Feb. 5 is the official start of Lunar New Year, the Year of the Pig. The holiday is commonly known as Chinese New Year in the U.S., but it is celebrated in other parts of Southeast Asia, including Vietnam, Korea, Thailand and Singapore. In fact, Lunar New Year is a national holiday in most of these countries, when people stop working and shops close down for days, even weeks. Often, it’s a rare opportunity for families to get together, so it is typically an epic celebration. It’s also a time for honoring elders, stopping to reflect, visiting neighbors, and cooking and eating delicious foods together. Oh, and yes, giving red envelopes of money to the younger generations.
Food is one of the most essential parts of celebrating Lunar New Year, as many hours, sometimes days, are spent by families preparing food and cooking together. I reached out to six East Bay chefs — Tony Tung (Good to Eat Dumplings), Tu David Phu (Ăn pop-up, Top Chef Season 15 contestant), Selina Lee (Banchan Workshop), Wenter Shyu (Third Culture Bakery), Nora Haron (formerly of Drip Line, Bijan) and Kasem Saengsawang (Farmhouse Kitchen, Daughter Thai Kitchen) — who shared their favorite Lunar New Year food memories and traditions (some even shared recipes, which can be found at the end of the story).
Happy Year of the Pig!
Tony Tung (Good to Eat Dumplings)
You might not be surprised to hear this — my childhood memories of the Lunar New Year are all about family gatherings, and dumplings play a big part of them. I grew up in Taichung, which is the middle part of Taiwan, a city surrounded by agricultural areas, close to the coast.
During Chinese New Year, it’s all about having a feast with friends and family. It’s all about giving and sharing to get good karma for the next year. Consuming good ingredients is also a reward for us after a year of hard work.
In Taiwan, it’s a luxury to have meat and seafood together. The most luxurious and festive type of dumplings is called san xian, or “3 types of fresh ingredients” dumplings, meaning you have to incorporate something from the land, something from the sea and something grown from soil. My grandmother and my mom would go to a traditional market to pre-order the best ingredients — cabbage from the high mountain area because it’s sweeter, highest quality of Kurobuta pork from small farms, and fresh seafood such as shrimp, scallops or squid.
My family would make more than 1000 dumplings. The dumpling filling is each family’s recipe. I have to admit, as a child, sometimes I really didn’t like having to prepare such a huge amount; I always wanted to go out and play. But my grandmother always said it’s good karma. Let’s make this beautiful and delicious filling for all the guests. We will have good fortune by sharing this love, through dumplings, with everyone.
Starting from the morning of Chinese New Year eve, relatives start to show up to prepare the dinner feast. Everyone will gather around the dining table or even the coffee table in the living room, wrapping dumplings together, in the meanwhile also chatting and laughing. And actually, it’s not only our relatives. All the neighbors, friends, people you grew up with will walk around the neighborhood and visit each others’ houses. They will sit down and help make dumplings as well. These are absolutely some of the sweetest moments.
For our own family dinner, it’s a feast — lots of dishes, lots of very delicate banquet-style cuisine. One interesting thing is, dumplings are always the last dish. They are a symbol of money; we eat dumplings as the last dish so we can have good fortune for the next year. All of our guests, whether family or friends, will go home with the good fortune dumplings made by everyone.
Find Tung’s dumpling recipe at the end of the story.
Tu David Phu (Top Chef)
In Vietnam, the calendar system is different. Culturally, there are no birthdays or months. There are only birth years based on the Lunar calendar. So when Tết ,Vietnamese New Year, arrives, it’s a week-long “birthday celebration” for everyone.
In observance of the week of Tết, it is standard practice to prepare foods prior to Tết that will last the entire week; it’s custom to not cook or work during this period. Naturally, the generations-old Vietnamese preparations that kept well from being spoiled have evolved to be Tết staple dishes: thit bo kho (braised beef stew), bánh tét (savory sticky rice roll) and poached chicken.
The humble meat stew is representative of the cornucopia of ingredients, masterfully cooked. And my mother’s bo kho is nothing short of that: carrots, celery, garlic, ginger, lemongrass, warm spices and chuck beef. Each ingredient is cut, roasted and toasted to its peak perfection before introducing them in the same pot to be slow-braised for a minimum of eight hours, in preparation for the first day of Tết.
Mama Phu’s bo kho is perfect for Tết. Her stew kept well and progressively developed flavor each additional Lunar New Year day. If we were lucky enough to have reserves of her bo kho by the end of the Lunar New Year week, we would all scatter for the gravy, which was initially a sauce. Then we’d either pour it over steamed rice or drench a crumbly baguette with it.
Selina Lee (Banchan Workshop)
Growing up in Korea, I was always confused about why my family celebrated new years twice. My father’s side of the family celebrated on the first of January according to the western calendar, while my mother’s side of the family gathered to celebrate Lunar New Year, usually about a month following the first. The holiday traditions were a little different between the families but one thing was always the same: great food. For traditional Korean holidays, including Lunar New Year, we like to prepare Korean dishes like tteokguk (rice cake soup), kalbi jjim (braised short ribs) and jeon (egg-battered fried fish and vegetables).
My grandmother always had her repertoire of dishes that she prepared for this type of family gathering. Her food was always beautiful, delicate and delicious. She would always make sanjeok kkochi, a dish made with beef, rice and vegetables on skewers, lightly battered in flour and egg, then pan-fried. She would set up a large griddle on the ground, with newspaper spread underneath, in order to prevent oil from splattering all over the ground. She had me make the skewers by her side while she was cooking. The best part was being able to grab the first bite when a skewer was fresh off the griddle. Today, I try to follow my grandmother’s legacy by creating my own version of sanjeok kkochi using beef (or mushrooms), asparagus, carrot, rice cake and green onion. I hope I made her proud.
Find Lee’s Sanjeok Kkochi recipe at the end of this story.
Wenter Shyu (Third Culture Bakery)
Chinese New Year is always such a festive time. I remember family members would fly or travel to wherever my grandparents were living at the time — L.A. or Taipei or Shanghai — and there would be a week-long celebration where we just ate huge meals at home and got massages, went karaoke-ing and stuff like that.
Food was, and always is, at the center of Lunar New Year. Usually, my mom and all her sisters lead the cooking and my uncles and other men would help. I remember wrapping dumpling after dumpling. It’s my grandmother’s family’s famous recipe that we’d recreate by hand, only during the New Year. Then we’d eat until we were all so full that we couldn’t breathe, watch some Chinese soap opera or some TV drama show with the grandparents, and do that all over again for a week.
The picture above is of a family tradition. After dinner, all the kids and grandkids kneel in front of our grandparents and wish them well, wishing them a happy Chinese New Year, and they give us red envelopes. It’s fun because we, the grandkids, would do it first, then we’d see all of our parents and uncles do this after us. It always made our grandparents so happy. My grandfather is no longer with us, so this picture and tradition means so much.
Nora Haron (Bijan)
Lunar New Year is a huge thing in Singapore. People start by decorating their homes with lanterns, little satsuma trees and cherry blossoms in the house. Chinatown in Singapore is bustling; it’s where you buy BBQ meats and people are just celebrating. There are fireworks the day before Chinese New Year and you hear the lion dancers visiting the different stores and the owners give the dance troupes money. Singapore is majority Chinese, so it becomes a national celebration. You get a two-day holiday. Everybody is out visiting. You wake up in the morning, you put on some new clothes and you carry two sets of oranges with you. Throughout the day, you carry two oranges to a person’s house to exchange for a different two. You give little kids or young adults who are not married little red packets with money inside. And during the visits, you eat all these beautiful foods.
Weeks before Chinese New Year, we would be baking pineapple cookies. They’re bite size and very delicious, with pastry dough so buttery, it literally melts in your mouth. The cookies are round and shaped like tiny tarts with pineapple jam on top. My mom liked to make them. They’re a lot of work. When she’s too busy, she makes them round, and fills them in. When she gets fancy — I’ve done it this way — I would snip them to look like pineapples, then add a clove at the end of each to resemble the stem.
You don’t only see pineapple cookies during the Chinese New Year — you see them during Ramadan and Hindu new year, even Christmastime!
Find Haron’s Pineapple Cookie recipe at the end of this story.
Kasem Saengsawang (Daughter Thai Kitchen, Farmhouse Kitchen)
As a Thai person, we celebrate Chinese New Year, too. Every year in Thailand, I would go back to my home to meet my grandparents. All of my family, about 50 people, would be in one house to welcome the new year. Most of the older people give pocket money; I remember loving this moment.
We would make roasted duck, roasted crispy pork belly and sit down with all 50 to 60 people. The old people would gamble on one side. These images are never gone from my brain. It reminds me of who I am and how I became Chef Kasem.
This year, the Chinese New Year is on Feb. 5, so we are going to gather on Feb. 4, cook together and prepare for the 5th. On the 5th, in the morning we pray to the gods. We set up a nice table with flowers and wine and chopsticks and put out all the food that we made the day before. After I pray to the gods, everyone chit chats. After that, we will ask the gods for permission, take the food back to the kitchen and then we eat.
Here in the U.S., at my restaurants, I will set up tables and the roasted whole pig with the head on for my employees and some close friends. It’s going to be fun. I’m so proud. The first year we had maybe 10 to 15 people. Last year we had maybe 40 people. I have three locations in the Bay Area, so I will go to each one (Saengsawang’s restaurants will all serve special Lunar New Year dishes and cocktails through the end of February). It shows me the power of family and friendship. That’s what Chinese New Year means to me.
Find Saengsawang’s Five Spice Duck recipe at the end of this story.
Editor’s note: Some memories were condensed and edited for clarity.
Tony Tung’s Taiwanese-style San Xian dumplings
2 packs dumpling wrappers
1 lb ground pork
3/4 lb napa cabbage (can substitute with regular cabbage)
1 tablespoon salt
1/2 cup chopped scallion
1/4 to 1/2 lb. shrimp, peeled and deveined (smaller shrimp can fit whole inside a dumpling; larger shrimp should be cut into pieces)
1 teaspoon canola oil
2 teaspoons sesame oil
1 tablespoon salt
Chop and dice the cabbage, add salt and mix well. Let salted cabbage sit for 20 minutes.
After 20 minutes, you will see water coming out from the cabbage — use your hand to squeeze the water out. Discard the water.
In a bowl or pot, add the ground pork and chopped scallions, then mix. Add cabbage and mix. Add canola and sesame oils and do a final mix. (This order of mixing is very important. It will give the filling a perfect texture and flavors.).
Cover the filling with plastic wrap and put in the refrigerator. Wait for at least 30 minutes for the flavors to develop.
After the filling has properly “aged,” it’s dumpling wrapping time!
Take a bowl of water and set the wrappers and filling in front of you.
Put the wrapper on one hand, using a finger from your opposite hand, brush the edge of the wrapper with water.
Using a dining knife (it’s much easier to use than a spoon or ice cream scoop), put some filling at the center of the wrap, add one whole shrimp on top, and fold the dumpling in half, pinch the center together.
Use your thumb and index finger to make 2-4 pleats as you like.
Boil dumplings in water for 5 minutes or pan fry to serve.
Selina Lee’s Sanjeok Kkochi (Korean Beef Skewers )
Makes 12 skewers (3-4 servings)
8 asparagus stalks (medium thickness for easier threading)
1/4 lb thin sliced lean beef (sirloin or rib eye; use 4 king mushrooms for vegetarian version)
12 rice cakes (thin round tube kind)
3 green onions
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
1/4 cup flour
2 eggs, whisked
1/4 cup low sodium soy sauce
2 teaspoons sugar
1 teaspoon minced garlic
1/2 teaspoons grated ginger
1/2 teaspoons sesame oil
1 tablespoon mirin or cooking sake
Soak or rinse the wooden skewers in cold water while you prepare the ingredients. This will prevent the skewers from burning while cooking.
Prepare the sauce by combining the ingredients.
Cut the beef or mushrooms into strips, then marinate in sauce for about 30 min. Use about 1/3 of the prepared sauce and save the rest for later. After meat/mushroom is marinated, sautée in a skillet until thoroughly cooked. Set aside.
Soak the rice cakes in cold water for few minutes then blanch in boiling water for 1-2 min. Season with little bit of the sauce and sesame oil after draining to make sure it doesn’t stick together. There is no need to blanch the rice cake if you are using freshly made rice cakes. Set aside.
Remove the tough ends of the asparagus. Cut both asparagus and carrots into same size strips (2-2 1/2 inches long), then blanch in boiling water for 2-3 minutes. Make sure vegetables are not overcooked and season with salt after drained. Cut green onion, including the white part, into same size as asparagus and carrots. Set vegetables aside.
Once all ingredients are par-cooked and seasoned, thread the meat/mushroom, vegetables and rice cakes onto the skewer. I like to thread them in this order: Asparagus – beef/mushroom – carrot – rice cake – green onion. It looks pretty!
Heat a large pan with olive oil over medium-high heat. Coat each skewer with flour, then dip into whisked eggs that have been seasoned with salt. Place the skewers in the heated pan. adding more egg on top of the skewer to fill in the gaps. It’s okay if egg overflows, you can cut off the excess to keep the shape after it’s been cooked. Cook for 2-3 min, then flip and cook for another 2-3 min on lower heat.
Serve with remaining sauce for dipping.
Nora Haron’s Chinese New Year Pineapple Cookies
Makes 30 cookies
1/4 lb (125 grams) unsalted butter
2 tablespoons (25 grams) confectioners sugar
2 large egg yolks
7/8 cup (175 grams) pastry flour or all purpose flour
2 tablespoons (25 grams) milk powder
2 tablespoons (25 grams) finely grated parmesan cheese
2 egg yolks
1 tablespoon cream
Flesh from 1 whole pineapple
1/4 cup sugar
Make the jam:
In a food processor, pulse pineapple flesh for about 20 seconds until it becomes a mush.
Transfer to a heavy pot, add sugar and cloves. Cook on medium heat. Stir constantly to avoid burning.
Cook until most of the liquid has evaporated, and the pineapple jam has turned golden in color. Remove from heat.
Discard cloves and chill until ready to use.
Make the pastry:
Sift the flour, milk powder, and cheese, and set aside.
In a standing mixer, using a paddle, cream the butter and sugar.
Slowly add in the egg yolks, one at a time until fully incorporated.
Now slowly add the sifted ingredients in two parts until dough is formed.
Heat oven to 325ºF.
Roll pineapple filling into little balls, about 6 grams each.
Roll pastry dough into little balls, about 10 grams each.
Wrap each pineapple filling balls with the dough balls.
Brush the filled dough balls with the egg wash.
Stick a piece of clove at an end for the “stem” (optional).
Bake in the oven for 15 minutes or until golden brown.
Cool before enjoying.
Cookies can be stored in an air sealed container for up to 1 week.
Kasem Saengsawang’s Five Spice Duck
2 duck legs
2 tablespoons five-spice powder
3 whole star anise
1 cinnamon stick
3 whole cloves
1 bay leaf
1 tablespoon coriander seeds
1 teaspoon black pepper
1/2 head ginger
2 garlic cloves
2 tablespoons coconut sugar
4 tablespoons dark soy
1 tablespoon honey
1/2 tablespoon salt
4 tablespoons canola oil
6 cups water
Season duck legs with five spices powder.
Place a medium pot over medium heat. Heat canola oil and sear duck legs for 3 to 4 minutes on each side until brown.
Add star anise, coriander seeds, cinnamon stick, cloves and bay leaf and let sear another 2 minutes.
Add water and the rest of the ingredients.
Cover with lid and lower the heat to medium low. Let simmer about 2 hours or until the duck is soft and tender.