Disney California Adventure Upgrades The Traditional Whole Fish For Lunar New Year

One of the things we love about the food festivals at Disney California Adventure Park is the variety of interesting and unusual bites you can sample thanks to those cute little kiosks that dot Buena Vista Street. The chefs behind those delectable bites are always coming up with something new and delicious. For this year's Lunar New Year Festival — continuing through February 18 — the park is already making waves with a new char siu version of Disneyland's iconic turkey leg.

But the Disney chefs also pay close attention to what's worked in the past, and so they always offer several tried-and-true options that are fan favorites. The whole fish is one such dish. Yes, we said a whole fish. Available at Paradise Garden Grill, this dish is a classic Asian entree that will easily serve two or more people. While the food team brought the whole fish back again this year, they decided to return this traditional Lunar New Year meal to its roots and steam it rather than deep-fry it. Even though that crispy outer shell is missing, this fish is still something to behold. 

Joanna Aguayo — a chef for Disney California Adventure's Paradise Pier — and Disney food photographer David Nguyen were nice enough to tell us why the festival organizers made the switch to the whole fish cooking method, and why it's such an important part of the Lunar New Year festivities. 

It's all about tradition and family

The Lunar New Year comes with many traditions, from the red envelopes filled with money to the show-stopping dragon dances. So, it makes sense that traditional foods to enjoy during New Year celebrations are also steeped in symbolism. The whole steamed fish often graces tables in both Asian restaurants and homes for this occasion. A dish that's meant to be shared, this entree is usually the centerpiece of a family dinner. "It's definitely a family meal," David Nguyen explains. "And so when you have a family meal, you get everyone together ... It's time for celebration." 

But as with any traditional meal, you can't just dig in. Nguyen tells us how the fish is presented and how it's eaten are important Lunar New Year customs. The fish is always placed with the head facing the head of the table, because that's usually where the oldest or most distinguished member of the family is sitting. 

But how it's eaten is more important than how it's presented. The fish is served whole, which means that you can easily take pieces off the top at first. But once you get to the bone, whatever you do, don't flip the fish. "Never turn over the fish," Nguyen warns. "Once you turn over the fish, it's like turning over your luck. So, we would take the bones out and then eat the bottom half with never turning the fish." 

The aromatics make the dish

With any dish, the pleasure of eating it all starts with enjoying the scents of each dish. Yes, flavor is obviously very important, but without your sense of smell, all those flavors fall flat. Those scents are often from the bold aromatics that chefs will add to recipes to give them that extra punch you wouldn't have otherwise. Joanna Aguayo and the rest of the food team at Disney California Adventure Park understand this very well, which is why Aguayo says they introduced "something different" this year by steaming the whole fish and topping it with a black vinegar sauce and a few aromatics. Aromatics that are not just strong in smell and taste, but which will absolutely enhance the whole Lunar New Year experience. 

Just like the steamed fish itself, the red Fresno chilies, fresh ginger, and cilantro are all new additions to the dish this year. Each of those aromatics has its own strong flavor. But Aguayo believes it's the hot black vinegar sauce ladled over the top of the tilapia that truly makes the aromatics shine. The end result is a dish that Aguayo says is "really delicious. Something that I'm not totally used to but really enjoy." 

Our taste test

When first presented with the dish, it seemed like an intimidating undertaking, eating a whole fish on our own. But then we remembered, we don't have to eat it all by ourselves. We remembered that this dish is meant to be shared. And after tasting it, we're here to tell you — whoever eats this entree, whether it be alone or with others, will be very happy that they did. 

A delightful tilapia, this fish has always been one of our favorites. With a mild flavor and a nice texture, the steaming process only enhances everything we love about this specific seafood. By steaming the fish you get a tender result that has a silky mouthfeel. But then you add the black vinegar and those amazing aromatics, and suddenly it's a meal worthy of the New Year celebration. 

The ginger and red Fresno chilies give the dish a nice bite that tingles on the tongue, while the black vinegar and soy sauce add a sour savoriness that ties the whole dish together. Yes, tilapia is a bony fish, and you will have to work your way around the skeleton to get all that luscious meat. But trust us when we tell you that it's totally worth the work! So, if you head to Disney California Adventure Park for the Lunar New Year Festival, head straight to Paradise Garden Grill for the whole steamed fish. You will not be disappointed.