Let’s Talk Food: Chinese New Year 2023

This Sunday is Lunar New Year or Chinese New Year and is celebrated in China, Hong Kong, Vietnam, South Korea, Thailand as well as here in Hawaii.

In China, the traditional festival is known as “Guo Nian,” and signifies the beginning of spring and the arrival of the new year.


In Taiwan, Chinese New Year was likely first celebrated by the Hakka or Hoklo peoples who migrated from China in the 17th century. Pineapple cakes and other dishes derived from pineapples or white turnips are eaten since they are a homophone for “good fortune” in Hokkein.

In South Korea, instead of red envelopes, white envelopes are given out for good luck.

In Vietnam, New Year’s marks the beginning of a new rice planting season. There is also a legend that the origin of “banh chung” or “chung cake” started on the occasion of Tet. Vietnamese celebrate their Tet by painting tattoos on themselves, drinking rice liquor, eating betel nuts, and making “chung cakes” as well as pickled onions.

I have been in Thailand during Chinese New Year and always got treated to a Chinese restaurant in town by my host, who was of Chinese descent.

In Singapore, Chinese New Year is celebrated by those of Chinese descent, which makes up about three-fourths of the population. “Gong Xi Fa Cai” or Happy New Year and “huat” are greetings in Singapore. “Huat” translates to prosperity or getting rich.

Red packets or “ang bao” are given out to share your own blessings. Red is regarded as a symbol of happiness and good luck. But it is impolite to open the red packet in front of the person who has given you the “ang bao.” The amount of money in the packet must be an even number as odd numbers are associated with funerals. Money should never be given in fours or the number four must not appear as in Mandarin and Cantonese, the word ‘four’ is similar to the word ‘death’ and is considered unlucky.

Once you get married, you will no longer receive the red packets, but parents and grandparents may get it.

Whole fish is served, half eaten on New Year’s Eve and the other half eaten on New Year’s Day. Fish or “yu” resembles the word for ‘plenty.” The fish must be whole, with the head and tail intact. The body of the fish represents family unity and togetherness.

As a sign of welcome, the fish should be placed facing your guests. Whoever the head of the fish is facing, gets to eat first. The fish cannot be moved throughout the entire meal and the diners who face the head and the tail end of the fish should have a drink together.

Longevity noodles date back to the Han dynasty and are thought to bring good luck, prosperity, and long life.

According to Eileen Yin-Fei Lo, “Longevity noodles are passed down from generation to generation, I was so young when I learned this dish from my grandmothers-it’s in my memory forever.”

Although reserved for auspicious occasions, it is relatively simple to make and can be whipped up for a quick meal.

Longevity Noodles

Serves 4

2 quarts water

2 cups fresh mung bean sprouts (5 ounces)

1-1/2 teaspoons kosher salt

8 ounces fresh Chinese egg noodles, (such as lo mein noodles)

1/4 cup chicken stock or vegetable stock

1 tablespoon plus 1/2 teaspoon soy sauce, plus more to taste

1/2 teaspoon toasted sesame seeds oil

1 tablespoon peanut oil

1 (1/4 inch thick) sliced unpeeled fresh gingers, slightly smashed

4 ounces fresh snow peas (about one cup), strings removed

3 large (1 ounce) fresh water chestnuts, peeled and sliced 1/8 inch thick (about 1/3 cup) or 1/3 cup drained canned sliced water chestnuts

Bring 2 quarts water to a boil in a large saucepan over high. Place bean sprouts in a metal strainer; lower into boiling water; and blanch bean sprouts until crisp-tender, about 10 seconds. Remove strainer from water (do not remove water from heat), and rinse bean sprouts under cold water about 30 seconds to stop the cooking process. Drain well, and set aside.

Add salt to water in pot, and return to a boil over high. Add noodles and return to a boil over high heat. Boil, stirring often, until just under al dente, about 1 minute. Drain noodles thoroughly in a colander, and rinse under cold water for about 1 minute to stop the cooking process. Drain. Briefly rinse again, and drain, lifting noodles to separate and dry the strands. Set aside.

Stir together stock, soy sauce, and sesame oil in a small bowl. Set aside.

Heat peanut oil in a wok over high heat until shimmering and fragrant; swirl to coat wok. Add ginger, cook, stirring constantly, until sizzling and starting to brown around the edges, about 10 seconds. Add snow peas, stirring constantly, until bright green, about one minute. Add water chestnuts; cook, stirring constantly, 30 seconds. Add bean sprouts, cook, stirring constantly, until wilted, about one minute.

Stir sauce, and add to the mixture in wok; bring to a boil. Add noodles to wok, cook, stirring constantly, until noodles absorb the sauce, about 2 minutes. Remove and discard the ginger. Season with additional soy sauce to taste. Transfer noodles to a platter, and serve immediately.

Foodie notes

The Hawaii Community College’s Culinary Program’s Cafeteria is open for the spring semester. Please find the menus on their website at http://hawaii.hawaii.edu/cafeteria or call 808-934-2559.

Email Audrey Wilson at audreywilson808@gmail.com.

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