On Sunday, when many Americans are breaking open heart-shaped boxes of chocolates, a good chunk of the world will be more focused on the Lunar New Year. Throughout China and other Asian countries, the turning of the lunar calendar—2010 is the Year of the Tiger—is one of the biggest celebrations of the year. The festivities go on for several weeks, and food is central to the observance.
I asked my friend Catherine Kai-Lin Shu, who lives in Taipei and writes a blog called Shu Flies, about new year dishes in Taiwan. She explains that a lot of the foods eaten for the Lunar New Year are homophones for "auspicious" words: "Fish is served because the Mandarin for fish sounds the same as the word for 'more' or 'abundance.' Niangao are flat sticky white noodles... 'nian' and 'gao' sound like the words for 'year' and 'high,' which combined symbolizes prosperity and luck." Niangao is often called new year cake in English, and can be found in different shapes and flavors. According to legend (and this recipe), the glutinous rice treat is offered to the Kitchen God as a bribe, or "so his mouth would be so busy chewing the sticky cake that he won't be able to report unfavorably on your family to the Jade Emperor."
Sticky rice cakes, called banh chung and banh tet, are also eaten during the Vietnamese version of the holiday, Tet. These are stuffed with mung beans and pork, and are often wrapped in banana leaves.
In Taiwan, mandarin oranges are all over the place at the new year, Catherine says, "probably because they are in season (and maybe because their name, jinju, means golden orange, the gold being the lucky part). Noodle soup is popular and you are supposed to slurp the noodles whole instead of chomping on them because they symbolize long life. For dessert, we usually get tangyuan, or soup dumplings filled with sweet sesame paste. The latter is supposed to be lucky because 'yuan' sounds the same as the word for money." Sounds like "yummy" to me.
The Lunar New Year is also a time for visiting the homes of elder relatives, Catherine says. "Snacks are set out, often in special multi-compartment dishes. These include dried melon seeds (lots and lots of dried melon seeds), mandarin oranges, beef jerky, dried plums and guava strips and candy. If I'm lucky, there's chocolate. There are markets set up to sell these things. The most famous one in Taipei is Dihua St."
Making dumplings called jiaozi is a family project. Catherine recalls that when she was growing up, her Taiwanese-American family would gather to prepare them. "You take the dumpling skins, put a spoonful of ground pork filling in it and then pinch the edge of the skin together in dainty little pleats. Then everyone eats the dumplings for dinner (after cooking them, of course)." If you'd like to try them yourself (perhaps with your Valentine), here's a recipe with step-by-step photos.
Unlike New Year's Eve in Western cultures, alcohol is not the focal point of Chinese New Year celebrations. However, if you'd like to toast the Year of the Tiger, try the Lucky Tiger Cocktail suggested by Chow.