How to Celebrate the Lunar New Year with Chinese, Vietnamese and Korean Foods

Written By Scott Joseph On January 20, 2012

This week on WMFE-FM, I chat with 90.7’s Nicole Creston about Lunar New Year and the foods that are associate with it. Listen in at 5:45 p.m. Friday or 9:35 Saturday morning. Or, click this link to hear this segment and past podcasts.

Just when we were finally getting over our New Year’s hangover, it’s time to do it again.

January 23 is the beginning of the Lunar New Year, often referred to as Chinese New Year, but it’s also the Vietnamese New Year, or tet, and Korean New Year. And it’s also observed by some Japanese, although Japan started celebrating the gregorian new year that occurs on January 1st every year in the 1870s.

On Sunday, New Year’s Eve, celebrants will say goodbye to the year of the rabbit and prepare for the year of the dragon. Invariably, on one of the late-night talk shows, one of the comedians will say he’s still writing year of the rabbit on all his checks. There will be a rimshot. But there are other traditions beside that lame joke associated with the Lunar New Year (which, unlike the western New Year does not occur on the same day of our calendar).

Each culture has certain foods that they serve as traditions to welcome the new year. Some of these foods have symbolic meaning. In Chinese culture, a whole chicken or fish is served — and I mean whole, with head and tail intact — to represent the complete start and finish of a year. It’s also because the use of knives of cleavers is considered unlucky because they could sever a family’s good fortune. Indeed, if the holiday meal involves anything that needs to be chopped, the cook is careful to do the chopping before the new year celebration begins. Nothing wrong with that; we call it mise en place.

Noodles are also served as part of the Chinese meal, and the longer the better because they represent long life — and as such, they shouldn’t be cut, so there is lots of slurping of noodles at the table. In Northern China, a certain type of dumpling is featured because of its resemblance to a gold ingot — this represents wealth. In fact, some cooks will hide a coin in one of the dumplings for one lucky person to find — or one unlucky person to choke on.

Other foods are served because their Chinese names sound like other words. For example, tangerines and oranges are offered because their Chinese names sound like the words for gold and wealth. A dish of hair seaweed and dried oysters has a name that sounds like wealth and good business.

In Vietnamese culture, you’ll find tet celebrations that feature sticky rice cakes, Vietnamese sausage and chicken, especially boiled. The rice cakes have pork in them and are wrapped in banana leaves. The package is meant to represent the green earth.

Most celebrations are in private homes, but you may be able to find some of the traditional foods in some of the local restaurants.

To sample some of the traditional Chinese foods, visit Ming’s Bistro, but don’t be surprised if the head and tail are cut off of your chicken and fish. The owner tells me that most westerners are put off by the sight of whole foods. (Westerners should get over it.)

You might also try Chan’s on E. Colonial Drive. They’ll be serving Lotus root with pigs feet and fried scallops casserole. The scallops are said to resemble gold coins.

For Korean, visit Shin Jung or Korea House.

None of the Vietnamese restaurants I spoke to had any plans to offer special tet menus, but some, such as Pho 88 on Mills, have several of the traditional foods on their regular menus. They’ll have the sticky rice cake, which is one of my favorites. And they’ll hand out envelopes for kids with money, I’m told, which is a whole lot better than biting into a coin inside your dumpling. A young woman at Pho 88 said there also will be candied fruit and watermelon seeds on the tables. These items, she said, are eaten only at New Year’s, but she couldn’t tell me why.

That’s OK, I can’t explain why southerners eat Hoppin’ John on December 31st.


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