A Guide to Celebrating the Chinese Lunar New Year at Home

[Photographs: Shao Z.]

This Friday, February 12, is Lunar New Year or, as I like to call it, Thanksgiving part deux. Sure, it kicks off the new year but, like Thanksgiving, it's really about having family come together and celebrate with lots of good food. The holiday itself is observed in many countries throughout Asia, from Korea to China to Vietnam, and each has slightly different traditions. Here are a few of the practices most common in China (because traditions vary from region to region, it's far from an exhaustive list, though).

Preparing for the New Year

Giving your home a good cleaning a day or two before the New Year is a common practice. New Year's day itself is all about celebrating, so no cleaning should be done then. Decorations should be in bright, cheerful colors. Citruses such as tangerines, oranges, and pomelos are set on a platter and put on display—they symbolize prosperity and good luck.

In Chinese families, there's usually a red platter filled with dried sweet fruits such as lotus seeds, lotus root, melon seeds, and coconut, and families and friends who visit the house are encouraged to enjoy them. My mom would also always place two red envelopes on the platter as colorful decoration.

Superstitions

Every culture has them, and during the Lunar New Year it's even more important to know what they are. In general, it's bad luck to mention death, pain, debt, and basically anything else that's unpleasant. On the flip side, it's good to dress up in cheerful colors, like red, and new clothing. In Chinese culture, it's bad luck to wash your hair the day of the New Year, so shampooing must be done the night before. Also, there should be no yelling and shouting, so keep those tempers in check! Nobody wants to start the new year with a fight.

The Food

Now that we've covered all that other stuff, let's get to what we're really interested in: the food!

Mealtime is one of the most important parts of the Lunar New Year celebrations. But unlike the turkey served for Thanksgiving, there really isn't one main dish that defines the Lunar New Year. We have some popular recipes for the Chinese Lunar New Year if you want to get cooking right away, but it's worth noting that different countries serve different cuisines, and different regions, specifically in China, also have their own local dishes for the celebration.

Dumplings wrapped with wheat flour wrappers are a popular item for Northern Chinese families, while in the Southern regions and Hong Kong, families tend to make turnip cake (law bok gow), a savory and wonderfully glutinous dish that's made with daikon radish and studded with various types of pork and shrimp. Rice cake, meanwhile, is popular in both Korea and China during the New Year. In China, depending on what region you're in, rice cake could be white or amber in color, and either steamed or stir-fried.

If anything, whole fish is the most common sight, and it's often a centerpiece of the New Year table—especially at Reunion dinner, which is held on New Year's eve. My mom used to make two simple, steamed whole fish that she'd top with scallions, ginger, and cilantro; one we'd eat for Reunion dinner, the other would be leftovers for New Year's day—it was considered good luck to have leftovers going into the new year. I love this steamed whole fish recipe, similar to my mother's, but with garlic and fermented black beans added for even more flavor.

One final dish that I love to have on the New Year's table is mushrooms with tofu and mustard greens. It's a vegetarian dish that's my own spin on a classic New Year's offering: abalone with dried oysters and shiitake. Mine doesn't have seafood like the original, but I promise it's just as tasty.

For more ideas, take a look at these great appetizers for a Chinese New Year feast.

Traditions, superstitions, and food may vary from one country and region to the next, but the important part of all these celebrations is family and friends. So make sure to decorate your space with a platter of citrus, wear something red or colorful, have a feast, and celebrate with family and friends you love.

See eight more lucky recipes to ring in the Chinese New Year »