For Chinese families, the Lunar New Year is a time of reunion, where both the dead and living are honored. Elaborate food offerings are dedicated to ancestors, just as lavish food is made for the present family. Dumplings are folded; ducks and chicken are butchered and glazed; and children spend weeks anticipating their gift—a small red envelope stuffed with money.
At its heart, Chinese New Year is a holiday laden with symbolism. The banquet centers around dishes with auspicious meanings: Whole animals suggest unity; shrimp are beloved because the Chinese word for them sounds like laughter; and noodles connote longevity because they’re long.
This year, the lunar celebration falls on Thursday, February 19th, meaning Chinese families around the world will gather the previous evening for a reunion dinner, or 年夜飯 nian ye fan, to celebrate.
But as much as Chinese families take pride in following this highly ritualistic tradition, arranging such an elaborate feast is beyond the means of most people. To be brutally honest: It just takes way too much work to do it properly. Overseas, Chinese families don’t get a half a month holiday. Women, usually in charge of the food preparation, have full-time jobs. Plus, it’s tough to find a whole animal to cure and glaze this time of the year, especially in the States.
So how do normal families celebrate? In the States, most turn to the hot pot. Hot pot (a tradition dating back to Mongolia and China 2000 years ago) is the Chinese rendition of fondue, where ingredients are tossed inside a large pot of broth.
The electric hot pot makes the holiday time a lot easier. Simply plug into an outlet, heat the broth until it comes to a boil, and dip the ingredients to cook. Vegetables, mushrooms, and fish balls can be left in the pot for as long as possible. Thin slices of beef can be dipped for a few seconds, whereas pork and chicken must be cooked more thoroughly. Ingredients can be smothered with sauce or eaten plain. Sides of rice and noodles are strongly encouraged.
Little prep work is required, which makes it a hassle-free method to usher in the Lunar New Year festivities without breaking the bank. Here, we offer some essential shortcuts for how to celebrate 2015 like a Chinese family.
All photos courtesy Clarissa Wei
If you’re going to spend time on anything, at least put some effort into the broth. The broth is central to the hot-pot experience because it provides the base flavoring for everything that is thrown in. Pre-packaged broth packs can be bought at local Chinese supermarkets (Little Sheep is a common brand). But if you want to go above and beyond the MSG-laden packaged stuff, focus on a handful of fresh ingredients. Sliced-up daikon, goji berries, whole dates, and blanched pork bones make for a clean yet tasty base.
While eating a whole animal is symbolic of unity, it’s impossible to dump an entire carcass in a hot pot. Go ahead and expand your protein repertoire. For fish, rock cod filets are preferable because they are boneless and have a naturally flaky texture. Shrimp is a great option because the Cantonese pronunciation for the crustacean, 蝦 ha, sounds like laughter. For beef and pork, it’s important to select the thinnest cuts possible. Go for chuck slices of a Kobe-style (wagyu cross-bred with Angus) cow or the butt of Kurobuta pig. Snake River Farms is a good brand that you can also order from online. Sliced-up chicken and chicken feet is great to throw in for extra flavoring.
Tips: Use pre-butchered slices
Shiitake mushrooms are called 冬菇 donggu in Chinese, which means longevity or increased opportunities. Shiitakes obtained at the local supermarket are dried, so it’s in your best interest to soak in cold water for a couple of hours before throwing them into your pot. Enoki and trumpet mushrooms are preferable and can be used as well because they sponge up flavor.
Symbol: Increased opportunities
Tips: Pre-soak the shiitakes
Long noodles symbolize longevity and add a much-needed carb component to your feast. The preferable type of noodles is called 春麵 chun mian. They’re whole-wheat noodles that aren’t dried. Just quickly blanch them in boiling water before putting them into your hot pot. Glass noodles also work well, but note that these soak up the broth quickly, so it’s ideal to add them in small batches.
Tips: Blanch the wheat noodles
Good news: The more dumplings you eat, the wealthier you’ll be. Dumplings are shaped like an ingot, an antiquated form of Chinese currency, so it’s in your best interest to stuff your face with as many possible. Like the noodles, blanch the dumplings first in boiling water before throwing them in your pot. That way, the excess flour won’t make your broth murky.
Tips: Eat as much as possible for optimal luck
Mustard greens are preferable. They’re also known as 長年菜 chang nian cai, which translates to “perennial vegetables.” The associated phrase is 長長久久 chang chang jiu jiu, which means “long life.” Gai choy is a great mustard green for hot pot. And chrysanthemum leaves too—they’re bitter but add a nice contrast to the slightly-sweet broth.
Symbol: Long life
Tips: Try pickled mustard greens from Chinese supermarkets
Meat or fish balls
Fish balls or Chinese meatballs can be bought by the pound at most Chinese supermarkets. They’re made from pulverized meat shaped into a ball; when cooked, they have a chewy, slightly rubbery texture. The roundness of the meatballs symbolizes reunion.
Tips: Some places have fish balls stuffed with roe (these are fun for the kids)
The dipping sauce is an optional addition to the hot pot experience and completely varies depending on who you’re eating with. Try buying 沙茶 sha cha sauce at the market (which is made from soybean oil, garlic, shallots, chilies, fish, and dried shrimp) and mix in a tablespoon of rice vinegar and a dash of finely cut green onions. Some folks like to add a raw egg on top. Chilies, grated daikon, sesame oil, and sesame paste can also be used to spice up your sauce.
The best thing about hot pot? Leftover. In the context of this festivity, this is a positive sign: Leftovers signify surplus, which will set a precedent for the year to come. Just save the broth and the hot pot can be fired up the morning after, or converted into a simple noodle soup.