Happy New Year! Thursday evening was the beginning of Lunar New Year, a grand 15-day celebration particularly for people in China, Singapore, Vietnam, Taiwan, Korea, and Hong Kong, as well as in Asian communities all over the world. While eating together and eating special lucky foods remains a theme throughout the holiday season, that first dinner on the New Year’s Eve traditionally brings families together to share a meal, look ahead, connect, and set the scene internally and externally for a year full of good health, wealth, and success.
While eating out in restaurants with family and friends tends to be the preferred way to gather in Asia, Lunar New Year is a time when many families gather and eat at home. One reason is that the celebration centers on family and home; another reason is that the people who cook and serve and handle the cash and wash the dishes in restaurants all year long have the same longing to go back home and join their families. That traditionally meant that restaurants, food stalls and cafes in Asia which stay open seven days a week, take time off, so that everybody can travel as needed and spend time celebrating with family and friends.
My friend Audra Ang wrote an excellent, fascinating memoir, To the People, Food Is Heaven: Stories of Food and Life in a Changing China. In it, she recounts and reflects upon the years she spent in China as a journalist (2002-2009), reporting for the Associated Press. I read it in the autumn of 2012 when it was published, and found it fascinating, insightful and compelling.
To my delight, Audra and I became friends, and we have enjoyed visiting over plates of food since that time. I asked her to write something I could share here about food and Chinese New Year in her life and am so honored that she took time to do so. Here is what she wrote:
Audra Ang’s Chinese New Year Reflections:
“Lunar New Year, like the best holidays that center on family and food, stirs up nostalgia in my heart. I think of reunion dinners from my childhood, when my relatives gathered on New Year’s Eve to celebrate the coming year with an over-the-top feast. I was always grateful my parents split our time with both sides of the family. Two reunion dinners; more food for me.
On my father’s side, there was usually a Peranakan spread cooked by my grandmother who grew up in Malaysia. She passed away in the 1980s but I still think of her crab and pork balls in broth, fried shrimp rolls and stuffed crab shells. She didn’t speak much English and I saw her only a handful of times a year. I felt that eating her food drew me somehow closer to her. With my maternal grandparents, who helped raise me, we had a host of dishes that reflected their southern Chinese provenance—I loved their sautéed shell-on giant prawns with dark soy and ginger and their lotus root soup.
I knew instinctively, however, that while those meals were delicious, they were even more precious because they were the rare occasions that long-standing resentment and unresolved misunderstandings were put aside, even if for a few hours. I was young enough to be sheltered from most of the ugliness but old enough to pick up on simmering tensions. After I left for college in the U.S., my family became even more fractured, with my parents barely speaking to their parents and siblings. Because I was continents and time zones away, I was removed from the complexities and the fallout—but it made my annual visits home awkward.
My grandparents are all gone today, more than 20 years later. I don’t know what shifted in the foundation of the relationships in my family but something loosened. Maybe we united in grief. Maybe it was finally the right time to let go. Maybe I made more of an effort to do what I wanted, which was to connect with the relatives I had lost touch with instead of following the path of my parents. In 2011, I travelled to Singapore right before the Lunar New Year. Because I was home for the holiday, my parents agreed to attend their first reunion dinner in years. We gathered at my aunt’s apartment for steamboat, hungry and grateful when we saw the platters of raw meat, vegetables and dumplings. We cooked, chopsticks dunking the food rhythmically into a pot of bubbling broth in the center of the table. We ate, warming to the feeling of being together again.
I spoke to my mother this past weekend. She said they were going to my aunt’s home again this year for a steamboat reunion dinner.
“I’m sad I can’t be there,” I said.
“We’ll all be thinking of you while we eat,” my mother said.
My family still isn’t close—they may never be as they were—but it’s progress.”
Audra’s essay moves my heart, as family relationships complete with joys, estrangements, challenges, and connections come to mind whenever I think about celebrations, holidays, and the place of food in my life. Her words brought to mind a sweet Chinese dish, associated with family reunions and harmony in relationships. It’s a small, delicious snack, usually served warm, and while it originated in China, it is beloved throughout Asia: tang yuan
These small, plump, chewy rice dumplings served in sweet soup or syrup are enjoyed all year round but especially during Chinese New Year, when they are associated with the 15th and final day of the celebration, which is the Lantern Festival. Their auspiciousness and Lunar New Year connection comes from their round shape, which reminds eaters of wholeness and completeness. Their sticky quality brings to mind family connection, being together and sharing sweet times along with sweet foods.
On a delightful and fascinating food blog I follow, “Feast to the World”, by Jason Ng, the author shares his photographs and recipe for tang yuan, noting that his family enjoys them as the ‘pudding’ to their Lunar New Year’s Even dinner.
Thailand has a version of this dessert, known as bua loy, or floating lotus seeds. The dumplings are made the same way, from sticky rice flour (also known as glutinous rice flour and sweet rice flour, all the same thing and easily found at Asian markets). Instead of sweet syrup sparkling with fresh ginger, the Thai soup is coconut milk sweetened with palm sugar.
For background on Audra Ang’s book, To the People, Food is Heaven: Stories of Food and Life in a Changing China, click here to visit her publisher, Lyons Press’s, web page with information on this remarkable work. After my trip to Beijing this past November, I decided to read Audra’s book again, and am nearly through with my second reading.
It’s even better the second time, especially after my travels in November, now that I have some context for the people, places, and things she describes and examines. I’ll leave you with some food-centric photos from that journey. I can’t wait to go back, and I hope that someday I can travel there with my friend Audra, and her book.
These chefs were preparing to demonstrate cooking and then serve Northern style street food snacks to members of big tour groups, stopping for lunch after visiting the Ming Tombs and before visiting the Great Wall. My group passed through this room on the way to another hall filled with banquet tables, where we enjoyed a meal of 12 tasty dishes. I wanted to eat twice, but it was time to go…
Near a good sized marketplace. This vendor with a rollling metal cart, had gone to the market to purchase great big scallions and cabbages, and brought them into the lane to sell to discerning cooks. We were headed to that market, before my cooking class which was 10 am to 2 pm.
The gate leading into Tiananmen Square, 8 pm. People were gathering outside the gate, enjoying snacks, and taking photographs of each other with this auspicious background.
People lined up waiting for something clearly well worth waiting for. It was 10:30 pm, and we were staggering back to the subway after feasting on dumplings and other Northern Chinese goodnesses. Stopping to see what this was about seemed like too much, just too much. Now I think: hey! What were we thinking? You see why I have to go back.
The kitchen where I took a wonderful cooking class on my last morning in Beijing.
Keep it sweet! Focus on joy in large and small ways…and check back for more on Lunar New Year in the coming days.