Gong xi fa cai. In Mandarin Chinese, it means wishing you prosperity, or Happy New Year.
The Year of the Ox arrives on Friday, Feb. 12. For East Asians who celebrate the Lunar New Year, including those with roots in China, Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand, it’s the biggest holiday of the year, marked by 15 days of celebrations.
Cities with large Asian populations will put on grand celebrations with businesses shutting down for a week or even a full 15-day celebratory period.
According to Asian folklore, people born in the Year of the Ox are strong, reliable, fair and conscientious, inspiring confidence in others. They are also said to be calm, patient, methodical and trustworthy.
This is an unusual Lunar New Year, coming amidst the coronavirus pandemic. Large festivities are off and families will gather in small circles, whether at home or socially distanced in a restaurant.
It’s a holiday when Asian communities put forward the best of the best when it comes to food and attire. Elaborate, rich meals are served with foods that often have special meanings meant to propel celebrants into an auspicious new year.
Each year, David Hsiung, a third-generation owner of Hunan Taste in Denville, presents eight New Year dishes created by chef Frankie Wong for the restaurant. Eight is a lucky number in Chinese, since the Chinese word for eight, “ba,” rhymes with “fa” which means prosperity.
Here’s a look at the stories and symbolism behind his Chinese New Year menu:
Dumplings in hot oil
Dumplings are popular in New Year meals as their shapes recall gold ingots, symbolizing wealth. They may be stuffed with fillings of choice. A popular dumpling choice is a mixture of pork, vegetable and shrimp. For vegetarians, cellophane noodles and mushrooms are stuffed into spinach wrappers.
The ingot-shaped delicacies represent hopes for plenty of money coming in for the new year.
Sauteed rice cake
Gao means “cake” in Chinese and during the holiday season, the sticky rice dish is served. That’s because the pronunciation of “gao” is similar to the Chinese word for “higher,” so having gao cake sets the stage for a year of high expectations.
The rice cake has a sticky texture and may be served sweet or savory. Chinese legend has it that the kitchen god named Zao Shen is assigned by the Emperor of Heaven to watch over households.
Each Lunar New Year, the kitchen god returns to heaven to report on each family, much like Santa Claus takes note of who’s been bad or good.
To bribe the kitchen god, families serve glutinous rice cakes during the New Year season so his mouth will be too sticky to pass on bad reports to the Emperor of Heaven.
The legend has made New Year cake an annual ritual for Asian families, with each Asian region developing its own style and recipe for the meal. Hunan Taste’s version is savory with pork.
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Cantonese pan-fried noodles
Noodles are popular because they symbolize long life. In Chinese, they are called “mein” and always served at a banquet or for birthday celebrations.
Every family has its own recipe. The Cantonese version features crispy egg noodles with chicken, pork, shrimp, mushrooms and vegetables in a delicate white sauce of broth infused with ginger.
Ducks represent fertility in Chinese culture. Peking duck is also popular during the New Year season for its flavor. This roasted duck is cooked on a turning spit and served with the skin crispy and meat skillfully carved. The duck is then paired with scallions, hoisin sauce and flat pancakes to wrap the meat and fillings.
Chili pepper shrimp
Shrimp is regarded as a symbol of prosperity among the Chinese. This dish features crispy jumbo shrimp sautéed with four different kinds of peppers, peanuts and hot oil. It’s a dish to spice up the new year.
Flounder dragon boat
Fish is another must, symbolizing plenty in the New Year. Wong’s variation uses the whole fish, with the body serving as a decorative shell. Sliced flounder filets are sautéed with mixed vegetables in a delicate ginger scallion sauce, served over a crispy fishbone that resembles a boat.
Dragon and Phoenix
In Chinese cooking, the lobster represents the mythical dragon as well as longevity and energy. The phoenix, meanwhile, is an immortal bird symbolizing harmony in Chinese culture. Lobster meat and shrimp are sautéed in a delicate white sauce on one side and chunks of crispy chicken in a brown sauce on the other in this dragon-meets-phoenix dish.
Shanghai bok choy with black mushrooms
Green equals money and this Asian green vegetable is paired with meaty black mushrooms for a fulfilling dish for vegetarians. The crispy greens and mushrooms are served in a light white ginger sauce.
Mary Chao 趙 慶 華 covers the Asian community, real estate and small business for NorthJersey.com. To get unlimited access to the latest news out of North Jersey, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.
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