This Lunar New Year, I’m Craving Comfort. Here’s What I Plan to Make.
Chinese New Year celebrations have always mirrored different stages in my life. When I was young, extended family would gather at my grandmother’s house and raucously enjoy the feast that she spent days preparing. After my grandmother passed away when I was in college, the special dinner morphed into eating out at a Chinese restaurant with everyone instead. Since I’ve been married with a family of my own, the meal has tightened down even more to a simple at-home dinner with my parents and sister.
And this year? Well, the celebration is by default going to be small. But I have big feelings swirling around and I want something to look forward to — something to celebrate, and to help me at least temporarily escape day-to-day pandemic life. I want to usher in the Year of the Ox properly, with the hopes of channeling some desperately needed good vibes and luck into the new year. And for me, that means not one, but two dinners to celebrate.
I’m very grateful that I’ve been able to form a pod with my parents and my sister’s family. We’re planning to celebrate Lunar New Year with a potluck dinner at my sister’s house: She’ll be making crispy roast pork (siu yuk), and sticky rice loaded with Chinese sausage and goodies; my mom is braising beef brisket with daikon; and I’m tasked with a stir-fried green vegetable (perhaps with seafood) and, the kid’s favorite, my mom’s recipe for baked Chinese New Year Cake for dessert. Since this dinner is scheduled for the weekend after New Year’s to accommodate everyone’s schedules, I decided I still want to do another dinner on New Year’s Eve — even if it’s just with my little family of three.
My Menu for Lunar New Year This Year
Deciding what to cook is no easy feat. There’s so much symbolism associated with the dishes served at Chinese New Year dinners. The themes of luck, happiness, health, and prosperity weave their way into each course: vibrant green vegetables for good health, dumplings shaped like gold ingots to bring in wealth, and whole fish or poultry to represent good luck from the beginning to the end of the year. I wish I could make eight or even six (both lucky numbers) courses, but don’t think I can pull that off on my own. Leaning into my desire for comfort and familiarity this year, I’m going to go with just a handful of dishes I truly enjoy cooking and eating instead. Here’s what I plan to make.
For Remembrance: Soup
We’re starting with soup in remembrance of family that I miss. Soup is what makes a multi-course Chinese dinner complete to me, and my grandmother was a master of broth-y soups full of meat, herbs, and veggies. To celebrate the Year of the Ox, I’m making the oxtail soup that I learned while working on the Mister Jiu’s in Chinatown cookbook. It reminds me of my own grandmother’s famous oxtail soup, with meltingly tender oxtails cooked in rich chicken stock and roasted carrots and daikon to soak up all the deeply flavored, soul-nourishing broth.
For Luck: Whole Steamed Fish
Next I’ll be putting the steamer to good use and steaming a whole fish. I will shower it with scallion and ginger threads and finish it with a drizzle of hot oil to sizzle and perfume the delicate fish with the aromatics. My favorite part of eating whole steamed fish is the ritual of picking out the tender chunks of meat with my chopsticks, dipping them into the soy sauce that’s mingled with the fish’s juices, and dropping those choice bits into my daughter’s rice bowl for her to enjoy. We’re eating from head to tail to make sure that the whole next year will be prosperous.
For Health: Green Vegetables
For vitality and good health, I’m making a classic Chinese dish of braised shiitake mushrooms over jade-green blanched baby bok choy. It’s such a showstopper of a dish and incorporates two of my favorite Chinese vegetables, and I can make the mushrooms earlier in the day to spread out the cooking a bit.
Get the recipe: Braised Shiitake Mushrooms with Baby Bok Choy
For Long Life: Long Strands of Noodles
Keeping noodles long and uncut symbolizes longevity, and my mom’s tasty version incorporates stir-fried veggies and Chinese barbecue pork, which I’ll purchase from my neighborhood Chinese deli because I want to keep supporting them (please frequent Chinatowns if you can!). The pork also makes my meat-loving husband happy and means that I don’t have to make a standalone meat course.
Get the recipe: Chinese Lucky Noodle Stir-Fry
For Comfort: Char Siu Bao
The last item I’m planning to make is not a traditional Chinese New Year dish at all. Rather, it’s something that I started making at home because it’s such a comfort food to me: steamed barbecue pork buns. These pillowy, snow-white buns filled with sweet-savory barbecue pork feel like a warm hug. I’m hoping to put together some kind of virtual char siu bao-making session with my extended family so we can all catch up and make them together at the same time. My daughter can get in on the action and learn how to fill and fold one of her favorite Chinese buns, and we can all catch up over a fragrant pot of jasmine tea as the buns steam away.
Get the recipe: Steamed Chinese Pork Buns
And finally, while there are recipes like sweet sticky rice balls in soup that I could make for dessert, I’m going to keep it super simple. We’ll have fresh citrus and then dive into our Tray of Togetherness (Chinese candy box) instead. The candy box is one of my daughter’s absolute favorite Chinese New Year traditions, and we let her eat one piece of candy from the box each day during the two-plus weeks that the new year is celebrated. I’ll probably give in and let her pick two that first night as a special treat to welcome in the Year of the Ox.
Read more: A Guide to Making Your Own Candy Box for Lunar New Year
Having two Chinese New Year dinners is my way of clinging to my Chinese roots in these uncertain times, but I’m also hoping they make some lasting impressions on my daughter. There will be celebration and good food, but there will also be traditions, history, and memories that she hopefully passes on to her own family one day.