Another Happy New Year: An ancient asian holiday turns a year older

Forty-seven hundred years is a long time. The Chinese have celebrated the Lunar New Year even longer. Today, it’s the biggest Asian holiday in the States.

“New Year’s Eve is almost like Thanksgiving,” said Jun Chen, co-owner of Wei Hong Seafood Restaurant in University City. “The whole family comes together.” But don’t expect to find a turkey on the table come Feb. 7.

“Most of my Chinese friends hate turkey,” said Leslie Cheng of St. Louis, who spent her early years in Keelung, Taiwan. “‘Turkey’s not edible,’ they say.”

Newlyweds Yuan Li and Yang Zhang of St. Louis actually do carve a turkey on occasion – but never on New Year’s Eve, which marks both the kickoff and high point of the 15-day Lunar New Year celebration. Instead, the couple makes something like hot pot.

“It’s easy to cook,” Li said. “You just boil some soup in a big pot and you get some lamb or goat meat or something else. You don’t need to cook anything, you just buy some sauce from the grocery store.”

A traditional New Year’s Eve feast in China is considerably more elaborate. “You have so many dishes, everybody gets full before they can have some rice,” said Zhang, who, like his wife, grew up near Beijing. Typically, his aunt and mother would prepare more than a dozen dishes, making sure the total equaled an even number.

“There is a tradition in China that good things happen in pairs,” Li explained.

Dishes that pop up on the holiday table are eaten throughout the year and often feature fish, pork, chicken and duck. Vegetables, along with rice, take a back seat for the night. Money-shaped dumplings, on the other hand, pile up high. One – just one – of them is lucky; the one laced with a coin, stuffed with a unique filling or made to stand out in some other way.

Growing up in Nanjing in eastern China, Shu Yang lucked upon the coveted dumpling just once. “I didn’t know that custom, so my father said, ‘You will be lucky for the new year and blah blah blah blah,’” she said, suddenly grinning. The sophomore at University of Missouri-St. Louis doesn’t put much stock in a pastry’s power to steer fortunes. “It’s just a custom,” she said.

After midnight strikes, the first thing a lot of people do is dig into their potentially lucky dumpling. Many consider it symbolic. “The food stands for family reunion,” said Yi Zheng, a server at Wei Hong.

Eating a whole fish – often carp, as Yang specified after hopping onto an online dictionary – is thought to guarantee that a family will be well-fed in the New Year.

“In the old China, people didn’t have a lot of food to eat,” Yang said.

Cheng, a few decades older than Yang, illustrated this point with a personal memory. “I remember as kids, we’d fight for that little piece of meat in the soup,” she said. “Really, a lot of people looked forward to the New Year’s meal. It was the only time you could really indulge yourself and eat everything you wanted.”
Such rich spreads, of course, follow a fair amount of cooking – always on the day-of and sometimes in advance. “A month or so before New Year’s, all the wives would set up a makeshift smokehouse,” Cheng said. “The pork sausage my mom made – I’ve never had it anywhere else. It was so good. It’s so hard to make.”

Cheng also described the labor involved in making fresh dumplings. “That’s why it tasted so good – it was a whole-day process, because you had to buy a chunk of pork and then chop it. And then you had to make the dough and roll it out on the wrapper. Then you had to buy cabbage and chop it up. Everything had to be manually chopped into pieces and then you had to make the dumpling,” she said.

Another New Year’s preparation involves giving the house and especially the kitchen a good scrub down. The idea is to start the year with a literally clean slate.

“My mom said that one year, I was just so tired from cleaning that I told her, ‘I’ve decided to marry a very rich man.’ I don’t remember saying that,” Cheng laughed.

In times past, New Year’s revelers paid homage to Zao Jun, the “kitchen god.” Yang laughed at the English translation of his name and then explained that people prayed to him for adequate provisions in the New Year. They also gave the homey deity a sticky cake – but not because he had a sweet tooth. It was believed Zao Jun ascended to heaven during the Lunar New Year to report on a family’s behavior in the outgoing year. The viscous dessert was meant as a bribe or, if his report wasn’t glowing, to make his mouth stick together.

Mortals mostly skip dessert on New Year’s Eve, since sweets generally qualify as snacks in the Chinese diet. The traditional indulgence is liquid: rice wine. Under Western influence, Champagne and grape-based wines have also begun to find favor.

As the years pass – 4706 begins this month – other things also change.

Cheng, whose husband emigrated from China in the ’60s and whose two sons are “typical American kids,” said her family sometimes forgets the beginning of the Chinese Lunar New Year, especially if it falls on a weekday. “If we remember, we cook a Chinese meal. It has no comparison to what we had at home,” she said.

“Nowadays, my family dines out together. It’s the easy way to do it,” Zheng said.

The Beijing native predicted about 100 people will celebrate the Chinese Lunar New Year at Wei Hong this month.

Yang will likely do what she did last year: have a potluck dinner with a couple of Chinese classmates. “We just cook as much as we can,” she said.

Li and Zhang haven’t made firm plans, but there’s one thing they’re sure about. “I don’t think we will cook American food on the Chinese New Year,” Zhang said.

“Yeah, definitely not,” Li echoed.

All about the food

Different cultures reckon time, well, differently. China, Korea and Vietnam happen to track it the same. According to their calendar, the new lunar year starts sometime between late January and late February. The big day this year is Feb. 7.

Regardless of where it’s celebrated, the Chinese Lunar New Year involves a lot of food. Holiday menus vary from country to country, region to region and family to family. They also change over time. Still, a few dishes stand as classics.

Jiaozi – Chinese

Chinese Lunar New Year dinners feature dumplings by the dozens. Whoever bites into the one with a coin or a different filling (for example, all meat instead of meat and vegetables) can look forward to a year of luck.

Chinese dumplings, called jiaozi, can be filled with most anything. Lu Lu Seafood and Dim Sum Restaurant in University City will be making them with mounds of Napa cabbage and pork. Generally boiled and sometimes triple-boiled, a lot of jiaozi get a kick by way of fresh ginger.

Crescent-shaped New Year’s dumplings resemble an ancient Chinese currency. Ah, money – the classic ingredient of good fortune.

Qing Zheng YÚ – Chinese

Many Chinese restaurants offer qing zheng yú, or steamed fish, year-round. On New Year’s, it’s often flounder that makes its way onto the table.

Flounder, it’s thought, brings luck. The Chinese word for fish, , sounds like the Chinese word “abundance.” Served whole, fish symbolizes a good beginning and ending to each year. In other words, steamed whole flounder packs three layers of luck.

The minimal seasoning of qing zheng yú lets the natural flavors of the fish thrive. During steaming, the fish is covered with green onions and fresh ginger. A second portion of both toppings is added after the fish comes out of the wok. Last comes a splash of hot oil.

Jun Chen, co-owner of Wei Hong Seafood Restaurant in University City, prefers to top off qing zheng yú with slightly sweet fish sauce. Soy sauce, she said, is too salty for her taste.

Duk Gook and Duk Mandoo Gook – Korean

Both of these savory soups start with gooey Korean rice cakes, or duk. Han Kim, chef and manager of the family-owned Hangook Kwan in Creve Coeur, gets his supply from a local Korean grocer who makes fresh duk every Friday.

While some broths feature anchovy, the one Kim opts for is beef-based. Its seasoning is the picture of simplicity. “If the soup is made well, salt is enough,” Kim said.

Slices of beef shank make the New Year’s soups hearty. Duk mandoo gook revs things up another notch via mung bean dumplings.

Duk gook and duk mandoo gook have a tongue-twisting garnish: seaweed, scallions and sesame seeds. See if you can say that six times after slurping your soup spoon clean.

Banh Chung and Banh Tet – Vietnamese

When the New Year arrives in Vietnam, banh chung and banh tet become ubiquitous, said Lynn Truong, co-owner of Banh Mi So #1 Saigon Gourmet in St. Louis. These rice cakes consist of split yellow mung bean paste (Truong’s mother would always add salt, sugar and coconut milk to it) and – what else? – sweet rice. Some cooks perk things up with pork chunks.

Making these cakes takes time. First, the mung beans, rice and meat are carefully layered atop a lattice of steamed dong (phrynium) or banana leaves. Then everything’s folded into a plump bundle and bound with bamboo string. The final step is to boil the cakes for six to eight hours.

Rick Luu, manager of Four Seasons Vietnamese Restaurant in St. Louis, explained that banh chung’s square shape echoes a plot of land while the oblong banh tet symbolizes the heavens.