Come Lunar New Year, Chinese families celebrate with a huge meal that often takes days to prepare. And more is better; the idea is to fill the table with dishes that symbolize abundance and prosperity, says Hsiao-Ching Chou.
“You want to show abundance and have as many different types of food as possible, from land, from air, from sea,” said Chou, a former Seattle food writer. “And then there’s all these different layers of symbolism.”
Some of the dishes are homophones of words that symbolize good fortune, happiness or family, says Chou. Others just happen to be the right color.
“We have a bowl of oranges and other citrus, because the golden color symbolizes good fortune,” she said.
Homemade dumplings: A family affair
Perhaps the most nostalgic item on Chou’s family menu is the homemade dumplings — pockets of homemade dough filled with meat and Chinese cabbage.
The dumplings are a holiday staple, their bulbous shape reminiscent of gold ingot. And making them is a family project. Someone rolls out the dough into thin rounds while someone else fills and pinches them shut.
“It’s not meant to be a solitary thing. You usually have a room full of people, and a bunch of different people standing around a table and a counter,” said Chou.
This is how generations have learned this and many other family recipes, which are rarely written down, says Chou. She remembers watching her mother make them for years, and, once old enough, finally getting to help and learn. (Lucky for us, she has put together a recipe and a how-to video, seen below, due to popular demand.)
“My father used to say, ‘You have to learn how to make dumplings from your mom because how are you going to feed your husband someday?’ Very traditional he was. And I took that to heart — not just because I wanted to feed my husband one day, but because I wanted to learn how to make them because I loved to eat them,” Chou said.
In Chou’s kitchen, her mother, Ellen Chou, rolls the dough and Hsiao-Ching fills them.
“For 30 years, we’ve stood side by side, making dumplings. And she rolls out the wrappers, and I fill and pinch them,” Hsiao-Ching said.
These days, Hsiao-Ching’s children, 7-year-old Meilee and 4-year-old Shen, are also part of the production line. Their dumplings are flat, not bulbous like their mother’s. Still, their faces beam as they squeeze the dumplings shut and hold them up for their mother’s inspection.
Watching them work transforms Ellen back to her own childhood lessons.
“My sister and I, when we were little girls, we made all different shapes of the dumplings in the kitchen. And my mom would say, ‘Ohhh, this is dinner, not for you to play [with]!”’ she said.
After the wrapping comes Meilee and Shen’s favorite part: the dumplings get boiled, then served with dipping sauce.
“I think, to this day, homemade dumplings taste better than anything you find in a restaurant,” Hsiao-Ching said.
A whole fish (do not flip!)
A whole fish is another important staple for the holiday, says Hsiao-Ching. The type of fish isn’t so important; what matters is that it’s cooked and served whole.
Hsiao-Ching likes to steam a whole trout topped with thin slivers of ginger and scallion, and dressed with soy sauce, cooking wine and sesame oil. As she opens her aluminum steamer to remove the fish, an appetizing aroma fills her kitchen.
“You get the smell of the ginger and the onions, and the sauce. And you get hit with the sesame oil, which is fantastic,” she said.
It’s very important to keep the fish whole when cooking, and even when you’re eating, says Hsiao-Ching.
“You want to have the head and the tail … to symbolize a good beginning and a good end to the year, and also a year of prosperity,” she said. “You never want to flip the fish. Even after you’ve eaten the top layer of the fish, you never want to flip the fish, because that symbolizes bad luck. You don’t want to flip the ship, so to speak.”
‘Lion’s head’ meatballs, long noodles and whole vegetables
Also on the menu are lion’s head meatballs — softball-sized pork meatballs braised with heads of Chinese cabbage. The meatballs symbolize the lion’s head, and the long pieces of cabbage its mane.
Hsiao-Ching has added to the dish long cellophane noodles, another must-have on Lunar New Year.
“You keep those long, because you want to have symbolic noodles — long noodles for longevity,” said Chou. “So you have these meatballs, which represent family unity and abundance, and you have these noodles for a long life.”
Wholeness is a theme in this meal. Hsiao-Ching even serves the vegetables whole. She pre-steams whole baby bok choy and shiitake mushrooms, then later warms them in a wok with chicken broth and a dash of soy sauce.
On sticking fortunes and sticking to traditions
To finish the meal, Hsiao-Ching serves nian gao, or what’s known as New Year Cake.
“It’s not cake like we think of it in the western world; it’s more rice flour,” she said.
The gelatinous, steamed cake is available in a number of flavors (Hsiao-Ching likes red bean), and it takes a simple preparation.
“Slice it up, dip it into a little egg and hand fry it gently to warm it through. And it kind of softens, like the consistency of a mochi,” she said. “And the symbolism in that is ‘nian’ sounds like “sticky’ [in Chinese], and you want all your good fortunes to stick around.”
Preparing a traditional new year meal is no small task for a busy mom of two with a full-time job, but Hsiao-Ching hopes to keep the tradition alive for years to come.
“Now that I have kids, and we’re lucky enough to have my mom live with us, too, it is an evolution. It is also a cumulative experience, and it does bring us back to the history of all of this in our family,” she said.