By Lisa Lin and Hetty Lui McKinnon
Lunar New Year is celebrated by more than 1 billion people across the globe. Before the coronavirus pandemic, it was known as the world’s largest annual migration, with people traveling home for family reunions and feasting.
While Lunar New Year is commonly represented as a Chinese holiday, the tradition is much more far-reaching. Celebrated as a spring festival in many Asian countries, Lunar New Year symbolizes and embodies a hopeful transition from the cold winter to the season of renewal. Food, of course, plays a significant role. For Vietnam’s Tết Nguyên Đán, which means “feast for the first morning,” families prepare bánh chưng, a traditional sticky rice dish, and mứt tết, a tray of sweets, placing them at a family altar as a sign of respect to ancestors. In Korea, the three-day festival Seollal features rituals of ancestor reverence, along with eating tteok guk (rice cake soup), which symbolizes that you are officially a year older, with hopes for another prosperous year ahead. The raw fish dish yusheng, also known as “prosperity toss salad,” is traditional to the celebrations of the Chinese diaspora in Malaysia and Singapore, while kue nastar (pineapple tarts) are eaten during Tahun Baru Imlek, the new year festival in Indonesia. In Taiwan, families gather for hot pot, a perfect meal for bonding around the table.
Despite its ancient origins, Lunar New Year has endured as a culturally significant and deeply personal celebration in Asia and among the Asian diaspora across the world. Some of the world’s biggest Lunar New Year celebrations are now held outside of Asia, with one of the most noteworthy in San Francisco. While elders have passed on the rich traditions and rituals of the holiday, the children of immigrants are paving the way with modern celebrations in the West that seamlessly fuse past and present. While not identical to those of their elders, their celebrations possess a fierce commitment to preserving their cultural histories, with common themes of coming together with family and friends, enjoying food and, most importantly, paying respects to ancestors.
Asian chefs and celebrities discuss the role food plays in their lives.
We talked to five cooks from five Asian cultures about what Lunar New Year means to them and what recipe best represents their celebration.
Mứt tết, a tray of beautiful candied fruit, vegetables, nuts, seeds and other candies, is the centerpiece of every celebration of Tết, the Vietnamese New Year. Doris Hồ-Kane, founder of the Vietnamese American bakery Bạn Bè in New York City, vividly describes her childhood mứt tết: exquisite mứt tắc (candied kumquat) with eyelets cut into them, flattened trái hồng (Fuyu persimmon) and squiggles of candied coconut, dyed in the palest pinks and greens. Tasting sweet foods on the first day of the lunar year is ripe with symbolism, she explains.
“All of this dramatic, picturesque, sugary beauty represents loving deference to our ancestors, the arrival of spring, good luck, happiness and growth,” she says. “My favorite memory is watching my bà ngoại [maternal grandmother] light incense at the altar, the plumes of jasmine-scented smoke caressing her face and the vessel of candies and food she had worked so hard preparing.”
For her mứt tết, Hồ-Kane makes kẹo mè xửng, a chewy sesame candy, adapted from the version she grew up eating. Her family usually bought it, but she decided to make her own and to make it less sweet, adding ginger and a hint of orange zest, a nod to her family’s mứt.
“In my family, oranges are an integral part of the five-fruit tray we set on the altar during Tết. In Vietnamese, we say, ‘Ăn quả nhớ kẻ trồng cây’ [‘When eating fruit, you should think of the person who grew it’] to be mindful of where our nourishment comes from. It’s a salient reminder. I always try to incorporate fruit into things I make.”
She sees her work as a “personally healing practice for me as a daughter of boat people. Being able to commune with my auntie ancestors every day is incredible motivation. An honor, too.”
Make this recipe: Keo Me Xung Dau Phong Gung (Chewy Ginger Peanut Sesame Candy).
Hồ-Kane’s acts of preservation extend to safeguarding the traditions and rituals of her upbringing for her three young children.
“For Tết, we do abbreviated versions of everything that my parents and grandma once did. We always hand out lì xì [lucky money], but we skip the gambling game. We make bánh chưng [sticky rice cake], but instead of boiling it for seven hours, we use an Instant Pot. We make mứt and kẹo but don’t put out extravagant platters of food on the altar. It’s a mini Tết, Brooklyn brownstone-style. I aim to preserve and pass along these customs and traditions to my children, but being first-generation Vietnamese American, I’ve made a mishmash of things. I hope my way still celebrates the essence and significance of the Lunar New Year.”
During Seollal, the Korean Lunar New Year, families pay respects to elders, past and present. The three-day holiday is moored in sacred rituals centered on ancestor worship, such as the jesa ceremony, which is believed to strengthen the bond between the living and the deceased. Jesa rituals vary from one family to another, but they typically involve a feast prepared by the women in a family.
For Korean-born James Park, the jesa table is a cherished part of his family’s Seollal celebrations.
“My aunties and my mom … spent days preparing all different types of jeons [Korean pan-fried savory pancakes] and other dishes for the Seollal jesa,” says Park, video producer at the Kitchn. “I loved smelling the delicious grease whenever I visited my uncle’s house during this time. After the main jesa on Lunar New Year, my brother and I would visit the houses of other distant family members and participate in their jesa.”
Park’s family hails from Gyeongsang province in the southern part of the Korean Peninsula, bordering the East Sea. According to Park, a hearty beef and daikon soup called tang-guk is a “quintessential dish” on his family’s jesa table.
“The recipe has only a handful of ingredients but creates such a nice, comforting flavor at the end. The soup decidedly doesn’t have any spice because there shouldn’t be anything spicy on the jesa table. My mom wasn’t much of a cook, so I don’t have a lot of dishes that I crave from my mom. But this soup is one of a few dishes that I love my mom’s version the most. She always made a big pot of tang-guk, and we would eat this for days, and no one in the family complained.”
Make this recipe: Tang-Guk (Beef and Radish Soup)
Now, living in New York City, a long way from his family, Park has found ingenious ways to ensure that Seollal remains an important part of his life, a way to stay connected with the rituals and customs that he grew up with.
“I still bow to my parents on Lunar New Year through FaceTime, wishing them another wonderful year. They don’t give me sebaet don [money] anymore, and when you grow up, children start to give sebaet don to the parents to thank them after the bow.”
In Singapore, where cookbook author Sharon Wee grew up, Lunar New Year was an elaborate affair. Wee comes from a family of Peranakans, a community whose ancestry goes back to some of the earliest southern Chinese settlers who migrated to various parts of Southeast Asia, predominantly Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia. Over time, these settlers developed a distinct culture that combined Chinese and local influences.
On New Year’s Eve, Wee’s family gathered for a reunion dinner, consisting of steamboats (hot pot) and a sampling of the delectable foods that Wee’s mother prepared for the big meal on New Year’s Day.
Wee recalls her family working fervently to prepare the household for the new year. Everything needed to be tidy and new. That meant thoroughly cleaning the house, putting out fresh linens, decorating the house with plants and long red banners, and arranging biscuits and homemade pineapple tarts in Corningware containers for guests.
On New Year’s Day, Wee’s family woke up to the aromas of her mother’s cooking wafting from the kitchen. Wee remembers the scents of five spice, fried oil, coconut, chili, lemongrass and belacan shrimp paste swirling in the air. Everyone wore their brand new (often red) outfits and donned special-occasion jewelry. The children and grandchildren knelt before their elders and wished them “Panjang panjang umor,” or long life. The elderly, single adults and young children in the family also received ang pow, red envelopes filled with crisp bank notes.
Makes this recipe: Ngo Hiang (Five-Spice Pork and Shrimp Rolls)
During lunch, it was customary to gather around the tok panjang, the long table where guests dined. The food included classic dishes and foods that symbolized auspicious sayings, such as chap chye (cloud ear fungus, Chinese mushrooms and black moss for good luck); fish dishes such as the soup hee pio to symbolize abundance; and ngo hiang (pork with five spice, rolled in bean curd sheets and fried).
Although Wee lives in New York City now, she still hosts a Lunar New Year gathering where she prepares Peranakan dishes and other new year foods from the Chinese diaspora. To Wee, Lunar New Year marks a “rebirth of new habits,” and she insists that her family get fresh haircuts and buy new underwear. As Wee explains: “It is important to me that I demonstrate the New Year traditions to my children, so that they too will eventually pass those on down the generations. It was one of the most enduring parts of my life and my family culture.”
Born in Indonesia, cookbook author Pat Tanumihardja recalls celebrating simple traditions during Tahun Baru Imlek, the name for Lunar New Year in Indonesia. Although Tanumihardja’s parents have Chinese and Indonesian heritage, the family didn’t celebrate the holiday when they lived in Indonesia decades ago because the government suppressed Chinese culture. Consequently, Tanumihardja’s family didn’t start celebrating the holiday until they resettled in Singapore, when Tanumihardja was still young.
On the eve of Lunar New Year, Tanumihardja’s family gathered at her great-aunt’s home for a reunion dinner, which consisted of a steamboat, or hot pot. After the meal, the children eagerly received hong bao, red envelopes filled with money. Tanumihardja’s mother also bought red-and-gold outfits for the children and decorated the house with arrangements of bright red, orange and yellow flowers.
During the 15-day celebration, Tanumihardja’s parents hosted a gathering for other Indonesian families in the community. Her family also visited relatives and friends, bringing oranges and pineapple tarts as gifts.
In Southeast Asia, people often make or buy the tarts to celebrate the new year. “Pineapple is prolific in Southeast Asia, and to the Chinese, pineapple represents wealth and good luck,” she says. “In Hokkien [Fujian], a very popular dialect among Chinese in Singapore and Indonesia, pineapple is ‘ong lai’ and means good fortune will come.”
The name and shape of the tarts vary depending on the region. In Indonesia, they are called kue nastar, and they are spherical cookies made of thick pineapple jam encased in a buttery pastry. The word “kue” means cake or tart. “Nastar” combines the Indonesian word for pineapple (nanas) and the Dutch word for tart (taart), a remnant of the colonial legacy.
Make this recipe: Kue Nastar (Indonesian Pineapple Tarts)
The last day of Imlek is called Cap Go Meh, which means “the 15th night.” Tanumihardja recalls her mother preparing a food spread that included sayur lodeh (vegetable coconut soup), lontong (pressed rice cakes), opor ayam (white chicken curry) and telur pindang (similar to Chinese tea eggs).
Tanumihardja, who lives in West Springfield, Va., maintains the tradition of passing out hong bao and cooking New Year’s foods with her children, such as dumplings, chicken, long-life noodles and fish. “I’m a little sad that Lunar New Year doesn’t play a bigger role in my life anymore, but I see it as an opportunity to teach my son a little about our Chinese culture. He definitely looks forward to getting red packets.”
In Taiwanese culture, Lunar New Year is known as 農曆新年 (nong li xin nian), a 15-day celebration that ends with the Lantern Festival, 元宵節 (yuan xiao jie). Cookbook author Irvin Lin’s parents, who were born and raised in Taiwan, recall Lunar New Year being a major celebration that everyone took part in. As immigrants raising three children in the Midwest during the 1970s, Lin’s parents strove to maintain the holiday’s traditions, albeit in a more simplified fashion.
Every year, they prepared a large hot pot dinner for the family. “It was always casual but signified a special event,” he says. Lin’s mother prepared all the ingredients: vegetables, cellophane (a.k.a. glass) noodles, fish balls and cakes, shrimp, scallops, pork and beef. When it came time to cook the hot pot, Lin’s father took over. He pulled out their 1970s mustard yellow plug-in electric skillet that seemed on the verge of overheating with each use. Then, he added oil, green onions, chicken broth and all the other ingredients in a specific order to build layers of flavor within the simmering broth. In addition to hot pot, Lin’s mother prepared an array of side dishes, which included turnip cake, 菜頭粿 (tsai tao kui).
Although Lin fondly remembers these traditions, he admits that the holiday is something that he embraced more as he got older. Growing up in the Midwest, Lin was one of very few Asian students in his school, and Lunar New Year was more of a side note, “something that came and went and was marked by hot pot, red envelopes and the occasional party with the Taiwanese Association.”
Make this recipe: Tsai Tao Kui (Taiwanese Turnip Cake)
After living for more than 20 years in San Francisco, where he is surrounded by Asians who celebrate Lunar New Year, Lin finds that he is “more in touch with my heritage and being Taiwanese.”
“For me, Lunar New Year is often a time that I can see my parents, one free of pressures to do anything specific,” he says. “We still do hot pot. My mom still preps the ingredients. My dad still cooks it, though thankfully he upgraded to an electric skillet that won’t burn down the house. Traditions that I never really thought about have more meaning to me now, especially as my parents get older. So, for that, Lunar New Year has become a bit of a special time for me. One that I look forward to every year.”