My paternal grandmother was the lioness in our family. Fearlessly immigrating to the United States with her three youngest children from Hong Kong without speaking a word of English, she managed to navigate a new country, work as a seamstress, and send all of her kids to college. She had retired by the time I was born, so I simply knew of her as the grandmother who cooked dinner. Multi-coursed Chinese dinners every single night, at a large dining table where I squeezed in with uncles, aunts, and cousins.
And, without fail, my grandmother cooked a massive feast once a year to celebrate Chinese New Year. She steamed, braised, fried, and stir-fried until the table groaned with the offerings, and there was barely any room left for rice bowls and chopsticks. This meal was her pride and joy, and she always sat at the head of the table, happy to see three generations gathered together to have fun and feast.
According to my mom, it took my grandmother about a week to prepare the Lunar New Year dinner, which was traditionally eight courses (eight being a Chinese good luck number), but sometimes up to 10. I remember steamed whole fish, braised shiitake mushrooms and black moss, roasted meats, and a Bhuddist vegetarian braise named jai, among the other dishes. A clear soup, deeply flavored from meaty bones and Chinese herbs, was there for sipping at the end of the meal.
I loved this tradition because the entire family would be present, and we kids would park ourselves at the table in the kitchen to giggle and cause trouble while the adults ate in the dining room. Since we weren't under our parents' watchful eyes, we could pick and choose to eat only our favorite dishes; I went for the braised meats and fried things first, of course.
After my grandmother passed away, there was no one with the time and energy who could undertake the Chinese New Year dinner anymore. We ate out at restaurants instead for a few years, and then stopped celebrating altogether.
Now that I have a young family of my own, I realize how important establishing and passing down traditions are to me. I want my daughter to learn about her Chinese heritage, with the hope that she has something to pass down to her own children someday. I decided that hosting a Chinese New Year dinner myself to celebrate the Year of the Dog was the first step.
Cooking Chinese New Year Dinner with My Mom
I work with food in some capacity all day long — I'm either shopping, cooking, testing recipes, or writing and editing about food. But undertaking Chinese New Year dinner? I realized I had no clue what I was doing. Thank goodness for my own mother, who is an accomplished cook in her own right and also, bless her heart, loves documenting recipes (and you wonder where I got it from!).
Once I told my mother my mission, she jumped right in and was more than happy to show me how to make some of the dishes, and it actually turned out to be a fun mother-daughter bonding experience learning about stir-fried noodles and the best kind of mushroom to braise.
We decided on a six-course meal that had lots of dishes that could be made-ahead of time. It was the perfect solution to help pull off this dinner despite the fact that I'm a busy working mom. As much as I wanted to have an eight-course meal, this was much more manageable — and six is a lucky number too!
- 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)
Adding Some Fun Chinese Traditions
Besides the meal, there were lots of other fun traditions to show my daughter. I put together a Chinese candy box full of snacks and goodies and displayed the beautiful lacquered box with some Mandarin oranges on top. This snack box is for guests and relatives that come to visit and is stocked with dried and candied fruits and nuts.
We invited my sister and her family to join us for dinner, and it was the perfect time to dress our kids in gorgeous Chinese silk jackets. They loved running around in their cute outfits, and I could tell that it gave my mom and dad a sense of pride and happiness to see their grandchildren celebrating their Chinese heritage.
Last, but not least, I put together a big bowl of citrus fruit, which every Chinese household creates around the new year. Anchoring it with a big pomelo, I filled the bowl with Mandarin oranges with the stems still attached, and tucked in some red envelopes for good luck.
Setting the Table for Chinese New Year Dinner
Since the meal is eaten family-style, there really isn't much room left on the table for decorations or a centerpiece. It's great for artistically challenged people like me actually! My talented childhood friend and florist Heather Lee came up with the cute idea of filling little white tea cups with flowers, choosing bright orange, yellow, and pink as the color scheme. These mini arrangements were perfect for scattering among the dishes on the table.
We went for bright colors and stayed away from white, which is known as a bad luck color. A tall vase with a few blossoming branches sat next to the Chinese candy box and citrus arrangement, and the dining room was festive and ready for feasting.
Our Modern Chinese New Year Celebration
During our delicious meal, my mom and dad regaled us with stories of past Chinese New Year dinners, and reminded the children how to wish others good luck in Chinese. This is one phrase all Chinese children willingly learn: saying it usually means you get a lucky red envelope filled with money in return!
My daughter was only too happy to say it over and over again in Cantonese: "Gung hay fat choy!"
Our little dinner was nowhere near as elaborate as what my grandmother used to pull together, but it was still steeped in tradition and celebrated Chinese history. While my grandmother cooked her dinner solo, my mom was by my side to guide me, and her grandchildren were there to help fold the dumplings. This was a modern Chinese New Year dinner, but I think my grandmother would have been just as proud and happy to sit at the head of my table — her essence was already there.
How do you celebrate lunar new year?