By Greg Young
Northwest Asian Weekly
The Lunar New Year is an ancient holiday that takes the tradition of partying down with your relatives back thousands of years. Here are some of the foods that different Asian cultures eat during their celebrations.
CHINA — THE SPRING FESTIVAL
Dumplings are a famous delicacy that go back centuries and are a staple of the Spring Festival. Dumplings surged in popularity during the Qing Dynasty when dumpling restaurants were as ubiquitous as coffee shops today, and their prominence has remained.
Symbolically, dumplings are more than just food. They promote good luck. In some areas, they are called jiaozi, which is very similar to the word used for money, so serving them is believed to bring good wealth. Avoid dumplings that contain sauerkraut, as it may bring a difficult future. Also, don’t serve dumplings in a circular pattern, which suggests life will go in circles, taking you nowhere.
Not to be confused with the Americanized egg rolls that are typically crusty and deep fried, Chinese spring rolls are thinner on the outside and are filled with much healthier ingredients. Spring rolls actually got their name because they’re traditionally eaten during the Spring Festival. They are also symbolic of wealth, due to their shape and color, which represents a gold bar.
Long noodles represent longevity. For an extra long life, don’t break the noodles.
Another food representing money, the word for fish sounds similar to the word for surplus in Chinese (yú). Fish should be served at the end of dinner, with the head of the fish facing the heads of distinguished guests or elders, showing respect.
This doesn’t really have anything to do with symbolism or luck (depending on perspective at least), but Tsingtao (pronounced “ching-dao”) is the most famous beer in China, hitting the market in 1903. It remains one of the best selling beers in the world. It’s also the beer of choice for Chinese New Year, with sales skyrocketing during this time, though that may change soon. Today, the top-selling beer in the world, doubling that of Budweiser worldwide, can only be found in China: Snow.
TIBET — LOSAR
An absolute requirement for the proper celebration of the Tibetan New Year. It’s a dish that’s normally prepared for formal events, such as weddings and the enthronement of a lama. A khapse is a kind of Tibetan cookie that’s salted and deep fried. The most traditional khapse is a mukdung, which has the length and thickness of a man’s forearm, and deep fried in butter.
A beer made of barley, chhaang also serves as an important ingredient for other dishes throughout Losar. It is also consumed in massive quantities by the whole family throughout the holidays.
Guthuk is a Tibetan soup that is unique to Losar. The soup itself is made with chhaang and a variety of meats and/or vegetables. But what makes this soup unique is that it’s accompanied with dumplings, or balls of dough, that contain one of nine items that are both symbolic to a person’s character or future. These dumplings are not meant to be eaten.
These nine items can be wool, wood, glass, sugar, coal, and sugar (though the items do vary) or they can be pieces of paper with an item written on it that equates to the symbolism. (After all, who would want a ball of dough with a piece of glass in it?)
If a diner receives one of these items like, say, a piece of coal, then it symbolizes that person to be black-hearted.
Meanwhile, if a person gets wood, then they are a warm-hearted person.
If a person gets a chili pepper, then they are a talkative person.
Glass is someone who is happy when there’s fun to be had, but disappears when there’s work to be done. And so on and etcetera.
A sweet-ish soup that is made from chhaang and prepared on the first morning of Losar, with the mother and father getting up at 3 a.m. to prepare this soup, which they serve to the rest of the family in bed by 3:30 a.m.
A Tibetan porridge that can also be served as the first dish of Losar. This porridge is made with rice, butter, raisins, and a hearty serving of yak meat. (Beef can also be used.)
JAPAN — SHOGATSU
(LUNAR NEW YEAR, PRIOR TO THE MEIJI PERIOD)
Osechi is a special selection of dishes that the Japanese eat during their New Year celebration. The dish usually consists of seaweed, fish cakes, mashed sweet potato with chestnut, simmered burdock root, and sweetened black soybeans. Osechi are served in special boxes called jubako, which resemble bento boxes.
Japanese rice cakes traditionally made on New Year’s Eve and eaten on New Year’s Day. Mochi is made by boiling sticky rice in a bucket-like container. The rice is then patted with water by one person, then another person slams it repeatedly with a large mallet. The rice comes out in the form of a nice, soft, delicious, rice dumpling.
MONGOLIA — TSAGAAN SAR
Buuz and bansh
Mongolia is unique in their New Year food preparation. The family starts off by making a hundred to several thousand buuz (steamed dumplings) or bansh (boiled dumplings), and they prepare the food for friends and family.
Food consists of a variety of white and brown food. White food consists of dairy products, cookies, and alcohol made from mare’s milk, while brown food consists of meat, flour dumplings, and other alcohol.
Bituun and boov
The day before the New Year is called bituun, where there is a lot of “covered food,” which is made up of items from the brown category covered by a layer of dough.
Soon after that, they chow down on ceremonial bread called boov.
Mongolian families will devour the feast. You always eat until you are full.
VIETNAM — TET
Banh chung, banh tet, banh day
Banh chung is a square sticky rice loaf that sandwiches meat and mung bean filling wrapped in banana leaves and steamed. Banh tet is similar, but it hails from the South of Vietnam and it’s cylindrical. Banh chung is usually the rice cake of choice for tet since the wrap can endure Vietnam’s harsh weather. The green leaves also symbolize the earth.
The origin of banh chung can be traced to Hong Bang dynasty, thousands of years ago, when the Hung emperor ruled. The emperor held a cooking contest among his 21 sons to decide who would inherit the kingdom. The one who could fully satisfy his taste would win. Most princes set out on their journey to find special, exotic ingredients, except for Tiet Lieu, who was the poorest son since he lost his mother at a young age. Thanks to the help of a fairy in a dream, Tiet Lieu cooked two kinds of modest rice cakes made of humble ingredients: banh chung and banh day.
Others sneered at Tiet Lieu’s cakes, but the emperor was deeply impressed by the cakes’ special flavor. Tiet Lieu explained that the circular banh day symbolizes the sky and the square banh chung symbolizes the earth (the meat and the mung bean symbolizes the animals and the plants of the earth.). The emperor decided that Tiet Lieu was the winner and passed his throne onto him.
Gio and cha
Gio and cha are two different kinds of Vietnamese sausages that are usually boiled, though sometimes they are fried. Gio is basically head cheese made from pork. Cha is similar, but has a finer texture. They are both wrapped in banana leaves before steaming. These sausages are served with xoi and banh chung.
Xoi is a sticky rice dish, and it is a staple of the tet holiday. Xoi comes in many different varieties, from savory to sweet. There are as many different xois as there are cooks in Vietnam. Xoi gac is a favorite because it is red in color, which symbolizes the luck and achievements for the new year. (end)
Stacy Nguyen contributed to this report.
Greg Young can be reached at email@example.com.