VOLUME 28 NO. 6 | JANUARY 31 - FEBRUARY 6, 2009


New year, old (traditional) foods

Last updated 1-29-09 at 1:11 p.m.
Image by Stacy Nguyen

By Amy Phan
Northwest Asian Weekly

Holidays usually signify a time for relaxation, family, and friends. For Asian Americans who celebrate the Buddhist traditions, no other event encompasses these characteristics more than the Lunar New Year.

Also known as the Chinese New Year or the Spring Festival, 2009 rings in the year of the ox with 15 days of traditional festivities beginning Jan. 26. Though various Asian ethnicities have their distinctive traditions, many customs tend to overlap within the Asian diaspora.

Food selection, in addition to certain other special accommodations made for this annual holiday, is often based not only on how well the food pleases the taste buds, but also the traditional beliefs that certain dishes bring good fortune for the upcoming year.

Below are descriptions of several food staples commonly prepared during the Lunar New Year (and no, not ox):

Banh chung — Banh chung is a traditional Vietnamese dish consisting of glutinous rice made into a square shape, wrapped in leaves, and stuffed with mung beans and fatty pork. Banh chung symbolizes Earth. The rice represents the soil, mung beans for the plants, and pork for the animals and people.

Jiaozi — Originally eaten among people from northern China, jiaozi, or dumplings, are traditionally served on Lunar New Year’s Eve. The dumplings are said to resemble golden coins that bring prosperity to individuals if consumed.

There’s no right or wrong way to make jiaozi, as it can be boiled, steamed, or fried. Exact ingredients can vary as well — the traditional filling is made of ground pork, garlic chives, and cabbage. There are similar types of dumplings in

Japan (gyoza) and Korea (mandu).

Lo hon jai — Also known as Buddha’s delight, lo hon jai is a vegetarian Buddhist dish typically eaten by monks.

However, those participating in Chinese New Year will eat lo hon jai on Lunar New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day to honor the Buddhist tradition of purifying the body and to abstain from killing anything living on the holiday. Lo hon jai can be made from 10 to 35 ingredients, including items such as fat choy, snow peas, and water chestnuts.

Noodles — Whether the noodles are egg noodles, rice, vegetarian or cellophane, one requirement for the Lunar New Year is that the noodles must be long — in fact, the longer the better. Long noodles are said to symbolize longevity and eating them will ensure a long, prosperous life.

Whole fish — Fish have symbolic meaning within the Asian culture. A fish with its head and tail intact is said to bring good beginnings and endings to the year.

Whole chicken — Eating or offering a whole chicken symbolizes family togetherness for the upcoming year.

Yuanxiao — A dish concocted to please any sweet tooth, yuanxiao (sticky rice balls) is made from sweet rice flour and can be stuffed with sweet pastes such as red beans, dates, or lotus seeds (to name a few). The rice balls are served in a bowl of sweet soup consisting of sugar, water, and almond extract. Yuanxiao are said to represent family reunion and happiness — just like yuanxiao, a family sticks together.

Watermelon — Picking the right watermelon for the Lunar New Year is an important Vietnamese tradition. The melon is said to be lucky because of its red flesh. Therefore, picking the correct one will bring luck for the entire year.

Ttok-Kuk — In Korean culture, elders will often times ask ‘how many dishes of ttok-kuk have you had?’ if they want to know the age of an individual. A soup-based dish, ttok-kuk, or rice cake soup, consists of a hodgepodge of eggs, fish, meat, seaweed, and rice cakes. Eating the dish on New Year’s Day signifies a wish for a year with no illness. (end)

Amy Phan can be reached at info@nwasianweekly.com.

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