The Best Lunar New Year Traditions

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As the formal fifteen-day celebration of the Lunar New Year comes to a close, I begin to reflect on just what it means to me. Though I am of Chinese and Taiwanese heritage, I avoid calling the holiday “Chinese New Year” because it isn’t just Chinese people that celebrate it. People with ties to other Asian countries such as Korea, Indonesia, and Singapore also integrate the Lunar New Year into their cultures.

Growing up, I took the traditions that my family upheld for granted. My naïve understanding was that our Lunar New Year dinner was something that took place year after year without fail, and that it was so commonplace that it bore little significance in my life. Of course, I couldn’t be more wrong about what I used to see as a casual family affair.

The Lunar Year places heavy emphasis on the idea of “family togetherness,” and it has traditionally been a way for family members to reunite and convene for a fabulous feast of fish, dumplings, noodles, and the like. For as long as I can remember, I’d make dumplings with my grandmother, mixing the vegetable and pork stuffing with as much strength as I could muster, pounding the dough until it was transfigured into round, flat pieces that hardly looked like the sticky mass from which they came. After we folded the stuffing into the dough to allow the dumplings to take their final shapes, my fingers would be dusted with a fine layer of flour.

My grandmother would then sneak a “lucky” coin into a random dumpling and place it on a plate with the other dumplings so that it was impossible to discern which dumpling housed the coin. After the dumplings are boiled in hot water, I help bring the never-ending supply of cooked dumplings to the table, and it is said that whoever bites into the lucky dumpling will have good fortune for the new year.

For dessert, everyone at the table enjoys nian gao, which literally means “year cake” in Mandarin. My mother and I usually kick everyone else out of the kitchen to whip up this deliciously sweet and chewy treat, lest they try to sneak a few bites before it ultimately gets to the table. I fry the homemade batter-coated nian gao until it reaches golden brown perfection, and then it is served hot.

Another Lunar New Year tradition is to eat tang yuan, or glutinous rice flour balls stuffed with sweet fillings such as red bean, black sesame, and taro. (Sesame is my personal favorite!) I can probably eat my weight in the tang yuan that my mom makes on the last day of the Lunar New Year, called Yuan Xiao Jie, or the Lantern Festival.

It took being away from home for me to fully realize just how much I valued these interactions with my family. I miss the sizzling sounds of nian gao in the pan. I miss making a mess of the flour and dumpling wrap. Most of all, I miss the familiarity and comfort of home, the shared laughter with the people I love most. It seems strange to be away from my family during a holiday that stresses the concept of family togetherness, but I made sure to call my parents and grandparents to wish them well. I am lucky without needing a lucky dumpling because I have them in my life, and I can’t wait to see them all again.

Jezell Lee