By Sun Lee Chang
Northwest Asian Weekly
Year after year, established traditions add continuity to celebrations, setting them apart from the things we do every day. Think of flowers during Valentine’s or decorated trees during Christmas. Anticipating the role food plays in our traditions, in particular, are often something to look forward to on special occasions. Just as it is hard to imagine Thanksgiving in America without turkey and pumpkin pie, there are certain foods that are integral to the celebration of the Lunar New Year in most Asian countries.
The foods and their preparation may vary, but there is a common element of the coming together of family and friends to celebrate, offer thanks, and usher in luck, prosperity, and good health. Here is just a sampling of a few food traditions of the Lunar New Year throughout Asia…
Korea – Ever since I can remember, I have looked forward each year to what the Koreans call Seol-nal (Lunar New Year). Before the break of dawn, family members gather from far and near to make offerings of food to their ancestors, often in the colorful traditional dress called hanbok, and then join together for a huge feast. The most common dish for this celebration a soup made with sliced rice cakes called tteokguk (literally translated it means rice cake soup). This soup is meant to celebrate the fact that you are one year older. Even when I wasn’t really that hungry so early in the morning, my mother would say to me, “you should eat it for luck, even if you only eat a little bit of it.” To not eat any of it, would be unheard of!
China – Depending on what region of China where one is celebrating, the food of the Lunar New Year includes whole citrus fruits for luck, long noodles for long life, and Nian gao (a tasty special New Year’s cake for prosperity), with dumplings and fish rounding out the list.
Japan – In Japan, the Lunar New Year is referred to as Oshogatsu. As with China, the Japanese also consume long soba noodles (again for long life), mochi, and osechi ryori (an elaborate selection of foods, often preserved with vinegar, sugar, or dried with ingredients such as fish, daikon, chestnuts, roe, lotus root, and kelp).
Thailand – The Thai have yet another name for the Lunar New Year, which is Wan Trut Chin. Fresh citrus fruits, steamed chicken or duck, pork heads, and cakes made with fruit are all customarily served on New Year’s Day.
Vietnam – The Vietnamese also celebrate the Lunar New Year, calling it Tet Nguyen Dan. The most commonly eaten food of Tet is Banh Chung (a square shaped wrapping of banana leaf around sticky rice with filling of pork and mung bean, and other seasoning and flavorings), as well as nuts, candied fruit and seeds. Banh Chung is meant to symbolize the earth, as well as loyalty and gratitude. It is a very common offering to ancestors during the Vietnamese celebration of the New Year. (end)
Sun Lee Chang can be reached at email@example.com.