Celebrating Lunar New Year with Foods From Different Cultures

Every year, Lunar New Year is celebrated around the globe with great fanfare: lion dances, red packets stuffed with money, and of course, 10-course banquets comprising dishes made with exquisite ingredients and brimming with symbolism–foods that are homonyms or look-alikes for gold bars, prosperity, family unity, fertility, good fortune, etc. This year, Lunar New Year falls on January 31st–it’s the year of the Horse!– and families will gather from far and wide over the next two weeks to eat dishes from long-life noodles to whole fish and fried egg rolls.

In pockets of Asian communities, this important holiday is also feted with special foods, albeit  lesser known and a little lower-key. Here’s a delicious assortment for you to choose from.

Singaporean

yu sheng ingredients 2
My take on yu sheng using homemade tea-cured salmon

In Singapore where I grew up, my family and I would celebrate with raw fish salad, or yu sheng in Mandarin Chinese. This “salad” is usually eaten in restaurants, not at home.

The dish’s make-up varies from place to place and comprises an assortment of ingredients including: sliced raw fish (salmon, ikan parang [mackerel], or grass carp), carrots, daikon, sweet potato, jellyfish, candied fruit, pomelo, pickled ginger, pok chui (fried flour crisps), etc., etc., all dressed with a sweet and sour plum sauce and spices. Like many dishes served during the New Year, yu sheng is popular because of its name (a homonym for the words for prosperity and longevity) and the “lucky” ingredients that go into it. The ingredients are served neatly laid out on a platter and then pandemonium breaks out as diners start tossing with their chopsticks, and crying out auspicious sayings. Supposedly, the higher you toss, the more luck you’ll have for the New Year!

While yu sheng is traditionally eaten on the seventh day of the New Year (the celebration lasts 15 days, the length of a moon cycle), restaurants tend to have it on their menus starting a week before the New Year, up till several weeks after.

Vietnamese

Photo credit: Ben Nguyen, b00ng/Flickr
Neatly bundled bánh chưng (Photo credit: Ben Nguyen/Flickr)

Tacoma, Washington-native Mary Huynh’s parents gift her with many pounds of “bánh chưng,” glutinous rice bundles stuffed with mung beans and pork wrapped in banana leaves, every Tết, the Vietnamese New Year. The bundles are boiled anywhere from six to 12 hours. It’s basically “cooked to death!” but for good reason–it gives bánh chưng a long shelf life.  “(It’s) delicious!” Huynh describes. “I’d lug it as checked baggage when I visit, and there have been mailings to my sister.”

Sweets like dried fruit candies and coconut candy are also abundant during Tết. Huong C. Nguyen has vivid memories of dried candied fruit offered on huge plates for visitors. “We served them with tea before sitting down to eat meals,” recalls Nguyen who grew up in Denville, New Jersey.

On the dining table, an assortment of traditional Vietnamese dishes like lemongrass chicken, braised duck, and thit kho, pork belly and eggs braised in fish sauce and coconut juice would be laid out. “Sometimes my mom would even mix in turkey!” she laughs.

Taiwanese

Red bean soup with rice flour dumplings (Photo credit: Grace Hwang Lynch, HapaMama.com)

The daughter of Taiwanese immigrants, Grace Hwang Lynch celebrates Lunar New Year enjoying hot pot with her family. Lynch, who blogs at HapaMama.com, describes the visually stunning array of foods: “There’d be a variety of meats–beef, chicken, sometimes lamb or pork. Seafood like shrimp, scallops, fish and shrimp balls, different veggies, leafy greens, mushrooms. The final item would be bean thread noodles to soak up the flavorful broth.”

On the 15th day of the Lunar New Year, the Lantern Festival, Lynch says it’s customary to have sweet red bean soup (ang-tau-thng in Taiwanese) with dumplings (in-a). “The dumplings are made with sweet (glutinous) rice and are really small, about marble-size, and come in pink and white.” The round dumplings and the bowls the sweet soup is served in symbolize family togetherness.

Indonesian

kue nastar ready
Homemade pineapple tarts or kue nastar

Although she didn’t celebrate Lunar New Year in a big way in Indonesia, Yusi Sasmitra fondly remembers kue keranjang, also called kue cina (literally Chinese cakes), that were sold widely during Imlek (the Indonesian name for Lunar New Year). They’re similar to Chinese nian gao (sticky rice cake) but with a Southeast Asian twist. “The brown cakes are cut into slices, grilled and rolled in shredded coconut,” the real estate specialist explains.

Sasmitra’s eyes light up when she rattles off the wide selection of cookies made available to guests who come round to visit after the first day of the New Year: kue bangkit (made from sago flour), kue satu (made from mung bean powder), cheese sticks and her favorite, kue nastar (pineapple tarts).

Korean

dduk_mandoo_guk
Dduk mandoo guk topped with seaweed (Photo credit: Amy Kim, kimchimom.com)

Growing up, kimchimom.com blogger Amy Kim vaguely remembers having dduk mandoo guk (rice cakes and dumpling soup) on January 1st. According to Korean custom, this dish is served during the Korean New Year, called Solnal or Seollal, that follows the lunar calendar. But in an effort to assimilate to American culture when they migrated to the U.S. in the 1960’s, Kim’s parents stopped celebrating the holiday. Kim only learned about it through friends, Korean language classes, and stories her mom told her.

“Now that I have a family of my own, I decided to start this tradition several years ago. Better late than never!” she says.

A typical bowl of dduk mandoo guk comprises ground beef and cellophane noodle dumplings served in beef broth. Kim, who lives in Northern New Jersey, created her own version made with Japanese dashi and shrimp dumplings. She buys the rice cakes from the Asian store.

A lot of symbolism is present in this simple bowl of soup. The New Year is considered everyone’s birthday and eating the soup symbolizes becoming one year older. The white rice cakes symbolize blessings and purity, and when cut into perfect rounds or “coins,” represent money and prosperity.

Japanese

ehomaki smithsonian
Eho maki (Photo credit: Elizabeth Andoh, TasteofCulture.com)

While Lunar New Year is not a major festival in Japan, many Japanese celebrate Setsubun, a seasonal marker on the ancient, lunar-based koyomi calendar. This year, February 3rd marks the beginning of spring as well as the lunar new year.

In recent years, eating eho maki-zushi–Good Fortune Setsubun rolled sushi–has become part of the Setsubun fun (in addition to the bean-throwing ceremony!). These sushi rolls are similar to the futo (plump) maki (rolls) available at American Japanese restaurants. “The biggest difference is that these Good Fortune Rolls are not sliced,” explains Tokyo-based Japanese culinary instructor Elizabeth Andoh. “Some people include seven fillings (to represent Shichi Fukujin, the Seven Gods of Good fortune), others just four or five. A few takeout places in Tokyo this year are offering very plump rolls with 15 fillings!”

The proper way to eat eho maki is to face the eho, the auspicious direction for the year, and gobble down your sushi roll uncut to keep the good fortune intact.

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HAPPY YEAR OF THE HORSE 2014 EVERYONE!

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LINKS TO RECIPES:

Yu Sheng

Red Bean Soup with Rice Flour Dumplings (HapaMama.com)

Bánh chưng (Gastronomy Blog)

Pineapple Tarts

Dduk Mandoo Guk (Kimchimom.com)

Eho Maki-Zushi (+ more about Setsubun!)

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Egg Rolls and Gold Bars

The Lunar New Year celebration lasts 15 days so there’s still plenty of time to eat your fill of lucky and auspicious foods for a prosperous year ahead.

egg rolls uncooked
Freshly wrapped egg rolls waiting to be fried

Egg rolls (also called fried spring rolls) are a favorite all year round but they’re considered an auspicious food during the new year because they resemble gold bars and thus symbolize wealth and prosperity!

If you’d like to see a demo of me rolling egg rolls as well as learn more about lucky new year foods, here’s a video of my segment on King5 TV’s New Day Northwest (click on the still below and you’ll be taken to the video):

King5

Here’s my recipe, enjoy!

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Fried Egg Rolls (蛋卷)

fried egg rolls

I’ve adapted this lumpia (Filipino egg rolls) recipe from The Asian Grandmothers Cookbook. I used carrots because in Mandarin, orange carrots are called hong luo bo (红萝卜), i.e. “red carrots,” and red symbolizes good fortune, while the yellow carrots are close enough to a golden hue and gold symbolizes wealth. Chinese chives are known as jiu cai (韭菜) which sounds like “forever vegetable,” and who doesn’t want a long life? Feel free to add or subtract whatever ingredients you’d like. Ground pork, glass noodles, cabbage, bamboo shoots, mushrooms, etc., are all great ingredients to add to the mix. The filling can be made ahead and stored in the refrigerator for up to 3 days.

Makes: about 25 egg rolls
Time: 1-1/2 hours

2 teaspoons salt, divided
1 pound skinless, boneless chicken thighs
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 medium onion, finely chopped (1 cup)
3 cloves garlic, minced (1 tablespoon)
3 medium orange and yellow carrots, shredded (1-1/2 cups)
1 cup (4 ounces) finely chopped green beans
1 stalk Chinese chives, finely chopped
2 teaspoons soy sauce
Freshly ground black pepper
1 package egg roll wrappers (usually 25 wrappers, click here for my favorite brand)
1 egg white, beaten, or water for sealing
3 cups (or as needed) vegetable oil for deep-frying
Sweet and Sour Sauce (recipe follows)

To make the filling, place the chicken in a medium saucepan and fill with water until the chicken is submerged by about an inch. Add 1 teaspoon of the salt and bring to a boil over high heat. When the water starts to boil, turn off the heat and cover. Let the chicken stand for 15 minutes. Test by cutting into a piece: it should not be pink. Let cool and shred the meat along the grain into tiny shards with your fingers, or chop into a confetti-sized dice. Reserve the stock for another use or discard.

In a small skillet, heat the 1 tablespoon oil over medium-high heat until it becomes runny and starts to shimmer. Add the onion and garlic and cook until the onion is soft and light golden, 4 to 5 minutes. Add the chicken, carrots, and green beans, and stir to mix. Add the soy sauce, remaining salt, and 1 teaspoon pepper (or to taste) and mix thoroughly. Add the Chinese chives and stir and cook until the mixture is heated through.

Allow the filling to cool completely.

To assemble the egg rolls, carefully peel one wrapper from the stack (cover the remaining wrappers with a damp cloth to keep them moist). Lay the wrapper on a dry work surface with one corner pointing toward you.) Place 2 tablespoons of filling just below the center line of the wrapper parallel to your body. Shape it into a mound 1 by 3 inches, leaving about 2½ inches on either side. Fold the corner closest to you over the filling and tuck it under snugly. Roll once, then fold the left and right sides in to form an envelope. Continue to roll the filling tightly into a fat tube until you reach the end of the wrapper. Before you reach the end, dab some egg white or water along the top edge to seal the egg roll. The egg roll should measure 4 to 5 inches in length and 1 to 1½ inches in diameter. Place on a plate or tray and cover with a damp towel or plastic wrap. Repeat with the remaining filling and wrappers.

Preheat the oven to 250 degrees F. Line a plate with paper towels. In a large wok, heavy skillet, or Dutch oven, heat the 3 cups oil over high heat until it reaches 350 degrees F on a deep-fry thermometer.

Reduce the heat to medium-high. Using tongs, gently lower the egg rolls into the oil one by one; fry in a batch of 5 or 6 until both sides are evenly golden brown, 1 to 2 minutes. Remove the egg rolls with a slotted spoon, shaking off excess oil, and drain on paper towels. Keep warm in the oven.

Bring the oil temperature back to 350 degrees F before frying the next batch. Repeat with the remaining egg rolls. Serve immediately with sweet and sour sauce.

Sweet and Sour Sauce
3 tablespoons rice or distilled white vinegar
2 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon ketchup
1 teaspoon soy sauce
2 teaspoons cornstarch dissolved in 1/4 cup water to form a slurry

In a small saucepan, bring the vinegar, sugar, ketchup, and soy sauce to a boil over medium heat. Stir the cornstarch slurry and add to the pan, stirring constantly until the sauce thickens, about 1 minute. Pour into a small bowl and serve with the egg rolls.

Some egg roll making tips (don’t heed at your own risk!):

  1. Keep your egg roll wrappers frozen and defrost in the refrigerator for an hour or two, or on the counter for 3o minutes.
  2. If your wrappers dry out, cover with a damp towel and microwave on medium for 10 seconds. They should soften up but work quickly before they dry out again and keep covered with a damp towel!
  3. Allow your filling to cool completely before wrapping your egg rolls. A warm filling may cause your wrapper to soften and tear, and your egg roll to fall apart.
  4. Don’t overfill your wrapper or #3 will happen.
  5. Make sure your oil is at the optimum temp before you start frying. Otherwise your egg rolls will come out soggy instead of crisp.
  6. When frying, don’t overcrowd your pan, otherwise #5 will happen.
  7. You can freeze unfried or fried egg rolls. Lay them out in a single layer on a cookie sheet and freeze them for about an hour. Then transfer them to a ziptop bag and freeze for up to three months.
  8. When ready to eat, deep-fry the frozen egg rolls (don’t defrost) for 2 to 3 minutes (pre-fried) or 5 to 7 minutes (unfried).
  9. To warm up fried egg rolls (that have been refrigerated or kept at room temp), preheat your oven to 325 degrees F and heat for 8 to 10 minutes, or until crisp.

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Here are some other dishes to help usher in a happy and prosperous new year: