The Year of the Pig: Celebrating Chinese New Year

Two kinds of dumplings, pork and vegetable, ready to steam Laura Donnelly

The Chinese New Year or Spring Festival is the longest holiday of the year in many countries. It begins with Little Year on Jan. 28, which leads into New Year’s Eve on Feb. 4, then the Spring Festival begins Feb. 5, and ends with the Lantern Festival on Feb. 19. This year is the year of the pig.

Jan. 28 is the day to clean house, sweep away bad luck, and pray to the stove god. “Stove candies,” also known as sugar melons, are candies made out of malt and are only served on this day. Other traditional foods are tofu soup and baked wheat buns. Feb. 4, New Year’s Eve, is the most important meal of the year and therefore is a feast of everyone’s favorite dishes and specialties. After the dinner, children get red envelopes filled with money.

Spring rolls and dumplings are typical fare. During the Jin Dynasty (265-420), emperors would offer platters of spring rolls and vegetables as gifts to important guests, and some of these were considered to be worth thousands of dollars. The word for dumpling, jiao zi, means “exchange” and “midnight hour,” symbolizing the exchange between the old and new year. Dumplings can have any meat, vegetable, or fish filling, just like spring rolls, but certain ingredients have special meaning in particular provinces. Meat and bamboo shoots mean that anything you want in the new year will be available to you. Eggs in a dumpling represent gold, and some people put a coin in a dumpling. Whoever gets the coin has a prosperous year and good luck. And probably a sore throat after swallowing it.

Noodles are another dish intended to bring luck and longevity. You cannot cut or chew the noodles; they must be slurped unbroken. Long noodle = long life. All accompanying meats and fish have meaning as well: lobster = endless money, shrimp = fortune and wealth, fish = surplus, duck = longevity, and pig = peace. Tofu represents happiness for the whole family.

A whole fish is often steamed, then topped with a sauce and spring onions. Only the middle of the fish is eaten, and the head of the fish is pointed towards guests. Half of the fish is eaten New Year’s Eve, the other half on New Year’s Day. Carp is the most common fish prepared this way in China, but imagine how delicious this would be with any local, mild, white fish like fluke, flounder, black bass, or porgy.

Steamed chicken with the feet and head attached is not something Americans are used to seeing, but for Chinese New Year, the whole chicken represents the whole family. The breadwinners of the family get the feet, the wings represent flying high, and the bones symbolize outstanding achievement. Some eggs are boiled and given to friends and neighbors. The simplicity of this gift is meant to show “it’s the thought that counts.” 

According to some traditions, when the year of your birth sign comes around (every 12 years on the calendar), it is considered bad luck. In other words, if your ben ming nian, “origin of life” year, is also the pig, you should beware: There may be obstacles in your path. On the bright side, these could be looked at as opportunities and challenges, but just to be safe (and superstitious) wear red, donate blood, adorn yourself with a jade or crystal talisman, and make an offering to the god Tai Sui. Oh, and you can’t buy the red clothing yourself, someone else has to give it to you for its full efficacy. Red socks will do just fine. 

In order to be able to cook some of these dishes for a Chinese New Year celebration, it is important to check your pantry supplies and decide how ambitious you want to be. Some items may just be impossible to make or find locally, such as various glutinous rice cakes and balls, or Peking duck. But making your own dumplings and spring rolls is easy. Also, F.Y.I., you don’t need a wok or bamboo steamer to cook dumplings. You can steam them between cabbage leaves. You’re welcome. 

Steaming or roasting a fish is easy, and if boiling a whole chicken grosses you out, simply boil breasts and thighs, shock them in ice water, then hack them into pieces and serve with a dipping sauce. Longevity noodles can be anything you want them to be, just keep them long. Greens like mustard and bok choy are appropriate, and a big bowl of tangerines and oranges are the perfect light dessert to end the meal. 

According to Lucky Peach’s cookbook “101 Easy Asian Recipes,” a beginner’s pantry should have at least some of the following items: soy sauce, rice vinegar, mirin, toasted sesame oil, oyster sauce, sesame seeds, and peanuts. An intermediate pantry should contain black vinegar, white pepper, Szechuan peppercorns, chili oil, spicy chili crisp (this will change your life!), five-spice powder, and shrimp chips. The advanced pantry has dried baby shrimp, dried lotus leaves, dried wood ear mushrooms, and maltose. I think my cooking will survive without these more esoteric items. My pantry is somewhere between beginner and intermediate level and I always have fresh ginger, garlic, spring onions, and chilies in the refrigerator. With these on hand, I can always make fried rice with leftover rice, some bacon fat, and a few eggs. With tofu and wonton wrappers, I can always throw together some fillings for dumplings.

Chinese cooking at home can seem daunting, but like Thai and Indian cooking, once you have the basic staples, spices, and condiments, you will find it easy. Some recipes are as simple as sliced celery, carrots, or radishes, quickly pickled. 

Since Feb. 4, Chinese New Year’s Eve, is the most important meal, make your own favorite dishes and specialties to celebrate and symbolize wishes for the coming year. And if you were born in 1923, 1983, 2007, 1959, 1947, 1995, 2019, or 1971, get someone to buy you some red underwear, diapers, or socks! Gong hei fat choy!

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