January and February often bring with them a wave of optimism, marking them as a time for change. Millions of people around the world take this time to set well-intentioned resolutions to change some aspect of their life. But if you missed the boat on resolutions this year, or if you’re just seeking a do-over with 2021, fear not: The Lunar New Year is here, offering a golden opportunity to symbolically reset.
The Lunar New Year, which utilizes the traditional lunar calendar instead of the Gregorian, often falls somewhere between late January and early February. Since it’s based on lunar cycles, holiday dates vary from year to year. In 2021, the Lunar New Year starts on February 12. Most associate the holiday with mainland China and the Chinese diaspora, but in reality, the Lunar New Year is celebrated among many East Asian and Southeast Asian cultures and goes by different names, including Tết in Vietnam, Sŏllal in Korea, and Losar in Tibet.
While the Lunar New Year is often a time for family reunions and gathering with loved ones, this year’s pandemic may make gathering a little harder than usual. That said, there are still ways to celebrate. If you’re looking for some auspicious dishes and ingredients to incorporate into your dinner menu, or if you’re simply looking to inject some festive prosperity, look no further than these five dishes, ranging from long-life noodles to lucky rice cakes.
Tteokguk from Korea
In Korea, the Lunar New Year is known as Sŏllal. On the first day of the festivities, families gather together, often at the home of the head of the house. Present at these reunions is tteokguk (or dduk guk), a traditional dish that is found year-round, but takes on significant meaning during the Lunar New Year. Beef broth is filled with long, sliced rice cakes that symbolize longevity. The cakes are also shaped like old Korean coins, symbolizing a prosperous new year and good luck. On the first morning of the new year, it’s customary to consume a bowl of tteokguk and gain a year in age — and, hopefully, an extra year of wisdom.
Longevity noodles from mainland China
The Lunar New Year in mainland China is also referred to as chūnjié, or the Spring Festival, and it’s one of the most important festivals in the year. While you’ll find specific New Year dishes in all corners of mainland China — of which each region has its own varied cuisine — during this time of year, perhaps the most symbolic one is longevity noodles, or “long-life” noodles. Cooks take great pains to make sure each strand is as uncut and unbroken as possible. Typically the dish makes use of golden-yellow egg noodles known as yi mein, though any type of noodle in general is considered promising, since they signify good luck. If you are hoping to increase your chances of living a long and fruitful life, eat an entire strand without biting into it.
Turnip cakes from Taiwan
You might be familiar with turnip cakes (also known as radish cakes, or lo bak goh in Cantonese), since they’re fairly ubiquitous at dim sum spots. The name is mildly deceptive — they’re not actually made with turnips, but instead often employ shredded radish and rice flour, with some cakes loaded with meat, mushrooms, and dried shrimp. In Taiwan, turnip cakes are available year-round but are considered exceptionally lucky during the Lunar New Year, as the word for radish in the Hokkien dialect is a homophone for good fortune. While the origins of their mismatched moniker are debated, one thing is clear — it’s certainly a delicious way to usher in a new year.
Spring rolls from Vietnam
You might find spring rolls in mainland China, but you’ll also find them in abundance during Vietnam’s Lunar New Year, known as Tết or Tet Nguyen Dan. Tết is considered the most important and biggest festival in Vietnam, a time to be grateful for the arrival of spring and for revelers to pay respects to their ancestors. During Tết, families gather to prepare piles of these crispy rolls, called nem rán in the north, and chả giò in the south. The rolls are filled with ingredients that vary by region as well as each family’s preference; common ingredients include ground meat, crab, jicama, carrots, kohlrabi, mushrooms, and other foods. The filling is rolled up in rice paper before being deep-fried to golden perfection — which makes sense why some consider the rolls lucky for their resemblance to gold bars.
Thukpa from Tibet
Across the Himalayan region, bowls of thukpa grace tables, warm, spicy steam wafting into the air. “Thukpa” is a generic Tibetan term, denoting any soup or stew combined with noodles and meat, and varies across the different regions. During Losar, one of the Tibetan New Years (others fall at different times), thukpa is made with special ingredients to form guthuk, a special noodle soup with meat (mutton, beef, or yak) and dried cheese, only to be eaten on the eve of the new year. The warm, filling dish is part of the ritual to usher out the old year, in order to make room for a better, positive new year.
While guthuk is not available commercially, different varieties of thukpa can be readily found in restaurants.