"May your coming year be filled with love, good health, and rice cakes."
This Thursday is Lunar New Year, which, if you're Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean, or just a festive person, means you'll probably be eating with friends and family.
Unlike American holidays such as Thanksgiving, where it's assumed you'll be eating turkey cranberry sauce, Lunar New Year doesn't have specific holiday foods, per se. No single dish can represent the diverse practices of each Asian cuisine. Feasting with loved ones is the most important part!
In Northern China families might gather together to make homemade jiaozi (dumplings with a wheat flour wrapper) whereas Southern Chinese families, like mine, are more likely to cook something with rice.
Just as I always eat long noodles on my birthday (to signify longevity), it's considered lucky to eat rice cakes for the New Year. Nian ("year" in Chinese) appears in the word for rice cakes ("nian gao"). So it's no coincidence that they're enjoyed throughout Lunar New Year. While the seafood, meat, and vegetable dishes vary, stir-fried nian gao is the only dish my mother cooks every Chinese New Year.
Nian gao is a versatile ingredient. If you simmer it for soups, you get a chewy, starchy ingredient that complements a variety of broths. Stir-fried, nian gao is more indulgent because you have to add lots of oil to the wok to prevent the slices from sticking to each another. And, let's be honest, because oily stuff tastes delicious, it's even more festive, representing the bounty and wealth of the coming year.
Nian gao, slick with a generous coating of oil, is so much the highlight of the dish that the other ingredients in the wok—the meat, seafood, and vegetables—are just going along for the ride so you have something to chomp on between rice cake bites. The basic principles of stir-frying apply to this dish, except you'll be drizzling in extra spoonfuls of oil.
At Chinese markets, you'll find dried nian gao in the noodle aisle or fresh nian gao in the refrigerated sections. These days, you can get packages of brown rice nian gao, which have a subtly grainy mouthfeel that makes them even more fun to chew. If you buy dried nian gao, soak them overnight before using them for your stir-fry.
Happy New Year. May your coming year be filled with love, good health, and rice cakes. And please share what you'll be feasting on while celebrating!