebrations.' For the Sichuan connoisseur, this year's festive day is not only a time without these traditional pastimes, but a year without his favourite family reunion dish of cold Sichuan preserved sausages. 'Our preserved sausage is different from the Hong Kong style. My mother made our own at home and they were pretty hot.' Marinating the pork with seasonings such as bean paste, chilli, peppercorn, chilli oil and salt, Guan's mother filled the skin with the stuffing, then hung them outdoors to dry before they were boiled and sliced to be served cold. 'The best time to prepare the sausages is after the winter solstice when the weather starts to get warm,' he said. While his brother and sister did not intrude on his mother's kitchen, Guan was mesmerised by her cooking and used to stand aside observing and learning, giving her a hand. 'The sausages resembled those found in Hong Kong, but they are never the same here,' he remembered. 'It was good fun helping my mother prepare the dish. I learnt my cooking from her.'