Sunday, June 14, 2020

Chinese New Year: A Celebration of Togetherness

Chinese New Year was the last time that we had a family gathering at our place.  Little did we know that it would be impossible to do this again... indefinitely.  We traditionally host Fourth of July, but who knows if the coronavirus stay-at-home order will be lifted by then?

It was around Chinese New Year that the virus first gained attention in the media.  At the time, it was largely dismissed as a virus no more harmful than the flu.  My sister was handing out wedding invitations for her May wedding still.  We were exchanging everything from food, to hugs, to lucky money (cash, the germiest form of currency!).   I remember going to three different markets to get groceries for our Chinese New Year feast, and how "crazy" we thought the Asian markets were around this big holiday.  The definition of a chaotic supermarket has now been blown out the window.  Thinking back, our world has shifted so much since then.

I wanted to go back and relive that fun day.  It was our first family gathering since officially moving in.  The house was full and bursting with laughter and our oven was jam-packed with the many dishes that we had cooked ahead and were keeping warm.  People drove for miles to get together, bringing more goodies to share.  It was hectic getting everything onto the table while taking photos and entertaining, but I remember it being a good kind of hectic.  I miss having guests come by.  Sometimes when we cook great meals for ourselves during these days, I wish that we could have shared them with loved ones.  For now, all we can do is to share virtually.

I hope that we will get to see everyone again soon.  Thankfully, we've got technology to video-chat and my family already has a group text, but to share a physical space (without having to be six feet apart) is still an irreplaceable experience.  Also, food is our mutual love language.  On the final days before the stay at home order, we visited my parents and my mom insisted on cooking dinner for everyone to eat.  On Wes's birthday, about two weeks into the lockdown, his mom dropped off a box of homecooked food on our front doorstep.  We are really looking forward to bringing everybody together for a hearty feast to celebrate when it is safe again!

Wes and I are both Americans of Chinese descent who staunchly refuse to lose that ethnic side of ourselves.  Though we share many of the same values, traditions, and favorite foods automatically, there are distinct differences that are always fun to compare and contrast.  We both celebrate Chinese New Year but there are some things that my family does that he never did, and vice versa.  When we invited our families over for this year's celebration, we tried to combine the nuances from both cultures to create our own unique Taiwanese-Cantonese feast--complete with the superstitions from both sides of the family.  Okay, I guess it's mostly my side with the silly superstitions.  The Wongs are a little too white-washed for those (but they're still hardcore Canto).  I cooked my mom's favorite dishes from Taiwan and Wes cooked foods reminiscent of Hong Kong that he knew would earn a nod of approval from his dad.  For dessert, my mom brought pineapple, which has a special New Years' meaning when spoken in Taiwanese, and Wes's mom brought dimsum to "round out" our meal (I will reference the air quotes later!).  I even spent time memorizing a rhyme that Cantonese children say to their elders when it is time to receive their red envelopes.  Wes managed to spout four words in Mandarin when it was his turn.  We listened to our niece, Madison, recite her lines as well.  She was definitely cuter than the two of us fools.  It was great to be able to gather round the table with everyone of multiple generations, speaking English and bits of each unique Chinese dialect, while connecting with one another through our universal love language: food.

One of the dishes that I knew I wanted to attempt was stuffed lotus roots with sweet rice (糯米藕).  It's a dish that is commonly found in Taipei and especially popular around Chinese New Year, as lotus roots symbolize abundance, and eating sweet rice is believed to bring prosperity year after year.  My mom always talks about this, and I always wondered what it tasted like until I went to Taiwan a few years ago and tried it myself at my grandmother's house.  It was storebought -- they wouldn't ever want to go through the trouble of painstakingly stuffing grains of sticky rice into these little holes.  This year was the first year in a while that my mom wouldn't be able to go to Taiwan to celebrate Chinese New Year, so I wanted to be sure that she had her favorite dish to look forward to, here.  I don't think I've seen it sold pre-made anywhere in the US, so I stepped up to the challenge.

I used the recipe from this blog, and it worked great:


1 cup of sticky rice (glutinous rice)
2 lotus roots (12-15 centimeters long each)
4 to 5 dried jujubes
50 grams rock sugar
50 grams brown sugar
2 tablespoons honey
  1. Soak the sticky rice in a bowl of water for 2 hours.
  2. Wash and peel the lotus root. Cut about ¼ of the lotus root off and keep this part to use as a lid.
  3. Stuff the sticky rice from step 1 into the lotus root and use chopsticks to push the rice into the lotus root, effectively stuffing it.
  4. After you have stuffed the lotus root, use 2 or 3 cocktail skewers to fasten the lid to the lotus root.
  5. Boil a pot of water and add jujubes and rock sugar. Stir until the rock sugar has dissolved. Add lotus root into the pot and cook for 1.5 hours.
  6. Make sure you have enough water to cover the lotus root. After 1.5 hours take out the lotus root and leave it to cool down.
  7. Use 200ml of the liquid from cooking the lotus root and add brown sugar and honey. Stir it until the brown sugar has dissolved. Boil it first then simmer until the liquid has reduced by 50%. Use this as a syrup to serve with the stuffed lotus root.
  8. Slice the lotus root 0.5-0.8 cm thin and place it on a serving plate. Pour some syrup on top and it’s ready to serve.

My mom said that these were good, hurray!  Also, she has always said that presenting food in round shapes (the more circular the better), is a Chinese New Year tradition.  The perfect fullness of a circle represents unity, which is a very important part of Chinese culture.

Check out all of the circular shapes!  Making mama proud.

Another one of my mom's favorite dishes is stir-fried sticky rice cakes (炒年糕).  It's also one of Stephen's favorites!  Wes, on the other hand, is not really a fan--I know, weirdo.  It's considered to be good luck to eat this for Chinese New Year, since the word "sticky" (黏) sounds exactly the same as the word "year" (年) in Chinese.  Also, the word for "cake" (糕) sounds the same as "high" (高), so the meaning is interpreted as progressing to new heights each year.  I stir-fried these with napa cabbage, onions, carrots, and chives.  This dish hails from Southern China, so it's commonly known as "Shanghai rice cakes."  My mom's mom was originally from there before defecting to Taiwan during the Communist takeover.

With a dish from Taiwan and a dish from Southern China, we're due for a Cantonese dish: crispy roasted pork belly (siu yuk / 燒肉).  Wes made his first roast pork belly ever for Chinese New Year in 2016, and he's perfected his technique over the past four years for a number of other family events.  He does it all from memory now and it's crackly and juicy every time.  This is definitely not something I grew up eating at all, but for Wes it was not uncommon to see a styrofoam box of it on the table at home...or stashed in the back seat of his mom's car.

Shrimp scrambled eggs (wat dan ha / 滑蛋蝦仁) - we decided that we had to make this old-school Cantonese dish that Wes introduced me to when he took me to my first Hong Kong cafe (sorry, these did not exist in Irvine!).  It's pretty much a can't-go-wrong combination of "slippery" scrambled eggs and snappy shrimp, with a healthy pinch of green onion.  It would not only be a crowd pleaser, easy to whip up, but also perfect for Madison, our honorary 5-year-old picky eater.

Steamed Chilean sea bass - the undeniable star of the show today.  Front and center.  My mom got a dreamy look on her face when we showed her these thick cuts of milky white sea bass.  She recounts that she's only eaten this type of fish one time in her life, and it was when her own mother bought it at the local supermarket on her visit to California decades ago.  That was the only time that Grandma came to see us in the United States, so it had to be very special.  I'm not sure how they cooked it back then, but Wes kept it simple by steaming it just until tender with green onion and ginger on top, and then added a basic drizzle of soy sauce, honey, and hot oil over the top.  No-frills treatment allowed for the fish to speak for itself. It was perfectly flaky and the flavor was so rich, everyone ooh-ed and aah-ed.  It sure was a treat, even Wes' dad put down the crispy pork to indulge in multiple servings of this fish.

I insisted that we still had to follow my mom's family's tradition and make a whole fish on the side, anyway.  When I went to Taiwan for Chinese New Year two years ago, my mother's family had a whole fish that was simply pan-fried on the table that no one was to touch.  It was symbolic for having surplus money for the year to come, as the Chinese word for "fish" (魚) sounds exactly the same as the word for "surplus" (餘).  So Wes begrudgingly bought a "normal" ocean perch at the market and pan-seared it with black bean sauce and tofu.  It still was delicious, but nothing compared to its more luxurious friend from the deeper seas!

Stir-fried mustard greens (gai choy / 芥菜) - We happen to love these vegetables for their unique bitter notes and crisp texture of its stalks.  It's apparently a popular dish for Chinese New Year.  We added shiitake mushrooms and ginger.

Wontons, shaped like the ancient sliver or gold ingots, are a must during the Chinese New Year if you want a wealthy and prosperous year!  I made the pork and chive filling ahead of time and we let Margaret and Andrew lead Madison in wrapping them while we prepared the other dishes.  It looked like so much fun!

Madison's ingots look more like wallets or credit cards -- much more appropriate for modern times.

They were both symbolic and delicious!  We still have more in the freezer.

Stephen made some light soup and plated them as a fancy restaurant would have.  It was a good accompaniment to the feast, and added more circles for unity!  The little bowls of soup also remind me of the soup course at those timeless Cantonese-owned banquet halls that Wes's family likes to go to for birthdays and other celebration dinners.

Dimsum, from Wes's mom.  Staying true to the circular concept, she brought boxes of the most spherical sesame balls and roundest egg custard tarts that I have ever seen.  I agree that looking at all of these circle shapes is indeed satisfying, and a reflection of our families being all together today.  Also, serving any kind of sweet dessert is encouraged during Chinese New Year because it symbolizes bringing sweetness into the new year.  Heck, we should just eat sweets on a daily basis, then, right?

Oranges, another Chinese New Year staple.  Not only because they are circular, but because the formal word for "orange" (橙), sounds exactly the same as the word for "success" (成).  Another way to say orange is "橘子", which sounds similar to the word for good luck (吉).  These oranges were freshly picked from one of our backyard trees!  Unfortunately, they were still somewhat sour.

We also had pineapples that my mom brought (not pictured individually, but it's in the photo of our full spread), which is another lucky fruit to eat.  The Taiwanese pronunciation for "pineapple" can loosely be translated to sound like "prosperity coming."

The golden colors of these fruit also symbolize happiness, prosperity, and good luck.

Wes also added a simple almond jello to the dessert spread, which was refreshing and light...but alas cubical!  Almond jello was definitely something that we both grew up eating -- that same exact thin box of the jello mix and the canned fruit.

Madison was so sweet and innocent about opening her special mouse-shaped red envelope from Grandma.  She decided to keep all of the candy inside of it for herself and happily offered to share her cash with anybody who wanted it. 

She also drew an adorable picture for Auntie Choo-Choo, depicting the two of us doing things together...

...And let Uncle Wesley rock her very chic Ikea hat.

She is pure joy to be around!  We played cornhole...

...and hide-and-go-seek, which Andrew and Margaret dominated at.  Madison was really happy to have such great hiders to look for.

My mom says that even though there are so many lucky foods with symbolic meanings revolving around Chinese New Year, it doesn't really matter what dishes you are sharing--the most important thing is togetherness.  This is something that we are having to really redefine at this time of COVID-19.  We've had to come up with other ways to make memories.  We have actually had to be more intentional and creative about creating feelings of togetherness than before, but I can't wait to get back to celebrating togetherness the old fashioned way--with gas mileage, with piles of dishes to do, and with hugs and kisses. 

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