By: Kayla Butts, MS, RDN, LDN Photos by: Rachel Benavides
As the Western world recovers from our New Year’s festivities, the Chinese are just beginning an epic celebration to ring in their own new year. The Chinese calendar is based on a fascinating story: According to legend, the Jade Emperor held a competition to determine which animals would hold the honor of guarding his heavenly gates. Only the first 12 animals to enter his gates would be selected.
On the day of the race, the smallest of the competitors, the rat, woke up early to get a head start. Meanwhile, the mighty tiger, who assumed he had no real rival in the race, slept late.
The rat came to a rushing river he could not cross and then waited until the steadfast ox finally arrived. The clever rat hopped on his ear and hitched a ride across. Once through the river, the rat scurried down from the ox’s back and was the first animal to reach the feet of the emperor. The diligent ox came in second. The haughty tiger came in third, and so on the rest of the 12.
These animals represent the Chinese zodiac. It is believed that people born in a given year tend to share traits with their zodiac animal. Babies born this year, the Year of the Tiger, will be strong, powerful, and courageous.
The New Year is the most significant holiday for Chinese cultures. To ring in the Year of the Tiger, Chinese families participate in a sixteen-day celebration beginning Jan. 31 and culminating in the popular lantern festival Feb. 15.
Preparations start as early as Jan. 10, with a deep cleaning of the house to “sweep out” the old year and make room for the year to come. Families reunite over a traditional meal in homes decorated with red lanterns, paper cuttings, and New Year paintings symbolizing good luck.
The celebration meal includes traditional foods that bring good fortune the following year, such as fish for prosperity, spring rolls, dumplings, and niangao to increase wealth, tangyuan to strengthen family ties, long-life noodles signifying a long, happy life, and citrus fruits to bring good luck.
The reunion meal concludes with the family gathering together to watch the Spring Festival Gala. The youngest members of the family are given red envelopes, called lucky money or ya sui qian, which literally translates to “press down evil.”
The Chinese New Year continues with firecrackers and firework displays, parades, and praying for a fortunate year to come. In honor of the Year of the Tiger, try your hand at these traditional Chinese dishes!
Chang Shou Mian (Longevity Noodles)
Serves 4 entrée portions
Prep time: 3 minutes
Cook time: 30 minutes
3 tbsp vegetable oil
1 tbsp sesame oil
4 cloves garlic
1 lb chicken breast, cubed
1 1/2 tsp fresh ginger, grated
5 ounces shiitake mushrooms, sliced
12 oz Lo Mein noodles
2 tbsp oyster sauce
2 tbsp soy sauce
1 tbsp chili paste
For garnish: sesame seeds and 1 bunch scallions, julienned
- Heat oils in a wok or large saucepan over medium-high heat. Once oils start to shimmer, add garlic, chicken breast, and ginger. Cook for 10 minutes, turning chicken halfway or once golden brown.
- To prepare dry lo mein, place a large pot filled with 6 quarts of salted water over high heat. Cover pot and let come to a boil. Cook noodles for 3 minutes, then drain into a strainer. Run cold water over the noodles to stop the cooking process. (If using fresh or pre-cooked lo mein, make sure the noodles are at room temperature, then run them under cool water prior to combining with cooked chicken mixture.)
- Add prepared noodles and mushrooms to chicken mixture, along with oyster sauce, soy sauce, and chili paste. Stir frequently for another 3 minutes, until fragrant and well combined. Garnish with fresh scallions and sesame seeds.
Nian Gao (Rice Cake)
Prepares 1 8-inch cake
Prep time: 2 minutes
Cook time: 1 hour
3 cups rice flour
1 cup brown sugar
1/2 tsp salt
1 (13.5 oz) can coconut milk
1 cup boiling water
2 tsp vanilla extract
1 tbsp orange zest
For garnish: peeled mandarin orange slices
- Place a double boiler filled with three cups of water over high heat.
- Combine cake ingredients in a large bowl. Beat for 4-5 minutes, until completely smooth with no remaining lumps.
- Transfer batter to an oiled 8-inch cake pan. Place cake pan in double boiler insert or flat-bottomed steam basket. Steam for 60 minutes, until the cake center, is set. Once cool, decorate the top of the cake with sliced oranges.