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Lunar New Year is Sunday

Written By Scott Joseph On February 8, 2013

It was a long Year of the Dragon, but its fiery breath is about to fizzle out as Asians celebrate the Lunar New Year, which is Feb. 10, signalling the beginning of the Year of the Snake — and it isn’t even an election year!

It’s too bad the Outback Restaurant, which was the signature restaurant at the Buena Vista Palace hotel long before the family steakhouse chain, isn’t there anymore. As I recall, they used to have rattlesnake on the menu. Would have been perfect for this year’s celebratory dinners. Or maybe not.

Some people refer to the event as Chinese New Year, but it is also celebrated in Korea and Vietnam. Some Japanese folks still observe Lunar New Year, but most of that country is on the Gregorian calendar like the United States.

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.

Some of the local Vietnamese restaurants , such as Pho 88 on Mills, might have the traditional foods for a Lunar New Year meal on their regular menus. You might find a sticky rice cake, which is one of my favorites. And perhaps they’ll hand out envelopes for kids with money, which is a whole lot better than biting into a coin inside your dumpling. And don’t be surprised if you see  candied fruit and watermelon seeds on the tables. These items are eaten only at New Year’s, but I don’t know why.

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

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