Food & Wine

Auspicious treats usher in the Lunar New Year

Photos by Megan V. Winslow/Town Crier
Chef Lawrence Chu of Chef Chu’s, left, puts sweet and sour sauce on a whole fish, a must-have on Lunar New Year’s Eve. Revelers never finish the fish on Lunar New Year’s Eve, because the Chinese word for fish, “yu,” sounds the same as “surplus” – meaning save some for next year.

As the Lunar New Year approaches, the seafood departments at local Chinese markets gear up for more orders of fish, a must-have for the Chinese New Year’s celebrations that kick off Feb. 16.

Chinese families always share a whole fish on Lunar New Year’s Eve, either at home or at their favorite restaurant. However, they never finish the fish, because the Chinese word for fish, “yu,” sounds the same as “surplus” or “savings” – meaning they have to save the surplus for the year(s) to come.

All of the Lunar New Year’s special dishes have auspicious meanings. Another example is New Year’s cakes, “nian gao” in Mandarin, in which “gao” means “cake” but shares the pronunciation of another Chinese word meaning “high” or “tall,” symbolizing reaching a new height in the coming year.

The cakes are not made of wheat flour, or any trendy alternatives, but of ground sticky rice, also known as glutinous rice – despite being gluten free. It offers a chewy texture perhaps too foreign for someone who didn’t grow up with it.

Although an acquired taste, such rice cakes are probably worthy of a gastronome’s attention for their versatility.

A snow-white version of Lunar New Year’s rice cake comes pre-sliced and packaged at Chinese markets, like Italian penne. You can cook it in a soup or stir-fry it with meat or shrimp and vegetables.

Most kinds of Lunar New Year’s cakes are meant for dessert, however. They look like extra-dense cheesecakes. The Chinese usually steam or deep-fry slices of them before serving, but some of their modern versions are ready to eat at room temperature.

The sugary rice cakes are generally consumed during Lunar New Year only, versus the savory ones served year-round. Such dishes are available anytime at Shanghai-style restaurants, given the popularity of rice cakes in the region around that Chinese city.

Dumplings are another perennial Lunar New Year’s favorite, especially for the northern Chinese, most of whom know how to make them from scratch, with wheat flour, ground meat and minced vegetables.

Interestingly, they are not called dumplings but referred to as “gold nuggets” during the Lunar New Year, an attempt to forecast wealth in the coming year. They are indeed shaped like the gold nuggets of China’s past.

It is notable that Lunar New Year is a 15-day celebration, ending on a high note with exhibitions of lanterns. There is a warm dessert for the Lantern Festival, which coincides with the lunar year’s first full moon. It’s a sweet soup with sticky rice balls as round as the full moon.

The sticky rice balls, “tang yuan” (“soup balls”) in Chinese, are served not only during the Lantern Festival, but also in the colder months of the year. They are often filled with a black sesame paste that contains many antioxidants and more calcium than dark chocolate.

Curious enough to give any of the Lunar New Year’s specials a try? Here are some local options:

• Whole fish in any style at Chef Chu’s, 1067 N. San Antonio Road, Los Altos

• Savory rice cake dishes at Su Hong, 4256 El Camino Real, Palo Alto

• Sweet rice balls at Meet Fresh, 19449 Stevens Creek Blvd. No. 120, Cupertino

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