For many East Asian and Southeast Asian communities, Lunar New Year is the most important and bombastic celebration of the year. The colors red (representing luck, fortune, and happiness) and gold (wealth and prosperity) abound, and families gather to honor their ancestors and celebrate a multi-generational New Year. Ceremonial gifts include hong bao, red envelopes stuffed with crispy new cash that must be fresh for good luck, and food offerings for ancestors and loved ones. Eater asked leaders in Philly’s East and Southeast Asian communities about their favorite auspicious Lunar New Year foods and where to find them around town.
Chinese New Year
Chinese New Year foods are poetically symbolic for all five senses. Food gifts communicate blessings for a prosperous New Year and dishes made or eaten together strengthen family bonds and give opportunities for elders to pass on lessons and red cash-filled envelopes to future generations.
“Fish is a must dish,” says Jingyao Yu, president of Asian American Journalists Association Philadelphia. The Mandarin and Cantonese words for “fish” both sound like the words for “abundance” or “surplus.” Eating a whole fish symbolizes having plenty. “Don’t flip the fish once one side is cleared,” Yu cautions. “You break the bone ... you don’t want to flip your fortune.” Asian Mosaic Fund’s Brian Ong, whose family is Teochew, grew up eating whole steamed fish with black beans, which one can find at Ocean Harbor.
Ong and his family also eat png kueh, pear-shaped rice dumplings with a delicious filling of glutinous rice, mushrooms, and dried shrimp for Lunar New Year. The peach symbolizes longevity and is often incorporated in the dumpling pattern mold. These are larger, more flat dumplings — best served griddled with a slight char — and they come in pink, symbolizing joy, and white as an offering for the ancestors. Buy png kueh frozen at Hung Vuong Food Market in South Philly.
Nian gao — or New Year sweet sticky rice cake — is as delicious and sumptuous as it sounds. This delightful treat is best sliced and fried. Chinese can be poetic phonetically; what words mean or how other words sound add to the intention and intonation in festive greetings. Nian means “year” and gao means cake (and sounds like “tall” or “growth”). So when you give nian gao, you are wishing someone growth — like a promotion at work, for example — every year. The irresistibly sticky sweet nian gao is presented as an offering to keep a god’s mouth shut. “The Kitchen God usually goes back to heaven before Lunar New Year Eve and lets the Jade Emperor, the ruler of heaven, know the behavior of this family in the past year,” explains Samuel Chueh, the city of Philadelphia’s director of international business and global strategy, who returned to Taiwan to celebrate the New Year with his family. (Whether nian gao turns every report sweet or its sheer chewiness is just a distraction is open to each family’s interpretation.) Get freshly made nian gao at Asia Bakery in Chinatown, or an Asian grocery store near you.
Turnip cake, which is actually a Chinese radish rice cake, is called lo bak go in Cantonese. In addition to the aforementioned gao/luck, the “lo bak” sounds like the words that mean “good fortune.” A staple at Hong Kong-style dim sum, enjoy grilled lo bak go at Ocean Harbor and Ocean City in Chinatown and China Gourmet in Northeast Philadelphia.
One way to set your house up for a prosperous New Year is with auspicious citrus, especially tangerines and kumquats. Visually, any collection of citrus will look like a bountiful pile of gold coins — what a gift to wish upon yourself and loved ones! “Tangerine” in Mandarin and Cantonese dialects sounds like “luck” or “gold.” It is also customary to keep the stems and leaves on tangerines and kumquats intact to signify prosperity and continued growth. Find gift-worthy citrus with greens intact at these Asian markets in and around Philly.
The word for “chicken’’ sounds like the words for “auspicious” or “lucky” in Mandarin and Cantonese dialects and “home” in Fujianese and Taiwanese dialects So eating chickens means starting home and good luck in the coming year, another emphasis on family. Get a Cantonese-style whole poached chicken with scallion ginger sauce from M Kee or Ting Wong in Chinatown. A whole chicken is also an important Vietnamese Tết dish that symbolizes purity and honors ancestors.
“Making dumplings together is a widely practiced Lunar New Year tradition,” Resolve Philly’s Yu says. Each family has its own recipe and tiny hands learn to chip in on the assembly line, listening to stories as they fold. Yu learned how to roll out wrappers before she learned the art of folding. Host your own dumpling making party with a variety of fillings; dumpling wrappers are readily available at most grocery stores.
Lunar New Year is a time that many come together to gather with family and friends. It is also typically very cold outside, so hot pot helps. Hot pot is a great way to bond over a bubbling cauldron of meat, seafood, vegetables, mushrooms, and sliced rice cake in a flavorful herbal or spicy broth. Go to an all-you-can-eat place like Chubby Cattle or Happy Lamb Hot Pot in Chinatown and LaTao Hot Pot in University City. Or pick up all the fixings for hot pot at home from Asian markets; if you eat meat, check out H Mart’s selection of razor-thin slices of beef brisket and pork belly. Set yourself up for success with Little Sheep soup bases, Hai Di Lao peanut and sesame dipping sauce, and chile crisp.
In Taiwan, pineapples are particularly auspicious. “Pineapple” in Taiwanese sounds like “the good luck is coming” and the shape of the fruit symbolizes prosperity, says Samuel Chueh. “Many families would offer pineapples to their ancestors or Buddha during Chinese New Year in hopes of good luck in the coming year,” Chueh continues. “Some people would light pineapple-shaped candles when praying in front of Buddha or ancestors.”
Bite-sized square-shaped Taiwanese pineapple cakes have a buttery, shortbread crumb encasing a chewy fruit (and sometimes walnut) filling. Sink your teeth into freshly baked pineapple cakes with homemade fruit filling at ICI Macarons in Old City. You can also find pineapple cakes imported from Taiwan or California at Hung Vuong Food Market, as well as festive gift sets at Costco.
Imlek, Indonesian Chinese New Year
Some ethnically Chinese in Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore also celebrate Lunar New Year, and partake in preparing and eating customary foods. Celebrating Imlek, Indonesian New Year, includes kue keranjang (nian gao), roast duck, roast pork, and hot pot at home. “These are all common practices because for Chinese Indonesians that came from Hollander, we celebrated Lunar New Year like Malaysians basically,” explains Laurent Widjaya, an interpreter and translator for several of the city’s AAPI community organizations. Indonesian biscuit pastries are highly influenced by Dutch colonization, Widjaya says, and popular New Year cookies include kue salju (snow white cookies), kue lidah kucing (cat’s tongue cookies), kaastengels (cheese stick cookies), and kue semprit (dahlia-shaped butter cookies with a glazed cherry in the center). Kue nastar (combining the word for pineapple, “nanas,” and the Dutch word “taart”) translates beautifully to pineapple tart cakes. These buttery, plump jam-filled cookies with a golden crusty top are akin to Taiwanese pineapple cakes. Find locally made kue nastar and other Indonesian treats at Sky Cafe and Nusantara Store, or go big with gift sets at Pendawa Cafe in South Philly.
Tết, Vietnamese Lunar New Year
“Tết is a very sacred and important time to reconnect with your family, dear friends, and community. It’s a time to honor the earth and our ancestors, welcome them home and to send well-wishes in the form of li xi to the next generation,” says Nancy Nguyen, executive director of VietLead, whose family is from Northern Vietnam. Nguyen’s family welcomes their ancestors back to enjoy bánh chưng and bánh tét (sticky rice cakes filled with mung bean and pork belly), xôi gấc — “as red as you can make it” — and all forms of dried candies like ginger and fruit.
Bánh chưng presents and eats like a gift: A Northern Vietnamese speciality, this square-shaped sticky rice cake is wrapped in banana leaves and stuffed with glutinous rice, mung bean, and pork belly. Bánh tét, its Southern Vietnamese cousin, comes in log form. Grab both at Ba Le Bakery in South Philly and try slicing, frying, and serving with nước chấm.
A typical Tết dinner in the Nguyen household includes thịt kho — caramelized braised pork and eggs, the eggs symbolizing goodness and happiness— and chè dau and chè bap, sticky rice pudding made with pinto beans or sweet corn topped with coconut milk. Drool over these and other varieties at Bambu and Ba Le. There is also canh khổ qua, or stuffed bittermelon soup, and cha gio, or fried spring rolls. Khổ means difficulty, and qua means passed, so eating the bittermelon represents letting go of the difficulty of the past year and welcoming the New Year. Try thịt kho (without eggs) and canh khổ qua tôm thịt, bitter melon stuffed with shrimp and pork, at Nam Phuong in South Philly.
Xôi gấc, bright red sticky rice steamed with gac fruit pulp and seeds, sugar, and coconut milk, is a favorite dish for Tết (as well as weddings). “The colors red and yellow are colors of prosperity, so the red in xôi gấc is important,” says Nguyen. Xôi vò, bright yellow mung bean coated sticky rice, is its visual counterpart. Both are available at Ba Le.
Mứt Tết — a gorgeous colorful platter of colorful candied coconut ribbons; gooey cellophane-wrapped soursop candies; crunchy candied lotus seeds; and vegetables like ginger, lotus root, and potato candied in sugar syrup — is one of the main offerings for the ancestors. Roasted red watermelon seeds represent luck and joy. Nguyen recommends getting a full tray or an assortment of dried candies at the Vietnamese markets in South Philly or Bến Thành Supermarket in Northeast Philly.
Seollal, Korean Lunar New Year
“In Korea, everyone ages one year older not on your birthday, [but] on New Year’s Day,” says Shinjoo Cho, chair of the Philadelphia Peace Plaza. “On Lunar New Year, you pay a visit to your family and important people in your life. Bow to them and eat tteokguk—consuming this soup was what made it real.” Since the 1800s, this rice cake soup has commemorated Korea’s collective year forward. Garaetteok, a long tubular white rice cake, is sliced into disks and cooked in a milky white beef-based broth. White represents purity and sobriety for the New Year, while the long shape represents a long, prosperous life, Cho says. “The coin was the currency back then and [the disc shape is] tied to the symbol of money and prosperity.”
You’ll find tteokguk, especially with dumplings, on most Korean menus all year, including at Jian Korean Cuisine in the H Mart food court in Upper Darby, So Korean Grill in Olney, SouthGate on Lombard, and Seorabol Center City. You can also make your own: tteok is sold fresh and frozen year-round at H Mart and the rest of the ingredients can be found in non-Korean supermarkets. Cho recommends sourcing locally from Ga Yeon Rice Cake and JJ Mandoo, both located inside More Shopping Center in Elkins Park. “My tip is to add a little bit of fish sauce to deepen the beef broth.” (Tteokguk is also spelled dduk guk or ddukgook; mandoo is also spelled mandu.)
Koreans also give nice boxes of tangerines and persimmons as gift for Lunar New Year. Dried preserved persimmons are also very special. Cho calls them a novelty. “It was the ultimate treat back in the days.” Find persimmons all ways at H Mart. Spam gift sets are also extremely popular.