How My Chinese-American Family Celebrates Lunar New Year Through Food

·4 min read

When I think of Lunar New Year, I feel the energy of Chinatown, I hear the beat of the drums for a lion dance, I smell the faint wisp of incense burning, and I imagine my grandmother's table filled with food and family. Lunar New Year is one of, if not the biggest and most celebrated holiday to Asians around the world. It is a time to honor tradition and family (those present and those lost) and welcome lots of good fortune into the new year. It's one of the largest yearly migrations, as people travel to wherever they call home to celebrate with their families. I always looked forward to the incredible meal my mom and grandma prepared for us each year and made sure I arrived with an appetite to enjoy all the good fortune being served.

Courtesy of Kristina Cho An assortment of Chinese baked goods.

Lunar New Year is on a different date each year because it follows the lunar calendar, rather than the Gregorian calendar. It is celebrated on the first day of the first lunar month, February 1, 2022, and extends until the 15th day of the first lunar month, February 15, 2022, which is called the Lantern Festival.

As a kid, I had no clue about the lunar calendar, but I could always tell that Lunar New Year was quickly approaching when my pau pau (grandma) hung up her new red and gold calendar and freshly steamed cupcakes (fa gao or prosperity cakes) were cooling on the kitchen counter. I grew up in a Chinese-American restaurant family so there was always a lot of emphasis on the big Lunar New Year dinner at my grandparents' house. Their home was in the heart of Cleveland Chinatown and I loved to accompany my mom to the nearby Chinese markets to stock up on vegetables, roast pork, and noodles for the big feast. There was always a buzz throughout the market. The aisles were full of people fighting over the best wintermelon and all the neighborhood aunties and uncles would stop to chat and brag about their grandchildren. This is one of my favorite times of the year to go grocery shopping because I love the feeling of being part of a greater community celebrating together.

Courtesy of Kristina Cho The author's family.

On the day of Lunar New Year, everyone gathers at my grandparents' house. The kids crowd around the "Tray of Togetherness," a round red plastic tray filled with candied fruit and Chinese confections. I try to find a spot in the kitchen that's not in the way of anyone and help wrap spring rolls and fold dumplings. My aunts and uncles help set up the table, filling bowls with tiny mandarins, and gathering the incense and joss paper.

Before dinner is served, we burn incense and joss paper to honor the family members no longer living. This is a tradition I've grown to cherish over the years, since the loss of my grandpa and uncle. The burning of the incense allows for their spirits to connect with ours and joss paper is burned as an offering to them so they have money and resources in the afterlife. Lunar New Year is about togetherness, even for those who can't physically be there.

The dining table is crowded with dishes symbolizing wishes of good fortune, health, and prosperity. I've always loved how poetic the food traditions are. Long noodles, like my family's Toisan-style stir-fried glass noodles, represent a long happy life. A whole steamed fish topped with delicately sliced ginger and green onion personifies the wholeness of family and the Chinese word for fish (yu) sounds like prosperity. Dumplings stuffed with pork and shrimp resemble little bags of money, so the more dumplings you eat the more wealth you'll have. If only finances worked that easily.

Courtesy of Kristina Cho The author's family enjoys a meal together.

It's customary to take a little serving of everything, which is not difficult to do because every scoop of rice, sip of soup, and bite of garlicky shrimp tastes harmoniously balanced together. When you don't think you could possibly eat anymore, a platter of sliced citrus and airy sponge cake is waiting for you to end the meal on a not-too-sweet note. While snacking on orange slices, the adults give red envelopes filled with cash to all the kids and unmarried family members. This will be my last year receiving red envelopes and then next year I'll carry on the tradition by being a red envelope gifter.

It has been a few years since I've been able to travel home to celebrate Lunar New Year the traditional way with my family. Living almost 3,000 miles away during a pandemic makes flying back just for dinner a little difficult. But I've learned to carry on the traditions and recipes in my own home with close friends. The same dishes carrying wishes of health, prosperity, and good fortune I grew up eating now make an appearance on my table, and when I taste them I feel as if I'm celebrating with my family in spirit.

Kristina Cho's culinary perspective is rooted in her experiences as a first-generation Chinese American who grew up in Cleveland going to her family's Chinese restaurant, before moving to one of San Francisco's unofficial second Chinatown in the Inner Richmond neighborhood. A self-taught home cook and baker, Kristina is behind the popular food blog and Instagram page Eat Cho Food, where she showcases her Asian-inspired recipes to tens of thousands of followers. Check out her cookbook, Mooncakes and Milk Bread.