It’s time to bid farewell to the Year of the Monkey and usher in the Year of the Rooster. Chinese New Year, the most important traditional holiday in Chinese culture, begins Saturday.
What was for centuries a purely local celebration in China has now become a global holiday, with families across the world coming together to ring in the New Year on the lunar calendar.
In China, the official celebration lasts seven days, although traditional Chinese New Year is observed in some areas for upwards of two weeks or longer. Here in the United States, many Chinese-American families still celebrate with get-togethers and gifts.
“Today, most Chinese-American families gather at a Chinese restaurant sometime during the two week New Year’s celebration,” says Grace Young, author of three books on Chinese cooking, including the award-winning “Stir-Frying to the Sky’s Edge.” “My parents always cooked the meal at home on New Year’s eve but such old-fashioned traditions have really disappeared.”
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A typical Chinese New Year meal would be chock-full of foods meant to bring prosperity, wealth, longevity, even fertility in the new year.
“We cook a lot of very symbolic food,” says Kian Lam Kho, creator of the popular Chinese cooking website Redcook.net. Kho is speaking at a Feb. 3 luncheon at Fearrington Village about his award-winning cookbook, “Phoenix Claws and Jade Trees.”
Common foods found at a typical Chinese New Year celebration might include dumplings, scallops, lettuce or clams for prosperity, shrimp for happiness, noodles for longevity, and chicken to represent a proper beginning and end to the year. Fish is another important, and symbolic, part of any New Year meal.
“Fish is a very universal symbol all over China,” says Kho. “The pronunciation is similar to how you say ‘leftover’ and symbolizes plentifulness.”
As families come together to celebrate Chinese New Year, many will give gifts of money in small red envelopes as well as tangerines or oranges to symbolize good luck. They will also pay close attention to how many dishes are served for the meal.
“For the big feast, many families eat eight or nine dishes because eight represents prosperity and nine symbolizes infinity,” says Young. “Never eat four or seven dishes. Four sounds like the word for death and seven is the celestial number for the deceased.”
There are a number of ways you can celebrate the Chinese New Year in the Triangle. Gather the family for a big meal that includes chicken, fish, noodles or shrimp at a restaurant or home. Try your hand at Young’s recipe for “Stir-Fried Garlic Lettuce.” This symbolic dish is easy to prepare and represents prosperity and good fortune.
“If you don’t have time for a New Year’s dinner, a few specialties that are typically found in a dim sum restaurant are a must to eat on New Year’s day,” advises Young. She recommend dishes like sesame balls (zin deoi), taro root cake (wu tau gou), and turnip cake (lo baak gou).
“All are made with rice flour and expand after cooking, which represents rising fortunes,” Young explains. “The roundness of the sesame balls and the cakes symbolize family unity and cohesiveness.”
Or head to the state fairgrounds in Raleigh on Saturday for the Triangle Area Chinese American Society’s annual Chinese New Year festival. There will be children’s activities, shopping, performances and, of course, lots and lots of food.
Matt Lardie is a Durham-based food and travel writer. Reach him at email@example.com.
Dining and Shopping
Dim Sum Restaurants:
▪ Dim Sum House, 100 Jerusalem Dr. #104, Morrisville, 919-380-3087, dimsumhousemorrisville.com
▪ Golden Palace, 4420 Capital Blvd., Raleigh, 919-900-7665, goldenpalaceraleigh.com
▪ Hong Kong Chinese Restaurant, 3003 Guess Road, Durham, 919-479-8339, hongkongdimsumindurham.com
▪ Grand Asia Market, 1253 Buck Jones Road, Raleigh, 919-468-2988, grandasiamarket.com
▪ H Mart, 1961 High House Road, Cary, 919-535-5900, nj.hmart.com/stores
▪ Li Ming’s Global Mart, 3400 Westgate Dr., Durham, 919-401-5212, lm-globalmart.com
Here are some upcoming events to help celebrate Chinese New Year:
▪ TACAS Chinese New Year Festival is 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Jan. 28 at Dorton Arena at the N.C. State Fairgrounds in Raleigh. Cost: $5. For more information and advance tickets, visit nctacas.org
▪ At the first Chapel Hill Chinese New Year LIGHTUP Lantern Festival, celebrating the Chinese New Year and the town’s cultural diversity, you can create your own lantern, experience Dragon Dancing, authentic Chinese food and more. 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Jan. 28 at University Place, 201 S. Estes Dr., Chapel Hill. There is no admission fee. More info at chlightup.org.
▪ Cookbook author Kian Lam Kho, who wrote “Phoenix Claws and Jade Trees,” is speaking at a luncheon at The Granary in Fearrington Village at 1 p.m. Feb. 3. Tickets are $75 per person and include lunch, a copy of the cookbook, service fee, and tax. Call 919-542-3030. Info: fearrington.com/event/kho-lunch
Stir-Fried Garlic Lettuce
Cookbook author Grace Young recommends a roasted or toasted sesame-oil. From “Stir-Frying to the Sky’s Edge” by Grace Young (Simon and Schuster, 2010).
1 tablespoon Shaoxing rice wine or dry sherry
1 tablespoon soy sauce
3/4 teaspoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
5 medium garlic cloves, smashed and peeled
1 pound hearts of romaine lettuce, cut crosswise into 1-inch-wide pieces
1 teaspoon sesame oil
Combine the rice wine or sherry, soy sauce, sugar and salt in a small bowl.
Heat a 14-inch flat-bottomed wok over high heat until a bead of water vaporizes within 1 to 2 seconds of contact. Swirl in the vegetable oil, add the garlic, and stir-fry for 5 seconds. Add the lettuce and stir-fry for 1 to 2 minutes, or until it is just limp. Stir the sauce, swirl it into the wok, and stir-fry for 30 seconds to 1 minute more, or until the lettuce is just tender and still bright green. Remove from the heat, drizzle on the sesame oil, and serve.
Yield: 4 servings