The weight of new Lunar New Year traditions
By Hsiao-Ching Chou, guest contributor
I’ve always said my favorite holiday is Lunar New Year, through all the different forms it’s taken in my life. As an immigrant child growing up in central Missouri, the holiday was a way to connect to my family’s Chinese culture. As a journalist and cookbook author, Lunar New Year has been a means to share stories and teach audiences about our traditions. As a parent and aunt, the holiday rituals and the sumptuous feast channel our legacy, memory by delicious memory.
The dinner itself is known as the reunion feast, because Lunar New Year is when people return home from wherever they are in the world. Over the years, I’ve written or participated in many interviews about planning the menu, shopping for ingredients, cooking all the lucky foods, presenting red envelopes filled with money, honoring elders and ancestors, and enjoying the cacophony of multiple generations at the dinner table. I even timed the publication dates of my two cookbooks to line up with Lunar New Year, which falls sometime between January 15 and February 15 (this year it is Jan. 22).
Through my adult life, our house is where everyone loves coming for the celebration, because I do all the cooking and we have the space. Also, my mother lives with us, which effectively designates our home the hub. I cook potstickers, red-braised pork belly, dry-fried green beans, and ma po tofu—all family favorites even if they’re not the typical auspicious foods. I also make steamed whole fish and stir-fried lettuce for prosperity, “lucky 8” stir-fry for good fortune, long-life noodles for longevity, and any other requests from family members.
The pomp of Lunar New Year is in my bones. When a relationship with a cultural touchpoint is so deep-rooted, it’s hard to imagine a different existence. But, the seismic force of these last few years taught me that even the most stalwart of convictions can waver—and traditions along with them.
The COVID-19 pandemic was the most visible pressure on our celebration, as it was for so many abiding customs worldwide.
As the pandemic systematically stripped our lives of the freedom to gather, celebrating Lunar New Year became a salvage exercise. How could I host a Lunar New Year dinner via Zoom and still convey abundance and hospitality? We are fortunate that my brothers and their families live in the area. So I created gift baskets that included homemade dumplings and scallion pancakes, tangerines, cookies, and red envelopes for the kids. We delivered them to my five nieces and nephews in advance of our Zoom. Despite those efforts, the dinner was awkward and didn’t feel festive.
It wasn’t just the pandemic, it was the life events that almost all families eventually face in some form.
In the background, my daughter and brother were dealing with life-threatening health issues that not only put constraints on what they could eat but demanded vigilance in their respective day-to-day routines. It was hard to focus on bringing joy when global and personal uncertainties pervaded our lives. Trying to make a holiday feast that accommodates everyone’s needs without making anyone feel left out or deprived is its own matrix of complexity.
As one year became two and Lunar New Year rolled around again in 2022, I had to ask whether it was safe enough to host the family. While the world had opened up a bit, virus variants were still spreading. With my youngest nephew still unable to get a vaccine, an immunocompromised brother and my elderly mom in the mix, I couldn’t risk it. So I assembled and delivered trays of lucky candy, cookies, tangerines and red envelopes. These trays didn’t compare to the baskets from the previous year and I knew it. Weary from it all, I didn’t have the resolve to do more. There was no Zoom dinner, either.
I don’t beat myself up for scaling back; it was the right thing to do. But my lingering weariness and, truth be told, unexpressed grief, make me wonder what it will take to spark new energy.
I don’t have an answer.
Holiday traditions have a special way of getting folks to create expectations that sometimes grow beyond what’s necessary or reasonable. Perhaps it’s not about salvaging a tradition and more about letting go of what was to make room for what’s to be.
What will carry me through is the enduring essence of what any new year brings: renewal. And reunion. It’s the heart of the holiday, in any form.
Award-winning food journalist and cooking class instructor Hsiao-Ching Chou is the author of “Chinese Soul Food” and “Vegetarian Chinese Soul Food.”
Lucky 8 Stir-Fry
Makes 4 servings
Eight is a lucky number in the Chinese culture, especially at Lunar New Year. The Chinese word for “eight” is a homophone for prosperity, so numbers with consecutive eights in them represent “big money.” This mixed vegetable dish takes its inspiration from Buddhist vegetarian cooking and can include any combination of ingredients that represent good luck, prosperity, happiness, family wholeness and longevity. The ingredients also should have contrasting yet balanced flavors and textures. You can serve this on any day of the week—especially when it’s Lunar New Year. If you don’t have access to dried lily flowers, you can use bamboo shoot strips (which are available canned) or tofu.
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 cup bean sprouts
3 inner stalks celery hearts, cut on the bias ¼-inch thick
4 to 6 medium dried shiitake mushrooms, soaked in warm water for 2 to 3 hours
1 medium carrot, cut into ¼-inch-thick strips
½ cup dried lily flowers, soaked in warm water for 30 minutes
½ cup dried wood ear mushrooms, soaked in warm water for 30 minutes and cut into ¼-inch-thick strips
1 cup sliced Chinese cabbage or baby bok choy
8 snow peas, trimmed and cut on the bias into ½-inch-wide pieces
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 teaspoon Shaoxing wine, sherry or dry Marsala wine, optional
1 tablespoon water
¼ teaspoon sesame oil
⅛ teaspoon white pepper powder
¼ teaspoon kosher salt, if needed
Preheat a wok over high heat until wisps of smoke rise from the surface. Swirl in the vegetable oil and heat for a few seconds until it starts to shimmer. Add all of the vegetables: bean sprouts, celery, shiitake mushrooms, carrot, dried lily flowers, wood ear mushrooms, Chinese cabbage or baby bok choy, and snow peas. Stir-fry for about 90 seconds and then add the soy sauce, Shaoxing wine (if using) and water. Stir-fry for about 1 minute. Add the sesame oil and white pepper powder. Stir-fry for about 30 seconds more to combine. Turn off the heat. Taste for seasoning. If you think it needs a pinch of salt, add the kosher salt and stir to combine. Transfer to a serving dish.
Adapted from Vegetarian Chinese Soul Food © Hsiao-Ching Chou