While the Gregorian calendar New Year has passed, many people around the world are preparing for the Lunar New Year, more commonly referred to as Chinese New Year. The most important holiday in Asia is a two-week celebration filled with ancient and modern new year traditions and symbolic Chinese New Year food to prepare. 2017 marks the Year of the Rooster and the celebration of reunion and family traditions begins on January 28, 2017.
Banh chung is a labor of love and my Vietnamese friends remember their elders going through the process, but readily admit to buying packaged Banh Chung these days. I love learning about the food of different cultures and still remember Chef Haley Nguyen demonstrating the fine art of wrapping the square cakes of rice, mung bean, and pork in banana leaves and then boiling them. Click on the link to read more about the art of making Banh Chung.
Banh Chung is square-shaped and the Southern variety called Banh Tet (roll-shape) is unique to Vietnam’s Tet holiday. Banh Chung is a food made from glutinous rice, mung bean, and pork and is wrapped in green leaves (usually banana leaves) and symbolizes the Earth. Xoi (sticky rice) is always present as meals to worship the ancestors must include this dish. Xoi in Tet holidays can be seen in many forms: Xoi Lac (sticky rice with peanuts), Xoi Do Xanh (sticky rice with mung bean), and Xoi Gac (sticky rice with special “gac” fruit). Xoi Gac is favored because of its special red color – symbolizes the luck and new achievement for the New Year. Xoi is usually served with Gio Cha (Vietnamese ham or sausage) or Thit Ga (boiled or steamed chicken).
In 2014 and 2015 I was actually been able to celebrate Chinese New Year in Shanghai. Avenues are bustling with shoppers, store windows beckon you inside with glittering baubles and enticing discounts, and the city is swathed in a blaze of crimson.
The photo below was taken in the Zhouzhuang water village near Shanghai. It was moderately “foggy” (they don’t use the word “smog”) that day, but not as awful as it can get.
Chinese New Year Food
Symbolic foods play a huge part in the feasting during Chinese New Year; the most common Chinese foods include dumplings, fish, spring rolls, and niangao. Fish represents an prosperity, dumplings – wealth, spring rolls – wealth, glutinous rice cake – higher income or position, sweet rice balls – family togetherness, longevity noodles – happiness and longevity.
Throughout the first five days of the celebration, the Chinese consume tons of long noodles in hopes that they’ll translate into long life. Some dishes are even eaten simply because they have a lucky sounding name. For instance, fat choi, made of hair-like plants and pitch black, is an absolute must-eat for most Chinese families, and sounds like the phrase “get richer” in the local lingo. Often fat choi is served alongside ho shi, dehydrated oysters whose Chinese name bears a strong resemblance to the sounds for “good events.”.
Nowadays, dumplings, jiao zhi 餃子, are the major food on the New Year’s Eve and the first meal on the first and the fifth day of New Year.
Families traditionally spend New Year’s Eve preparing the dumplings and will eat them at midnight. It’s a custom that dates back to the Ming and Qing Dynasties. The dumpling is shaped like an ingot, which personifies wealth. The saying associated with dumpings, or jiao zhi 餃子, is “gen shui jiao zhi” 更歲交子, or “ring out the old year and ring in the new.” Legend has it that the more dumplings you eat during New Year celebration, the more money you can make in the upcoming cycle.
On the final day of the festivities, everyone dines on nian gao, sweet rice cakes, or “go.” Shaped like the full moon (and eaten on the full moon) these glutinous cakes are shared amongst family and friends as a sign of unity. In this case the word “go” sounds similar to the word for “high.” For the Chinese, this translates as doing all things in life at the highest level; careers, education, etc.
Grilled Whole Fish for Chinese New Year
Eating fish is a tradition on Chinese New Years Eve and Grilled Whole Red Snapper is not only delicious but comes together quickly and makes a stunning presentation. My signature recipe for Chinese New Year is Grilled Whole Red Snapper with Ginger Soy Sauce.
- 3 whole red snapper* cleaned and scaled
- 1 bunch of green onions washed and sliced into 1½ pieces
- 2 limes sliced
- 1 bunch cilantro stems removed
- For the Sauce:
- ⅓ cup of low sodium soy sauce *
- 1 tablespoon grated ginger
- 1 tablespoon of rice wine vinegar
- red chile flakes optional
Heat the grill to medium-high. A heavy grill pan can be used for grilling inside.
Oil the outside of the fish with sesame oil and stuff fresh cilantro and sliced lime inside the fish cavity. Other herbs and lemon can easily be substituted.
Whisk together the soy sauce, ginger, rice wine vinegar and chile flakes.
Place the fish on a rimless cookie sheet and slide onto the grill. Grill with lid closed for 6-8 minutes, depending on thickness. Flip and grill on the second side until the flesh is opaque (white) and flakes easily, another 6-8 minutes. Remove the fish from the grill using a fish spatula and slide onto the cookie sheet. Serve with sauce and additional sliced green onions.
*Allow one fish per person. I use Coconut Aminos (paleo) which are lower in sodium than low-sodium soy sauce. You can purchase Coconut Aminos at a natural foods store.
Other Chinese New Year foods perfect for your celebration:
Gong Xi Fa Cai!
Happy Chinese New Year!
The Chinese Zodiac website predicts:
The Rooster, the tenth Chinese zodiac sign, gives the year that just begins some of the characteristics of the bird it has as a symbol: ambition, pride, the desire to be admired, punctuality, courage, passion and a well-developed disposition for love and seduction. At the same time, during the year that has just started, an increase in enthusiasm, perseverance and auto-control will be felt. The relationships between people will be under the sign of great honesty. We will all prove to have more passion in life, especially regarding work, where we will not hesitate to roll up our sleeves in order to reach our objectives. “Always higher, always going on” is the motto of the Rooster and it will inspire all of us. Braver than usually, we will not be defeated by difficulties and adversities. However, we will have to maintain our spirit’s flexibility, because under the influence of this king of the yard, which, according to Chinese people, is very conservative, we risk being inflexible and refuse changing ideas or life strategies, even though they might be inadequate for the future. Regarding love, times will be intense and full of passion. We will feel the desire to overwhelm our loved ones and to be overwhelmed by them. Those with a free heart will search for happiness with more partners, but those that are already in love will choose loyalty, proving great tenderness.
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