On Feb. 5, those who are in the know will be chowing down on long noodles, plump dumplings and maybe some beautifully marbled tea eggs. That’s because the day marks the beginning of the Chinese New Year, a holiday rich with culinary traditions thought to bring luck to those who follow them.
This year, HuffPost asked some of America’s best chefs of Chinese descent to share their must-have lucky Chinese New Year dish, along with how they serve it and why the dish is considered to be lucky. Happy Year of the Pig!
Ming Tsai: Pork, scallion and ginger dumplings
Dumplings may be the most ubiquitous Chinese food among non-Chinese eaters — even Trader Joe’s has its own brand of jiaozi’s Japanese cousin, the gyoza. But on Chinese New Year, the humble dumpling takes on a prestigious new meaning, thanks to its plump shape.
As chef Ming Tsai explained to HuffPost, dumplings represent prosperity because they resemble an ingot of gold. “By eating dumplings,” Tsai explained, “we are filling ourselves up with good fortune. And why not have a ‘tummy full of gold,’ so to speak, to start the new year?” Tsai, who is perhaps best known for his PBS cooking shows as well as his Boston-area restaurants Blue Ginger (now closed) and Blue Dragon, admitted that while boiled and steamed dumplings have their place, his personal favorite is the pan-fried variety.
The scrumptious little pouches are also emblematic of an old-school display of Chinese wealth. Traditionally, one is supposed to avoid all manual labor on the day of Chinese New Year, Tsai explained, so dumplings used to be prepared the day before and then served by an emperor’s servants on New Year’s Day. “Unfortunately,” Tsai quipped, his servant is on “permanent vacation” — but us regular non-emperors can still have our rest day on Chinese New Year by preparing our dumplings a day ahead. “Dumplings actually taste better when they can sit a day before, since the flavors build,” Tsai said.
His go-to recipe comes from the dumplings his mom used to make: pork, ginger and scallion, with some cabbage for added nutrients and bulk. Pork-averse eaters can substitute ground dark chicken meat instead, he noted. Either way, the dumplings will pair well with a simple dipping sauce made from chili paste, soy sauce, vinegar and sesame oil. Back in his hometown of Dayton, Ohio, “we would literally make probably 1,000 [dumplings],” Tsai said, and he and his family would invite the three or four other Chinese families in the neighborhood to their house to sit around their ping-pong table and feast. “It was literally a dumpling party.”
Brandon Jew: Roast suckling pig
Appropriately, chef Brandon Jew is featuring a decadent roast suckling pig at his San Francisco restaurant, Mister Jiu’s, in honor of the Year of the Pig. The animal represents hard work and good fortune in the Chinese Zodiac — or as Jew put it in an email to HuffPost, “Pigs are generally symbols of wealth, luck, honesty and prosperity ... all the good things.”
For his roast suckling pig, Jew and his staff will blanch the animal before basting it over a couple of days. They’ll then roast the pig and serve it up with traditional Chinese steamed buns with scallion, alongside a cabbage slaw with hot mustard and citrus salad. While Jew said he didn’t get to eat suckling pig very often growing up — “really only for big celebrations,” he said, like the traditional Red Egg and Ginger Party in celebration of a baby’s one-month birthday — he’s happy to treat his customers to the luxurious meal.
“Suckling pigs are such a delicacy, and so delicious,” Jew said. For any home cooks looking to prepare roast suckling pig for the first time, here’s a primer from chef and food writer J. Kenji Lopéz-Alt.
Justin Yu: Whole fish
Preparing a whole fish may seem like a lot of work. But for Houston-based chef Justin Yu, whose restaurant Oxheart reached cult status before it closed in 2017, it’s the ultimate labor of love for Chinese New Year. “My family came from Hong Kong, where seafood is king,” Yu told HuffPost in an email, “so the tradition of eating a whole fish, family-style, is what really stands out to me.”
The whole fish symbolizes a prosperous new year, in part because the Mandarin word for fish — “yu” — sounds similar to the Mandarin word for surplus. For Yu growing up, he mostly ate fish that was steamed whole with soy sauce and aromatics, like ginger, garlic and green onion, and then topped with “crackling hot oil.” But the fact that the fish traditionally must be whole “leaves a lot of room for interpretation,” he added, and lately he’s taken to roasting or steaming the fish with an abundance of hot peppers, or with XO-style sauce — the salty and spicy condiment that is a staple in Hong Kong — “to really amp up the flavors.”
A whole fish on a platter also leaves room for creativity when it comes to eating. “My father, brother and I are really competitive on trying to get the cheeks, eyes and belly while also still trying to be overly polite — that slight passive-aggressiveness that us Asians are so good at,” Yu quipped. And there’s another personal touch when it comes to preparing this new year’s staple: “The Chinese pronunciation [for the word fish], ‘yu,’ and my last name, Yu … are very similar,” he said, though they’re pronounced with slightly different accents. “We’re kinda funny like that.”