If you're not otherwise familiar with Lunar New Year, here's a crash course: It's a massive holiday, celebrated by a variety of Asian cultures and its festivities are focused on luck, prosperity, and longevity (among other themes). Food is typically a key component of celebrations, with a few quintessential Lunar New Year dishes frequently popping up on family tables and symbolizing everything the new year will hopefully bring.
This year the event begins on February 12, and according to the Chinese zodiac, 2021 is the Year of the Ox — an animal that represents dependability and determination. Whether you're new to the holiday festivities or have been faithfully celebrating since childhood, this year there are few different ways to get in on the action. You can change up your decor, your outfits, or even your beauty routine with designs and products inspired by the Year of the Ox, but why not also try culturally significant dishes in honor of the occasion?
Because Lunar New Year is celebrated by a variety of cultures, there are a ton of nostalgic, festive, and totally delicious options. "There is no one 'right' way to celebrate Lunar New Year in the kitchen — lots of different cultures celebrate it with different dishes and traditions," explains Kim Pham, co-founder of Omsom. Such culinary traditions are passed down generations, so these dishes often have a strong sense of nostalgia. "I love the Lunar New Year because, as an Asian born in America, it's a way to stay connected to my roots and culture through food and sharing these traditions with my friends," shares Wen-Jay Ying, a Chinese-American social impact entrepreneur and founder of Local Roots NYC. "The holiday reminds me of visiting my grandparents in lower Manhattan as a child, paying respects to my ancestors by burning incense, and walking to Chinatown for dinner."
And so many Asian and Asian American chefs and restaurateurs have similarly fond memories of Lunar New Year and continue to make or enjoy some of those traditional (or traditionally inspired) dishes to this day. For those of you who are planning your own celebration this year, some of these food experts have shared their favorites ahead. Let these 14 culturally significant dishes serve as inspiration for a culinary therapy project — or just your next takeout order (no judgement).
Lunar New Year Dishes: Steamed Fish
According to Joseph Hsu, Executive Chef at Vivante, a whole fish represents the idea of abundance, making it a perfect New Year food. "For Chinese New Year, any dish utilizing whole fish is one of the most symbolic dishes," he says. "In Mandarin, the pronunciation sounds like 'leftover' which lends to the idea that you want an abundance of food (or wealth) so that you have it left over for the new year. Growing up, eating fish was like a treat, not something we bought or prepared all the time."
Wendy Zeng, an LA-based chef who specializes in cannabis-infused dishes has similar memories of this dish. "My family immigrated to Memphis, Tennessee from Chengdu when I was 10," she explains. "One of my dad's favorite pastimes is waking up at the crack of dawn and going fishing at Sardis Lake. I love that he had this hobby because it meant that we had an abundance of fresh fish all the time. The Chinese word for fish is 'yu (鱼),' which sounds like the Chinese words for both 'wish' and 'abundance'." One of her favorite preparations is steaming the fish with ginger and other aromatics. Find a similar recipe here.
Lunar New Year Dishes: Imperial Rolls
Lien Ta, a restaurateur and co-owner of All Day Baby, loves the tradition of crispy imperial rolls for New Year celebration, but throws in a modern twist. "At my first restaurant, Here's Looking At You, every Lunar New Year we offered an annual special of Veal Tonnato Rolls," she says. "While it is not a traditional dish for the holiday, it was a tradition for us at the restaurant, a nod to a temporary pre-HLAY pop-up concept called Tet-a-Tet, which celebrated the partnership between me and Chef Jonathan Whitener. 'Tet' is the Vietnamese name for Lunar New Year, and Vietnamese flavors are what initiated our bond to open a restaurant together. So every year, Chef JW makes crispy imperial rolls filled with ground veal and the 'fish' sauce on the side is a tonnato aioli." For those lucky enough to live in the LA area, Ta and Whitener brought their Tet-a-Tet special to All Day Baby, and it's available through February 17. For a more classic imperial roll recipe to make yourself, try this one.
Lunar New Year Dishes: Dumplings
Dumplings represent prosperity, according to Aaron Yang, Vice President of Din Tai Fung Restaurant Group — a restaurant chain famous for its juicy pork soup dumplings. The reason behind this? Their shape. "The shape of the dumpling represents [ancient Chinese currency] Chinese Yuan Bao, and we eat it during Chinese New Year to represent wealth," explains Chef Steven Aung of China Poblano by José Andrés.
The act of dumpling making in itself is one steeped in nostalgia for many who celebrate Lunar New Year, including Cecily Feng, chef and owner of Little Sparrow. "I was born in Guangzhou (Canton) and moved to the states with my family when I was 5 years old," she says. "We lived in a small town with no Chinatown, so my parents often made the dishes that they missed. This was especially true during Chinese New Year, when we would gather around the kitchen island and spend the day making dumplings. I remember learning to fold dumplings for the first time and feeling like a family secret had been revealed to me. It goes without saying that my favorite thing to make and eat during New Year's are dumplings." Feng's family filled their dumplings with ground pork, napa cabbage, and aromatics, and with Little Sparrow she's created an inspired version that's available to order.
Want to whip up a batch of homemade soup dumplings? Try this recipe from Bon Appétit.
Lunar New Year Dishes: Lion's Head Meatballs
For filmmaker and restaurateur Eddie Huang, LNY celebrations just wouldn't be the same without this traditional pork meatball dish. In fact, he's even sharing his favorite recipe as part of Hennessy Presents X.O OX Experience: A Lunar New Year Event. But if you can't make the virtual events, try this version for an equally delicious — and authentic — result.
Lunar New Year Dishes: Vietnamese Pork Belly & Eggs
"My favorite dish has to be thịt kho trứng (caramelized Vietnamese pork belly and eggs)," Omsom's Kim Pham says. "It's a super decadent dish that brings me rushing back to celebrating Tết with my parents. As first-gen Vietnamese-Americans, this holiday looked different than those of our relatives in Vietnam, but it was no less special. It was a time for us to be together, celebrate and rejoice for the new year that was about to come, and eat lots of tasty dishes." To make the dish at home, try this recipe.
Lunar New Year Dishes: Bánh Tét
Another Vietnamese dish Pham enjoys this time of year is this savory stuffed rice cake. "For me, I particularly enjoy the genius that comes from bánh tét, a delicious mix of sticky rice, pork belly, and mung beans steamed in banana leaves," she explains. If you can't find the dish at one of your local Vietnamese eateries, try this recipe for your own culinary experiment.
Lunar New Year Dishes: Vietnamese Sausage
Vanessa Pham, Kim's sister and the co-founder of Omsom, gravitates toward Vietnamese sausage for her New Year celebrations. "I absolutely love having chả (Vietnamese sausage) around Tết, and honestly year-round," she says. "My favorite kind is chả lụa, a simple yet aromatic kind made with pork, fish sauce, and ground black pepper, wrapped in banana leaves." To attempt your own, follow this recipe.
Lunar New Year Dishes: Nian Gao
Not all the celebratory New Year dishes are savory — there are also a few sweets to partake in this time of year. "We didn’t necessarily celebrate [Lunar New Year], but my dad had quite a few Chinese coworkers growing up and he would often bring home some goodies he would be gifted," shares Ria Dolly Barbosa, owner and chef of Filipino restaurant Petit Peso. "One I remember fondly is the new year cake called Nian Gao. I didn’t know then that you were suppose to pan fry it (it was room temp and therefor very firm) until my dad came in the kitchen and helped me carefully slice off and fry pieces to eat. I love the texture of mochi and it was just sweet enough and can still taste that first time I enjoyed it today." Try making your own with this recipe.
Lunar New Year Dishes: Tea Eggs
"I love eating tea eggs during the Lunar New Year because as an Asian born in America, it's a way to stay connected to my roots and culture through food and sharing these traditions with my friends," Ying says. "The holiday reminds me of visiting my grandparents in lower Manhattan as a child, paying respects to my ancestors by burning incense, and walking to Chinatown for a feast. Eggs symbolize golden nuggets so they are eaten at Chinese New Year to hope for wealth and prosperity, and the circular shape represents wholeness and togetherness of family. Tea eggs remind me of visiting my brother in Shanghai and indulging in the street food. The aromatic, light fragrance of the tea eggs would fill the morning air." Recognizable by their crackled appearance, tea eggs are actually pretty simple to make. You'll just need some aromatic herbs, soy sauce, and dark cooking wine. Follow one traditional recipe here.
Lunar New Year Dishes: Dried Fruit Tray
"My relatives would bring special teas and 'trays of togetherness' as gifts and offerings for the new year," explains Annie Mai is the owner/creator of Yin Yang Tea, a boba tea shop in Nashville. "These fruit trays are made using dried fruits and they represent sweet happiness for the new year. The older folks would sit for hours sipping on hot tea and snacking on these fruits."
For a contemporary take on the fruit tray, Mariana Leung Wicked Finch Farm owner and treat maker has made a tradition of whipping up some citrus-y jam. "Mandarin oranges are popular because their color and name symbolize prosperity," she says. "I make a boozy jam with them using ginger and elderflower liqueur. In addition to topping baked goods or glazing meat, I feel particularly 'lucky' when I use the jam as a mixer in Asian-themed cocktails!"
Lunar New Year Dishes: Long Life Noodles
"One of my favorite dishes to serve for the Lunar New Year is long life noodles," shares HUNGRY’s chef and cookbook author Katie Chin. "I remember how my late mother would make this dish for us explaining how noodles symbolize longevity and they should always be served uncut: The longer the noodle, the longer the life!" To try Katie's version of the dish, head here.
Lunar New Year Dishes: Almond Biscuits
"Almond cookies have always been a classic restaurant dessert," Leung says. "They look like coins and are meant to bring wealth. I put my gluten-free twist on it with almond cookie marshmallows that look more like gold bars (I also use them as a cocktail garnish and in Asian s'mores)."
Lunar New Year Dishes: Rice Cake Soup
"For Koreans, it's tradition to mark Lunar New Year by eating Tteok Guk (rice cake soup)," says Bobby Yoon owner of NYC's Yoon Haeundae Galbi. "Once upon a time in Korea, rice was hard to harvest and only the wealthy families had the privilege to eat rice. As such, rice cakes were once a luxury that is now enjoyed by all." The round shape of rice cakes — like a coin — also has to do with the dish's association to wealth and luck, Yoon adds. For one tasty Tteok Guk recipe, head here.
Lunar New Year Dishes: Fried Noodles
Kiki Aranita, chef and former owner of Poi Dog in Philadelphia, typically heads to Hong Kong for Lunar New Year, but won't be traveling this year due to the pandemic. The dish she'll miss most? The fried noodles from a dai pai dong, or street food stall, that she'd enjoy with friends before the New Year festivities. To create a similar noodle dish, head here.
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