By: Jacklyn Tran – Ethnic Seattle
February 8, 2016
This year, Lunar New Year falls on February 8. Just like in years past, on this day and for days prior and following, families come together to celebrate each other, to pay homage to the ancestors that came before us all and to share in meals immersed in tradition and culture. Each dish served during this time holds symbolic significance for wishes in the New Year, a day representative of a fresh start and the only time that the year ahead is sprawled before us, full of promise, hope and all the unknown potential in the world. With different cultures, there are different essentials to be enjoyed together at the table. Some dishes are served similarly across multiple cultures. Here are just nine of the food staples found within the sea of dishes in China, Korea and Vietnam during this holiday.
One of the most important Chinese dishes to fill your belly with is dumplings. Since dumplings are shaped similar to ancient Chinese forms of currency (gold and silver ingots) the consumption of this dish is a way to manifest wealth and good fortune in the coming year. According to legend, the more dumplings you consume the greater wealth you may amass, and luckily for us, Seattle is full of delicious dumplings to fill us with riches. Check out Ping’s Dumpling House in the International District where you can get them freshly steamed or where you can snag a bag of the frozen variety for home. 508 S King Street, Seattle; (206) 623-6764.
Noodles signify the idea of longevity. The longer the noodles the better, so when cooking, keeping them uncut is best! At Canton Wonton Noodle House, noodle soups reign supreme and have consistently and deliciously done so for more than 15 years! 608 S Weller Street, Seattle; (206) 682-5080.
The Chinese word for prosperity is a homonym for the word fish, and serving a whole fish brings prosperity and symbolizes abundance. It is important to serve the fish from head to tail to represent a full year of goodness while leaving leftovers for the following day indicates an overflow of good fortune. At Joy Palace in Rainier Valley a whole steamed fish is seasonally priced and always fresh. 6030 Martin Luther King Jr Way S, Seattle; (206) 723-4066.
Bánh Tét or Bánh Chưng
In Vietnam, the quintessential food of the New Year is bánh tét or bánh chưng (the former in the southern and central region, the latter in the northern). Glutinous rice is wrapped around mung bean alone or mung bean and fatty pork filling before being packed tightly together with banana leaves and boiled for hours. The difference between the two being bánh tét’s cylindrical shape and bánh chưng’s square shape. In olden days, the time-consuming process of making these rice cakes would be a time for family to come together and bond. The result is a sliced piece of sticky rice cake, often pan fried for an outer crisp and served with deliciously tangy, fish sauce-brined carrots, daikon and leeks. Bánh tét or bánh chưng can be found at any Vietnamese deli, bakery or grocery store at this time of year, often festively decorated with red envelopes and wrapped with gold ribbon. Drop in to Saigon Deli to pick one up or to gather a few up for gifting during those New Year’s visits before it’s too late, as most delis run out yearly. 1237 S Jackson Street, Seattle; (206) 322-3700.
Displays of fruit are common during the Lunar New Year. Tangerines and oranges are especially considered lucky as they represent wealth and prosperity (again, by way of homonyms)! Those with leaves still attached signify strength and security of relationships. At Chùa Cổ Lâm/Cổ Lâm Pagoda, thousands flock to the celebrations that take place on New Year’s Eve. Visitors come to marvel at the giant Buddha statue, wait in line to take away their horoscope for the year (based on their Chinese zodiac sign), pluck one of the lucky tangerines offered under the classic peach and apricot blossom branches or wait for midnight when firecrackers ring through the air and a spectacular lion dance gets under way. Also available are vegetarian food booths, convenient for those who forego meat on the day of as a way to cleanse themselves before the New Year. 3503 S Graham Street, Seattle; (206) 723-4741.
Traditionally, bitter melon or khổ qua (in Vietnamese) is eaten during this holiday. Literally translated, “khổ qua” means “hardship over” and makes room for all the good that is to come in the New Year! Stuffed bitter melon soup, however, is a popular dish year round (one with many purported health benefits) and can be found daily in the hot food section at Tony’s Bakery and Deli. 6020 Martin Luther King Jr Way S, Seattle; (206) 722-8800.
Tteokguk or rice cake soup is customarily eaten during Korean New Year’s Day (Seollal). A clear broth is poured over sliced oval-shaped discs of rice cakes and topped with julienned eggs and different meats or seaweed. The whiteness of the cakes and soup embodies cleanliness and a clean start to the year while the semi-coin shaped discs ensure good fortune. On Seollal, it is believed that everyone turns a year older on this day and the ritual of eating tteokguk completes this process. Today, this dish is eaten on a typical day as much as on holidays and can be found at Green House Korean Restaurant in the University District where their japchae, stir fried sweet potato glass noodles is also worth mentioning (another dish often found at a Seollal feast)! 4106 Brooklyn Ave NE, Seattle; (206) 632-2600.
Jeon is a savory Korean pancake and a simple dish often found on an overflowing table during Seollal. For a yummy seafood and scallion variety, or a kimchi and scallion jeon, visit the family-run BlueStone Bistro in Capitol Hill. 1631 E Olive Way, Seattle; (206) 726-0141.
Across many cultures that celebrate Lunar New Year, sweets are always a must: on display, in a gift basket, as an offering to ancestors or when welcoming guests in your home. Sweets personify all the sweet things to come, naturally! Whether it’s Vietnamese mứt dừa (dried and sweetened coconut shavings) or Chinese nian gao (sticky and sweet steamed rice cake) there’s plenty of treats to go around!
Lunar New Year: a time to cherish with family, to reconnect with friends and share in the vitality and bright spirit of the New Year. An integral part of the celebrations surround food which has such great ability to shape togetherness, understanding and unity; to bring cheer, health and wealth; and to radiate fulfillment and prosperity; everything wished for in the New Year!