Chinese New Year From Traditional to Playful
For a writer and her immigrant family, part of being American has always been about making the holiday their own
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The Lunar New Year is honored by many Asian cultures, a welcome restart for those who recognize both the January 1 start date of the Gregorian calendar and the older calendar that measures time by the ebb of the moon. In China, where my parents were born, the Lunar New Year is a monster celebration of grand proportions. The Spring Festival, as it’s also called, marks the end of the cruelest days of winter … and that’s something worth making a big, noisy fuss about!
This year, the Chinese New Year falls on February 12, ushering in the Year of the Ox. But we’re living in “unusual times,” so they say, and the hubbub won’t be quite what it has been in the past. However, what better year than a strange one to try out new customs, adopt or adapt traditions, and reflect on what once was?
Traditionally in China, the country shuts down for seven days. Manufacturing comes to a standstill. TVs are tuned to the annual gala variety show, with acts ranging from time-honored acrobatics and Beijing opera to contemporary singers and comics. Towns are painted an auspicious red, with decorations of scarlet paper lanterns, couplets written in elaborate Chinese cursive, and upside-down “Fu” signs. Families fill metallic gold-printed red envelopes with money to be given to the youngest members.
Images of the year’s new zodiac sign start to appear, but the whimsical dragon and lion dance performers, warding off evil spirits to the beat of drums and cymbals, are timeless. Firecrackers and fireworks add to the bad luck-deflecting ruckus, as do the happy sounds of loved ones gathering through the end of the week.
Poetic, homophone-driven interpretations of good luck, good fortune, and good health are assigned to every little action, every little bite until the cap of the Chinese New Year celebrations, the Lantern Festival.
But this year looks different, to say the least. According to Chinese national news sources, there will be no public gatherings, and seats around dinner tables will be fewer. Spring Festival travel has been curtailed as officials put health first and put the brakes on “the world’s biggest human migration,” a time that traditionally sees 3 billion homecoming trips made during the 40 days surrounding New Year’s Day.
Here in the States, celebration of my culture’s most important holiday has always been different. For my restaurateur parents, both of whom immigrated from Fuzhou, China and met here in New York, it was truncated to a couple of hours of indulgent eating with close family members.
Preparations would start a day in advance, as my father would shop, marinate, and fabricate. Cooking for my family’s meal began in earnest on New Year’s Eve after the dinner rush was over at our Chinese takeout restaurant. Anywhere between 9 and 10 PM, dishes would start appearing on the steam table, aluminum foil tented over the trays to protect them from blasts of wintry air that would bully their way in as the last customers left for the night through the storefront doors. We’d push all four of the Formica tables together in the waiting area in excited anticipation of the wealth of food sure to come, since an overflowing table hints that plenty and prosperity will be on the menu for the coming year.
It’d be a mix of customary holiday dishes and personal favorites that were laborious to make, or items considered delicacies — too pricey for everyday consumption.
We made our own traditions here in America, mixing our Fujianese regional and family recipes with Cantonese classics, Mandarin manners, and Spring Festival specialties from other areas of China.
And now this year, I invite you to join me in making the Chinese culture’s new year your own, too — resetting the table to one that brings a world with less travel a little closer together.
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This may not technically be traditional, but we could all use a treat, right? The round tapioca pearls in this drink from Taiwan fit the bill for lucky spherical foods, which represent family togetherness. Thanks to milk, condensed milk, and sugar, the tea has plenty of sweetness, just what we’re hoping for in the coming days.
In Northern China where wheat is grown instead of rice, dumplings are integral to the Chinese New Year feast. Not only do they resemble Chinese gold ingots, they also create a chance for quality time. Families often spend hours making them, wrapping piquant meat into soft dough, showing off folding techniques in the hours ahead of the Reunion Dinner. In my family we leave that to the master: my father, whose uniform pleats and plump-bottomed crescents would inspire envy from a machine. (No time for homemade dough? Try this recipe made with store-bought gyoza wrappers.)
Whole eggs — not fried, not scrambled, nor broken in any way — are an important part of the Chinese New Year’s Eve meal. Various regions execute this differently, but every Reunion Dinner should feature some form of hard-boiled egg. They symbolize togetherness and the blessing of a big, healthy family. My dad has always fried the shelled eggs whole and put them in a soup — but far more popular are these dramatic crackled eggs, whose lines are dyed with tea.
Though some may balk at the Asian and Mediterranean customs of serving fish with the head, it’s actually a highlight of big Chinese dinners. For the Lunar New Year, providing a whole fish is especially significant since it’s a call for wealth and surplus — things especially important to Chinese people who came to the States for the dream of just that. This preparation is minimal yet delicious. Serve it with the head facing your most important diner to flatter them; or add red peppers for business success as they do in Hunan.
Who couldn’t use some prosperity in the coming year? Especially when it’s an excuse to eat more chicken! This fragrant recipe is a Shanghai classic and usually served cold — a practical relic of the tradition of first offering it up to ancestors at the family altar. Today, that makes it an excellent Chinese New Year dish to prepare in advance as you focus on all of the other good luck goodies. Don’t forget to make the herbaceous dipping sauce!
The Chinese culture adores pork. It’s the most widely consumed meat in the country that’s also the producer of half of the world’s total supply. So obviously, pork — which stands for peace when proffered during the Chinese New Year’s Eve feast — is a must. Decadent pork belly has become more widely available in recent years, and this recipe brings out its best traits with a candied sauce that will have you licking your fingers at the table.
Authentic Chinese sweet and sour flavors are a far cry from the syrupy ones westernized for American palates. The zip of black vinegar and Shaoxing wine balance the sweetness of sticky sauces like plum, hoisin, and even — surprise! — ketchup that makes one of my favorite pork preparations a lucky color red. The texture and flavor of the sauce can also stand for family cohesiveness and sweet fortune. Any excuse to eat this, I’ll take!
There’s nothing like a Hong Kong soup shop roast duck, crisped to perfection in a vertical roasting oven. But these days, with many Chinatowns in jeopardy due to COVID, it’s not as easy to ask “how much is that (ducky) in the window?” With an air fryer, you can replicate this classic using the very best part of the protein that symbolizes loyalty.
Duck isn’t the only way you can put your air fryer to use this Chinese New Year! Lamb is always a treat, and this simple recipe complements its gaminess with the warmth and earthiness of spices. In China it’s a meat more common to the North than South due to a higher population of Muslims there … but as soon as dynamic Sichuan peppercorns are introduced, they tend to steal the titular role! Sub in cayenne if you don’t have the Sichuan pepper.
China’s answer to fondue Bourguignonne calls for the same principle: gathering over a communal table, lingering over bite-by-bite cooking from a shared pot. The difference is that instead of hot oil, a bubbling broth cooks meats, noodles, and all manner of vegetables before diners top off their labors with self-mixed sauces. Displaying a variety of raw ingredients creates visual abundance, and thoughtfully chosen ones maximize auspiciousness.
Just as in Western culture, lobster is an indicator of wealth. Serving it at the family Reunion Dinner the night before the Lunar New Year starts is a wish for financial fortune, and this is one of my family’s favorite ways to usher in that good juju. Chopped up into bite-sized pieces (similar to how the soy sauce chicken is butchered, as is polite in Chinese society), it’s a beautiful dish to serve, vibrant with lucky red color.
Lobster isn’t the only shellfish said to usher in hopes for financial success — clams will do the trick, too. You can also interpret their yawning shells as the opening of new horizons and fruitful days ahead. However you take it, this black bean preparation is an easy, low-ingredient way to will good fortune into the new year. It’s one of my dad’s go-tos for something quick and flavorful to make in between higher-maintenance dishes.
Rice is the South’s counter crop to the wheat of the North, and rice cakes — another form of nian gao (see the next recipe) — provide that same chewy satisfaction that dumpling dough would. Rice cakes are also treated in similarly savory applications in Southern China, like in this recipe. You can buy rice cakes in stores in a hard, dry form to reconstitute by boiling, then steam or saute them with vegetables and meat.
One of the most iconic dishes of the Spring Festival, this interpretation of New Year cake made with sweet rice flour and brown sugar (either Chinese brown sugar or the regular American kind) is more common than the previous savory version. “Nian gao” literally means “higher year” and serves as an inspiration to do better as you enjoy the sweetness of life. This recipe’s a basic one; you can build on it or repurpose as you like. In Hebei, on the coast of Northern China, it’s common to steam this with jujube dates and sweet red beans. West of there in Shanxi, or north in Inner Mongolia, they’ll deep-fry the batter before adding fillings of the same.
Mandarins, tangerines, oranges, and grapefruit are all lucky fruit typically handed out like candy during the Spring Festival celebrations. The round shape signifies the togetherness and completion of the family unit and their hues recall gold. With no visitors to dole out citrus to, why not turn the fruit into a refreshing dessert to bubble up your spirits with a little sparkle? Scoop the sorbet into perfect circles and we’ve made another full one as we recall where we started on this round-up.
Cook up some more good luck
As we bid goodbye to the Year of the Rat and hello to the Year of the Ox, we'll likely be at home rather than out shooting off fireworks or watching a traditional Chinese dragon dance. But we can still wish a Happy New Year to family members, perhaps with a gift of lucky money — and definitely with these additional foods that signify good fortune.