Lucky Foods for the Lunar New Year
Around the world, preparations are being made to usher in the beginning of a new lunar year. We've pulled together a collection of East Asian recipes to help you eat your way to good fortune in the New Year.
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If you thought New Year's had come and gone, think again! A much older tradition — based on the ancient Chinese calendar as opposed to the Gregorian calendar — is about to be celebrated. The 2021 Lunar New Year begins on February 12th and is celebrated for two weeks in China, culminating with the Lantern Festival on February 26th, the 15th day of the lunar month. Much of the celebration is focused on good luck and good fortune.
The Lunar New Year, also known as the Spring Festival, is a public holiday celebrated in many Asian countries, making the term "Chinese New Year" a bit of a misnomer: Other important celebrations based on the start of the lunar calendar year include the Tet holiday in Vietnam (a three-day celebration), Losar in Tibet, and Seollal in Korea. According to the Chinese zodiac, which aligns with the lunar calendar, 2021 is the Year of the Ox. So however you celebrate, give the Year of the Rat a farewell pat, and get ready to usher in the ox!
Celebrating Lunar New Year
While the celebrations (and dishes) vary from country to country, there are many common themes that unite the way Lunar New Year is celebrated across the East Asian cultural sphere. First and foremost, the New Year is a time for families to be together. It's not uncommon for family members to travel a long way to come together at home for New Year's.
As with Western New Year's celebrations, the New Year is a time for "out with the old, in with the new:" in preparation for the Lunar New Year, traditionally that means cleaning the house from top to bottom, putting new linens out, and ushering in the New Year with as many good tidings as possible. Note that all the tidying is done before New Year's Day arrives — it's considered bad luck to sweep or brush your hair on the first day of the New Year, lest you sweep all the good luck away.
Steeped in symbolism, many Chinese New Year celebrations feature traditions intended to usher in good luck for the new year. The color red, a lucky color, figures prominently in the celebrations: Gifts of lucky money are frequently given in red envelopes called hong bao, along with Mandarin oranges (given both to children and roaming performers of the lion dance); the color red is worn by family members on New Year's Day; and red lanterns (with gold accents symbolizing wealth) are strewn around town to close out the celebration with the Lantern Festival.
There's also a whole range of traditional Chinese New Year dishes that are considered "lucky foods" for the New Year. Here's the symbolic meaning associated with several Chinese New Year foods:
- For a long life, eat long, uncut noodles (just remember to slurp them up whole, since biting them off represents the shortening of life).
- For good fortune, wealth, and prosperity, eat golden spring rolls (said to resemble gold bars), broccoli and cauliflower for a blossoming year, and lettuce for money.
- For family togetherness, serve a whole chicken — head, feet, and all — which should be cut at the table (never before).
- For abundance, prepare a whole fish and serve whole; some traditions would have you leave some at the end of the meal on New Year's Eve so you end the year with a surplus.
We've put together a collection of our favorite recipes to celebrate the Lunar New Year — from China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Korea, Malaysia, and Tibet. The recipes may vary from country to country, but the sentiments expressed are the same: Gong Hei Fat Choy! Xīn nián kuài lè! Chúc mừng năm mới! Saehae bok mani badeuseyo! Losar Tashi Delek! Happy New Year!
Taiwanese Longevity Noodle with Black Sesame And Crispy Shallots
Longevity noodles (also known as long noodles or changshou mian in Chinese) are one of the most popular dishes for the Lunar New Year. The long noodles symbolize long life and are often eaten to celebrate birthdays in addition to the New Year. To keep with tradition, don't cut the noodles (to do so would be symbolically cutting life short).
In this beautiful version of long noodles from Taiwan, the pale white noodles contrast with an inky paste of sesame and garlic, punctuated with a topping of golden fried shallots. A deep, rich chicken broth and a few splashes of sake round out the flavors for a warm, flavorful dish that will definitely start your year off right.
More Noodles for Noshing
Mother's Famous Chinese Egg Rolls
If you want to get egg rolls right, go to the pros. That's right, a Chinese mom. Complete with "Mama Ruthie's" five rules for making egg rolls, step-by-step photos, and a tutorial on proper rolling techniques, this recipe will turn you into an egg-roll-making pro in no time. These traditional rolls are filled with soy-sauce-marinated pork, cabbage, and carrots, then fried for 10 seconds until they turn a lucky shade of gold. It's not hard to see their resemblance to bars of gold — eat them in prosperity!
Chinese Whole Steamed Fish
A whole fish represents surplus or abundance and is another common celebratory dish served for the New Year's Eve meal. In this simple preparation, the fish is gently steamed and flavored with scallions, ginger, and a bit of shaoxing wine. Served with cilantro scattered on top, it's a simple dish with a dramatic presentation and a lovely flavor.
Fishing for Compliments
Pork Jiaozi (餃子)
Dumplings are one of the great pinnacles of Asian cuisine. From Chinese jiaozi to Nepalese and Tibetan momos to Japanese gyoza and buuz from Mongolia, regional dumplings are bound to appear on tables at family reunions during the Spring Festival. In Chinese culture, jiaozi are meant to bring in wealth, purportedly from their resemblance to ancient silver ingots. In contrast, because of their closed round shape, momos are typically not eaten on the first day of the New Year in Tibet, so as not to close off good fortune.
This basic recipe calls for boiling the pork dumplings, and encourages you to customize the filling to your taste — common additions include shrimp, chopped beef, cabbage, or mushrooms.
Dumplings for Dipping
Korean Gungjung Tteokbokki
Tteokbokki is a spicy stir-fried Korean rice cake that may be prepared in a variety of ways. The rice cake itself (the tteok) is often bought pre-made and then stir fried with gochujang or chile sauce. It's also commonly served on New Year's in a soup called tteokguk. This version of tteokbokki is milder, using soy sauce instead of spicy chiles, and includes plenty of fresh vegetables for a healthy start to the year.
Kicking it Korean
Chinese Baked Coconut Sticky Rice Cake (Nian Gao)
This round cake (symbolizing togetherness) is one form of nian gao, the traditional Chinese New Year cake, which may include flavors like coconut, almond, dates, adzuki beans, and/or sesame seeds. This particular version is made from glutinous rice flour and a trifecta of coconut milk, coconut oil, and dried coconut flakes for a cake that is both sticky and sweet. It's one of many traditional New Year's desserts made from glutinous rice flour, including Tang Yuan or Korean Baram Tteok, below.
Stick it to 'Em
Malaysian Kok Chai (Mini Peanut Puffs)
These crispy Cantonese treats are found in Malaysia, Hong Kong, and Singapore, among others, when ringing in the New Year. Like jiaozi, the golden puffs are tied to wishes for wealth, although these sweet snacks are more cookie than dumpling with their sweet crushed peanut filling.
Vietnamese Candied Coconut Ribbons (Mut Dua)
In Vietnam, candied fruit, called Mut, is often eaten to celebrate the Tết Holiday, or Lunar New Year. A wide array of candied fruits and vegetables are eaten, and are typically reserved exclusively for this special time of year. Types of Mut include coconut, carrot, sweet potato, ginger, kumquats, lotus seeds, and more. To make this recipe, you do need to crack open a coconut — but that's the most complicated part of the adventure! Once the coconut is prepared, you simply cook the strips in sugar water and leave them to dry.
Best Bets for Tết
Khapse refer to a wide variety of fried pastry cookies that are prepared for the Tibetan New Year. They range in size and shape from the distinctive "donkey ears" to swirly bulug (reminiscent of an American funnel cake). They're a distinctly Tibetan indulgence, made in great abundance around the holiday and frequently enjoyed with a cup of butter tea. In this recipe, you can start by learning one of the simpler shapes called nyapsha.
Baram Tteok (Korean Sweet Rice Balls)
We'll leave you with a recipe for festively colored rice balls from Korea, filled with adzuki bean paste. Like many other celebratory New Year's foods, there are similar incarnations of this glutinous rice flour dish in other countries, like the famous mochi from Japan and Chinese tang yuan, which are often filled with sesame paste.