Lunar New Year, one of the most celebrated holidays in many Asian cultures, lands on February 12th this year. We’ll be ushering in the Year of the Ox, which is believed to bring strength and positivity to all of us—much needed after the year we’ve had.
It’s a time when wishes for the upcoming year are made, an abundance of symbolic food is eaten, and families are reunited for meals. In fact, Lunar New Year has historically been the busiest travel period of the year with millions of people moving across the globe to be with their loved ones, which CNN calls “the biggest human migration on the planet.”
In 2019, nearly 3 billion trips were made during Lunar New Year. While traveling is still discouraged because of the pandemic, we can celebrate by cooking up or ordering classic Lunar New Year foods to set us up for a year of good fortune. Here are my favorite dishes along with the significance behind them; they’re based on Chinese traditions that I grew up with, but each Asian country celebrates in their own unique way.
Dumplings symbolize wealth, given their likeness to ancient Chinese currency. When making the dumplings, the goal is to fold as many pleats as possible to increase wealth and fortune in the new year. Called jiaozi in Chinese, it also sounds similar to a word that means saying goodbye to the old and welcoming the new. Fillings are usually made with meat such as pork and a vegetable like cabbage, leek, or celery. I love boiling the dumplings and then toasting them on a frying pan for a crunchy exterior.
Click here for a dumpling recipe.
Longevity noodles, made with a noodle called yi mian, is a staple on the Lunar New Year table. Eating these noodles is meant to ensure a long life of happiness. Some cooks make the longevity noodle into one single and continuous strand that’s meant to be eaten from beginning to the end without breaking it (if it does break, the wishes for good luck might not come true). Longevity noodles also aren’t loaded with accoutrements; the focus is on the noodle itself. They’re dressed with sauce, mushrooms, and scallions so the bounciness of the noodles shine as you eat them.
Click here for a longevity noodle recipe.
Spring rolls symbolize prosperity, wealth, and treasure, given their golden color after a bubbling deep fry session. Like dumplings, the spring rolls are stuffed with a savory meat or vegetable filling. Lunar New Year is also known as Spring Festival, which is another reason why the spring roll holds a special place on the dining table during this time. The process of making spring rolls isn’t an easy one—I used to watch my dad work all day to prep the filling, wrap, and then fry them to perfection. Whether you choose to support a local business by ordering from a restaurant or make them yourself, load up on good fortune by eating your fill of spring rolls this year.
Click here for a spring roll recipe.
Eating a whole fish, head and tail intact, is an important Lunar New Year custom. It’s a dish that’s believed to bring abundance and good fortune in the new year. In fact, a common greeting during the holiday is wishing someone plenty of fish year after year. There are several types of fish that are eaten, each with its own meaning. A Chinese carp can bring good luck and blessings, a crucian carp means good fortune, and a catfish stands for a rich life. This is one of the lighter dishes that I enjoy during Lunar New Year, since the fish is gently steamed and dressed with a touch of soy sauce, ginger, and scallion.
Click here for a whole fish recipe.
Rice cakes, known as nian gao, are one of the most traditional new year foods, with a history that goes back more than a thousand years. It’s food that is used to pay tribute to ancestors and gods in Chinese culture. Rice cakes take many forms, from savory dishes made with pork and veggies to sweet desserts made with brown rock sugar and dates. In Chinese, nian gao is a homophone for “higher success each year,” while in English, it’s a direct translation for “new year cake.” The chewy texture of nian gao is something I look forward to every year.
Click here for a nian gao recipe.
Tangyuan is a sweet rice dumpling dish eaten during Lunar New Year, but I indulge in them year round since they’re so delicious. Unlike traditional savory dumplings, the dough wrapper of a tangyuan is made with glutinous rice flour and stuffed with sweet, toasted sesame paste or peanut paste in Southern China. Once boiled, the tangyuan that my family makes is usually served in a ginger and brown rock sugar soup, which warms the body up from the cold weather outside. Their round shape represents togetherness and family reunion.
Click here for a tangyuan recipe.