If you've ever had an elaborate banquet at a Chinese restaurant, you know just how much work goes into the meal. Attempting something like that at home just doesn't seem feasible unless you have a week to plan, shop, and cook like my grandmother did. So hosting and cooking my first Chinese Lunar New Year dinner seemed a bit intimidating at first. Could I pull off all these courses, especially if a lot of them required last-minute cooking?
With some careful planning and a few shortcuts, my mom and I were able to successfully cook a simple-yet-delicious dinner to celebrate the Lunar New Year. Here's the menu and some tips on how to pull it all together if you also want to celebrate the Year of the Dog!
A First-Generation Lunar New Year's Dinner
Although eight courses is traditional, we opted to do six courses instead to keep ourselves sane. But how to pick which six courses? There were so many dishes to choose from — whole steamed fish, rice cakes, turnip cakes, and even fried foods — but many were more complicated than I wanted to attempt, especially since it was a multi-course meal. Some dishes also required special equipment or hard-to-find Chinese ingredients, so we immediately had to rule these options out.
A Simple Menu for a First-Generation Lunar New Year's Dinner
- Classic Chinese Dumplings (Jiaozi)
- Chairman Mao's Red-Braised Pork Belly (Hong Shao Rou)
- Soy Sauce Whole Chicken (purchased from a Cantonese roasted meats deli)
- Braised Shiitake Mushrooms With Baby Boy Choy
- Chinese Lucky Noodle Stir Fry
- Sweet Sticky Rice Balls in Soup (Yin-Yang Tong Yuan)
My mom and I finally whittled it down to a six-course menu that was manageable. First up were juicy dumplings filled with pork and cabbage. All the ingredients were easy to find, and I was able to fold them and stash them away in the freezer days ahead of the big dinner! They were pan-fried at the last minute and served with an easy soy sauce and vinegar dipping sauce.
Dessert was also something that could hang out in the fridge or freezer for awhile. I formed these mochi-like sticky rice balls (symbolizing harmony and togetherness), filled with chocolate ganache or black sesame paste, and just stuck them in the refrigerator for a few days (you can freeze them, too!). They just got tossed into simmering water when dessert time rolled around and were served with a simple syrup. With these two dishes ready to cook, a third of the meal was already done!
Cantonese Roasted Meats to the Rescue
The next two dishes were made possible, thanks to shortcuts from the succulent roasted meats hanging in the windows of Cantonese barbecue delis. I opted to pick up a whole soy sauce chicken instead of cooking my own — whole poultry or fish (including the head and feet, if you're so inclined) symbolize good luck, and these delis do such a good job that they're worth seeking out to serve as one of the courses. Plus, it's one less dish for you to have to worry about!
Besides the whole chicken, I picked up boneless barbecued pork for the noodle stir-fry. The sweet, tender meat adds a lot of easy flavor to the noodles and a hit of red (a good luck color!). Pick up some extra for weeknight stir-fries or fried rice too.
The Final Dishes
The last two dishes were braised, which is a great technique that can be done ahead of time. Although it's a low, slow cooking time, it allows you to avoid a lot last-minute cooking. This rich, melt-in-your mouth red-cooked pork belly braised in a sweet-savory caramel sauce filled with scallions, soy sauce, and vinegar was definitely a crowd favorite. It's so easy it's worth making an extra batch that can be reheated and served over a big pile of steamed white rice when you need a quick meal.
A traditional platter of vibrant greens topped with braised shiitake mushrooms rounded out the meal. The mushrooms needed an overnight soak and then some braising time, but again, the braising could be done a few days ahead and the sauce thickened and greens blanched at the last minute.
Six courses may seem like a lot, but with some careful planning and mostly make-ahead dishes, my Chinese New Year dinner wasn't actually too difficult to pull together! In the spirit of the holiday, you can even recruit some family and friends to help with some of the dishes to make it even easier. Usher in the new year without breaking a sweat.