Celebrate Chinese New Year along with Sunday Supper contributor Caroline Williams as she shares some of her favorite dishes and the recipe for Sang Choy Bao or Chinese lettuce cups.
While for some of us, the big annual celebrations are just behind us, for others they are yet to begin. In Chinese communities across the world, everyone is gearing up for Chinese New Year, or the Spring Festival, which this year falls on January 28th. Chinese New Year is an incredibly old celebration of the New Year under the Chinese lunar calendar. Celebrations usually go from the evening before the New Year to the 15th day of the first lunar month which is the lantern festival.
It’s far and away the biggest of the many celebrations in Chinese communities, both in China and in major Chinese communities across the world. I know amongst Chinese friends, even if they weren’t with family, they would always celebrate it in some way. Chinatowns across the world are decorated with lanterns, garlands and much more. Many places have parades, particularly with lion dances, as I remember seeing when I lived in London which competes with San Francisco for the largest celebration outside of China.
For many internal migrant workers in China, it’s about the only time they get any real time off to be able to travel back to where they are from. As a result, that first evening meal is usually known as a reunion dinner, and as you might imagine, there are some special foods involved.
Foods eaten for Chinese New Year (both the reunion dinner and other days) vary from one family to another as many dishes are passed down the generations. With China being such a big place with varying cuisines, this also influences the different traditions. However there are a number of dishes that are common to a region at least. Many dishes are eaten for symbolic reasons, whether it’s because of the shape, the sound of a food’s name being like something else or other reasons. Here’s a quick introduction to some of them, which would all be great ideas if you wanted to create your own Chinese New Year meal.
Yee sang, a Chinese salad, is common in some areas and is a fun, if messy, way to get the celebration going. The salad is made up of shredded vegetables, fried wontons and sometimes raw fish like salmon. Everyone stands around and tosses the salad with chopsticks. The belief is the higher you toss, the better the next year will be.
Spring rolls get their name from the Spring Festival and are particularly common in Cantonese communities. The golden fried Spring rolls are thought to be like gold bars, symbolizing wealth or prosperity.
Jiaozi or dumplings, like these Chinese pork and cabbage dumplings are another lucky food. They are believed to symbolize wealth as their shape is like silver ingots. If you make some, be sure to make plenty of pleats – if they’re too flat, you’ll be poor! Sang choy bao, meat-filled lettuce cups, are another common appetizer and a recipe follows below. Sang choy or lettuce, signifies growth and prosperity.
Marvelous main dishes
Chicken, pork and fish are all common mains with many different preparations. If you serve fish, it will almost certainly be a whole fish, often steamed with seasonings such as cilantro, ginger and spring onions. While everyone will dig in, a little is left for good luck: yu for fish sounds like the word for leftovers. Noodles are also very common and are often handmade. They are left uncut, as long noodles symbolize a long life and longevity.
The Chinese eat various candies, as well as fruits which are symbolic. Mandarins are especially common in South China as the dialect’s pronunciation of the name is similar to the word for “luck,” Tanguan, Chinese sweet dumplings are made from glutinous rice flour with a sweet filling, often with sesame seeds and sometimes ginger. They are common in Taiwan and some areas of China, both for the lantern festival and throughout Chinese New Year. They symbolize family togetherness.
Niangao, a dense cake made with sticky rice, sugar, chestnuts and Chinese dates, is another popular dessert. The name sounds like the word meaning “getting higher year on year,” linking to the belief the higher you are, the more prosperous your life.
Now that you have some ideas for your own Chinese feast, here’s a great recipe to get you started: sang choy bao, meat-filled lettuce cups. They’re incredibly quick and easy to make, and a fun food to eat. While sang choy bao is traditionally an appetizer, you can also serve any leftover meat filling with rice or noodles as a main.
- 8oz/230g can of water chestnuts
- 3 spring onions/scallions
- ½tbsp grated fresh ginger
- 1 clove garlic, grated
- 2tbsp roughly chopped fresh cilantro
- 1 iceberg lettuce
- 2tsp vegetable oil
- 1lb/450g ground pork, chicken or turkey
- 2tsp soy sauce/tamari
- 1tsp sesame oil
- 2tbsp hoisin sauce
- Drain the can of water chestnuts and chop the slices into small pieces.
- Thinly slice the spring onions/scallions and have your grated ginger, garlic and chopped cilantro ready to go as well.
- Break off pieces of lettuce to make cups (they can be whole, smaller leaves or parts of big leaves - you just want them a good size and shape to hold the meat and eat from). You’ll need approximately 20 to use all the filling.
- Warm the vegetable oil in a wok or skillet then add the spring onions/scallions, ginger and garlic and cook for a minute, stirring regularly.
- Add the ground meat and cook for about 5 minutes, stirring regularly, until the meat is cooked through.
- Add the soy sauce/tamari, sesame oil and hoisin sauce and cook a minute as you mix them through. Remove from the heat and stir through the cilantro.
- Spoon the mixture into your lettuce cups and serve.
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