Because of the Lunar New Year’s distinct ties to food, we asked chefs to share their memories of the holiday, along with how they celebrate with their favorite foods now.
Hannah and Marian Cheng
Mimi Cheng’s, New York City
In Rockland County, New York, Lunar New Year was a big deal for Hannah and Marian Cheng. The sisters are founders of Mimi Cheng’s, a collection of Taiwanese dumpling shops around New York City that focus on serving their mother’s recipes. For the sisters, preparing the Lunar New Year’s symbolic food was one of the most important parts of the holiday.
“For example, you always have to eat dumplings, because it looks like a traditional ancient gold coin,” Hannah says. “And you had to be extra careful that [longevity noodles] were long, and that you didn’t cut them, because if you cut them, that meant cutting your life short.”
Hannah’s favorite Lunar New Year dish was nian gao, a sticky rice cake similar to mochi with red bean paste inside. Marian’s favorite was her mom’s pork wontons, which they’d cook in a hot pot and serve with cilantro and spicy sauces. The hot pot served as a conduit for special Lunar New Year ingredients like dumplings and noodles. The holiday served as a conduit to get the Cheng family and family friends together to celebrate. They’d practice Mandarin and eat.
For those without a Lunar New Year tradition of their own, Marian recommends grabbing as many people as possible for your Chinese or Taiwanese dinner — not only to capture the convivial spirit, but so that you can order more food to share, family-style.
Vea Restaurant and Lounge, Hong Kong
As a kid, Vicky Cheng most looked forward to Lunar New Year for the promise of getting pocket money from red envelopes.
“As you get older and older, you realize that it isn’t about the money, but it is actually about bringing the families together,” says Cheng, a Hong Kong native and chef of the Michelin-starred Vea Restaurant and Lounge. “In terms of food, it’s always about having big celebratory dishes. It’s also not just what you eat. It’s also about how it’s cooked and how it’s presented."
Cheng’s family would go to restaurants to eat dishes like whole chicken or a whole fish, the latter served with the head and tail on the plate to go with a Chinese idiom that means “to finish what you started” and to symbolize surplus. To pair with the phrase “gung hei fat choy,” a well-wish for prosperity, there was the dish ho see fat choy, with dried oysters and black moss kelp.
While the foods are eaten for their name and flavor, they’re also special because they’re rarely eaten outside of the celebration.
Fat choy “is not a dish that we eat all the time, it’s a dish that we eat during this time of the year, because it’s the first day of the year,” Cheng says. “We believe for the first day of the year you must eat well, because [then] the rest of the year you’ll eat well.”
Mister Jiu’s, San Francisco
For Brandon Jew, chef and owner of the Michelin-starred Mister Jiu’s, Moongate Lounge and Mamahuhu, in San Francisco, Lunar New Year growing up in the city meant traveling around the Bay Area with his two siblings to eat with extended family and performing martial arts in Chinatown’s Chinese New Year parade.
“I remember going and getting my cheeks squeezed by a lot of old aunties and given a lot of red envelopes,” Jew says. Lunar New Year “felt like a pretty big deal, because we would meet with both sides of the family, and it always meant going out to dinner.”
Over time, Jew’s family tradition shifted from going to restaurants to eating at family homes. One of the dishes most indicative of that time was his grandma’s tangyuan, a glutinous rice dumpling filled with sesame.
“My dad and uncle would get really excited about it, and I didn’t ever know why, until later, that I realized she made them really, really well,” he says.
Now that Jew is 40, he’s starting to feel the responsibility of keeping the family traditions alive, with some personal touches of his own. When cooking the symbolic dishes himself, Jew will keep tradition in mind, but focus on seasonality. Instead of using black sesame as a filling for tangyuan, he’ll try other ingredients like quince.
Kato, Los Angeles
For Jon Yao, the chef of Los Angeles’ Michelin-starred Kato restaurant, observing Lunar New Year felt more like a hybrid than an exact, by-the-book celebration. His grandparents emigrated from mainland China to Taiwan, and his parents moved from Taiwan to the United States in their 20s. Born and raised in Los Angeles, Yao’s celebration brought together something from every part of his family history.
“I feel like my experience was very much a mix of new traditions my parents came up with, and traditions they had grown up with,” Yao says. “Now that I’m growing up, I kind of realized that my upbringing was very much an Angelino upbringing; not really 100 percent Taiwanese or Chinese.”
Yao’s family traditions were always centered on food at home. His family would make pan-fried rice cakes coated with egg to welcome a “high” or prosperous year, along with whole fish. The Mandarin word for “fish” also means good fortune.
“My family would make dumplings together, because the dumpling shape is similar to the gold that they used to use as currency in China,” Yao says. “We’d always fold a quarter in one of them, and if you ate the dumpling with a quarter, you supposedly have good luck for the year.”
Unfortunately, Yao has never gotten the quarter dumpling himself — but there’s always the next Lunar New Year.