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What I Cook with My Family on Lunar New Year

Lunar New Year is a 16-day celebration—here are some traditional dishes surrounding the holiday.

Published Feb. 5, 2024.

Growing up in a Chinese American family, I start my New Year’s countdown a little later than most. Rather than bringing out the confetti on January 1, my family and I celebrate Lunar New Year a few weeks later by hanging red paper cuttings on doorways, sweeping the entire house, and most important, gearing up for a long celebration of cooking and eating.

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Lunar New Year is a 16-day affair, with a different dining ritual each day. The biggest meal, however, is served on Lunar New Year’s Eve. Families prepare a banquet of complex dishes, adorned with personal touches from the cooks of the family. 

In my home, the centerpiece of the New Year’s Eve table is always a whole fish. Fish, or “yu,” is a homonym for “abundance” in Mandarin. The fish must be visually stunning—steamed sea bass with thinly sliced ginger and scallions is a popular favorite or in the case of my family, pan-fried yellow croaker in sweet-and-sour sauce. 

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In addition, seafood dishes like sautéed shrimp often make an appearance, along with braised beef, pork, or lamb. Families lean toward braised meats because they can easily be prepared in advance, before the holiday rush. After the meal, the leftover rice is saved and elaborately decorated, usually with red jujubes and stalks of cilantro. The rice is eaten the next day, symbolizing plentiful food that is “carried over” from one year to the next. 

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The rest of the night is spent watching the Lunar New Year show on television, broadcasted to families in China and the United States alike. It takes place in a banquet hall, where singers, dancers, and actors perform as a countdown to midnight. As my family watches, we pass around roasted watermelon seeds, hawthorn candies, and sesame cookies. 

While watching the show, families also traditionally fold dumplings for the next day. Dumplings are eaten on New Year’s Day; they symbolize gold ingots or “yuanbao,” which were used as currency in ancient China. With a family who hails from Beijing, we enjoy fillings such as pork and cabbage or my personal favorite, a combination of pork, chive, egg, and shrimp. The dumplings are then dipped in a homemade, garlic-infused black vinegar.

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The best part about dumpling-making, just like the rest of the holiday, is cooking alongside the entire family. My fondest memories are of my grandparents rolling wrappers from fresh dough, while my mother, sister, and I folded the dumplings and my father tended to several woks. No matter what dishes are served, it’s the process of celebrating and enjoying food with family that makes Lunar New Year unforgettable every time.

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