What better way to welcome the Year of the Dog than with delicious food? With Lunar New Year quickly approaching (it takes place on February 16 this year), many Asian families will be preparing large feasts at home or making reservations at their favourite restaurants.
Whether you eat in or out, it is essential to enjoy a meal with loved ones during this important holiday. Besides the Chinese population, Lunar New Year is also celebrated by many other Asian cultures, including the Korean and Vietnamese communities.
From tteokguk (Korean rice cake soup) to bánh tét (Vietnamese sticky-rice cake) to tong yoon (Chinese sticky glutinous-rice dumplings), here are some traditional foods that different Asian cultures indulge in during Lunar New Year.
There are many Korean eateries around Metro Vancouver, and plenty of menu items are known and loved for their strong and spicy flavours. However, these dishes are traditionally forbidden during Lunar New Year (known as Seollal in Korean). “During this time, the food is also kind of meant for our deceased ancestors,” explained Paul Lim, owner of Dolpan Seoul BBQ (1123–3779 Sexsmith Road, Richmond).
“We are traditionally not supposed to have any chili peppers or spiciness in our dishes because we are cooking for our ancestors,” Lim told the Straight in a phone interview. One of the most important dishes that Koreans eat during this holiday is tteokguk, which is a beef-broth soup filled with rice cake. This food item represents the old year passing and welcomes a new year of good health and longevity.
Another popular item that is consumed during Lunar New Year is jeon (fried and flour-based mini pancakes). There are many different varieties of jeon, including mushroom, fish, and zucchini. “Because you aren’t supposed to eat anything spicy, this food would be a good and tasty alternative,” said Lim. Koreans also like to drink sikhye (Korean sweet-rice beverage) during this major holiday because it can aid in digestion (after overindulging) and tastes great.
“Our family will traditionally get together and eat before midnight,” said Amelie Nguyen, co-owner of Anh and Chi (3388 Main Street), to the Straight in a phone interview. “It’s a blend of ancestral worship and Buddhism, and it’s important that all the parents and children gather at home to enjoy different foods.”
Nguyen went on to explain that she and her family enjoy dishes like khổ qua (stuffed-bitter-melon soup), because eating this allows all the hardships you encountered the past year to go away in the new year.
During Lunar New Year (known as Tết in Vietnamese), one of the most important and symbolic foods is a sticky-rice cake made with glutinous rice, mung beans, and pork, all wrapped in a banana leaf. In southern Vietnam, it is known as bánh tét and is cylinder-shaped, while in northern Vietnam it’s called bánh chu’ng and is square.
“All Vietnamese people, whether they are rich or poor, will have bánh tét or bánh chung,” explained Chi Le, chef and owner of Chi Modern Vietnamese Kitchen (1935 West 4th Avenue), to the Straight in a phone interview. “It is cooked in water for many hours, depending on how big you wrap it.”
Le emphasized that in Asia sticky rice has many good connotations, because it can mean family members sticking together and having a strong bond. Another popular dish consumed during this annual holiday is thịt kho trú’ng (Vietnamese braised pork and eggs) made with everything from pork belly to caramelized egg to fish sauce. All the ingredients are added into one pot to cook.
“This dish will last a few days, because everyone is busy and don’t have time to cook due to celebrations,” said Le. “It is available all year long but is an important item to eat during Lunar New Year because of auspicious meanings.”
Bánh tét and bánh chu’ng will be available at Le’s Kitsilano restaurant for those who don’t have time to make them, or are interested in trying them for the first time.
“People in Vietnam don’t usually make it anymore because it is a lot cheaper to buy than to make,” said Le. “But the point of all of this is that family will get together to cook and wrap and do things together.”
Cantonese Chinese cuisine
Yiu Tong Leung, executive chef and owner of Hoi Tong Chinese Seafood Restaurant (8191 Westminster Highway, Richmond), is well aware that the younger generation doesn’t really celebrate Lunar New Year the way that their parents did.
But the highly respected chef understands the importance of Lunar New Year to certain individuals and why consuming Chinese dishes with favourable meanings is essential to help kick off the year.
“Traditionally, businessmen and merchants hold Chinese New Year dishes with prosperous names and lucky connotations in high regard because they believe it would pave the way to success in the coming year,” Leung said by phone.
One of the most popular dishes is fat choi ho see dai lei, which translates to “Have a prosperous year in the market,” and is made up of dried black moss, dried oysters, and beef tongue. Another item is fat choi jau sau, meaning “Wealth will come easy”—made with braised pork feet and dried black moss.
“Over the years, I feel like the enthusiasm and Lunar New Year spirit has dwindled,” Leung said. “We used to have Lunar New Year menus, but it wasn’t popular with our customers, so we stopped offering them.”
Leung’s restaurant may not offer a special menu for Lunar New Year, but that doesn’t mean guests are prevented from ordering dishes with auspicious associations. Items like abalone, fish, chicken, and tong yoon (sticky glutinous-rice dumplings) are usually ordered because they symbolize everything from having a surplus of wealth to enjoying good fortune to reuniting with family.
“People these days are very casual about celebrating Lunar New Year. It’s not the same as in the past, where it was a big deal,” said Leung. “Nevertheless, the most important thing is to be able to have a nice meal with your family.”