I love a good food-centric holiday, so while I'm not Chinese, Vietnamese, or Korean you can bet I'll be cooking up a storm when the Lunar New Year* rolls around next Friday, January 31. And if you or your family are from one of those countries, chances are you, too, will be gathering with friends and relatives to feast and spread goodwill for the year to come.
*Or, more accurately, a lunar new year, since Jewish, Muslim, and a number of Southeast Asian cultures celebrate the new year on other dates.
Because traditions vary from region to region and home to home, this isn't a holiday that comes with a prescribed menu. But there are still a few loosely agreed-upon practices, and we've pulled together some of our favorite symbolic dishes commonly enjoyed during the Chinese New Year. For more about other Asian Lunar New Year dishes, check out some of our past recipe collections for inspiration and be sure to share your favorite dishes in the comments section below!
Nian Gao (Rice Cakes)
A number of traditional Chinese New Year dishes are celebrated for their homophonic significance. Spoken aloud, nian gao can be translated to mean both "sticky cake" and "higher year" (or a combination thereof), so it's no surprise that the tacky rice patties are an especially popular component of the holiday spread. Many homes sweeten the base of glutinous rice with Chinese brown candy and steam the cakes for a delightfully sticky dessert. Elsewhere—primarily in Shanghai—unsweetened nian gao are incorporated into any number of dishes, from soups to stir-fries, like this simple rendition with bok choy and pork.
How your long noodles are ultimately served is open to personal preference. The real emphasis here is on length (to signify longevity), so no snapping those noodles in half! We're big fans of these Sichuan-style dan dan noodles, but our Chinese noodles with sriracha-glazed ribs are nothing to scoff at, either.
Homemade jiaozi (dumplings) are a Northern Chinese tradition; for the Lunar New Year, they're commonly wrapped in a coin shape to symbolize wealth. But if you're not a master of dumpling shapes, there's no need to fret. Try our fried pork dumpling recipe or get fancy with some soup dumplings—either way, we have step-by-step directions to take you through the process from start to finish. Ultimately, the point is fun with family and friends, and there's no better way to guarantee the evening's success than by making it a communal process. Check out our complete guide to throwing a dumpling party!
Whole Fish and Chicken
Both "fish" and "wealth" get a similar pronunciation in Mandarin (yu), for another homophone-based Lunar New Year classic. Whether steamed, grilled, or fried, it's usually served whole to symbolize a positive start and end to the year; many believe that it will help your wishes come true over the months ahead. But if you're not up for taking on an entire fish, we won't tell—just give these marinated and seared turmeric-seasoned fillets a shot!
Other whole animals—most commonly chicken—are thought to symbolize completeness and the togetherness of a family or community. As with fish, those adhering more strictly to tradition will want to keep the head and feet on their bird. Seasoning is flexible, but for moist, flavorful results, make sure to read through our guide to roasting chicken.
Clams don't just stand for prosperity; they're a quick and easy appetizer to feed a crowd. Turn this version, made with black bean sauce and bok choy, into a double-whammy by serving it over noodles.
Healthful and cleansing vegetable dishes also make a prominent appearance on Lunar New Year tables. Like noodles, long beans (like these Sichuan dry-fried yardlong beans) are enjoyed for longevity. Leeks, on the other hand, and "calculating" are a homophones that lend an auspiciousness to the ingredient. Try them grilled with an Asian vinaigrette or switch them out for these stir-fried Chinese chives.
Ba bao fan, or "Eight Treasure Rice," pairs glutinous rice with red bean paste and a variety of dried fruits and nuts. Eight different kinds, to be specific. Traditionally, the fruits and nuts, which go along the bottom of a bowl, are bound with the rice and the red bean paste is carefully placed in the middle. Then you invert the cooked rice onto a plate, resulting in a dome of rice with mosaic-like patterns. To top it all off, the whole concoction gets drenched in a sugar syrup. Why eight? Eight is a lucky number in Chinese culture, a homophone for various other words with positive connotations. Our rendition is a simplified version of the classic, but for those committed to tradition, adding in the requisite number of ingredients is a cinch.
We may not have recipes for other classic Lunar New Year desserts, but that doesn't mean we can't at least give a nod to tradition. Swap taro cakes for taro ice cream that highlights the tuber's light, nutty flavor. Or celebrate the practice of exchanging oranges in a black sesame and orange ice cream. Prefer to ward off the chill? Candy your citrus for a rich and creamy orange blossom cheesecake, instead.
There's no right or wrong drink for the Lunar New Year (so long as you make sure to enjoy it in abundance), but we do have plenty of tips on how to pair your beverages with Chinese flavor profiles. See our guide to beer pairings for Chinese food or find out which wines sommeliers recommend. We've even got wine pairing tips in illustrated form! But liquor lovers should take a sip of this pomelo and basil gin cocktail, for a final Lunar New Year homophone—the word for pomelo sounds like the word "to have."
No matter how you're celebrating, the Serious Eats team wishes you a happy and healthy New Year!
About the author: Niki Achitoff-Gray is the associate editor of Serious Eats and a recent graduate of the Institute of Culinary Education. She's pretty big into oysters, offal, and most edible things. You can follow her on Twitter at @eatandcry.