Here at Local Roots NYC, we believe food connects us not only to our land and the people who grow our food, but it connects us to each other. Through our food stories, we can share intimate memories and when we cook a meal for others, we share our cultural heritage. Our Chinese New Year kit is the first edition to our Dinner Party Kits so you can easily cook a feast for your friends and loved ones with dishes that are significant to another New Yorker’s cultural identity. Below is a memory of Chinese New Year from our founder’s mother, Yea-Yea Ying.
When we escaped from China to Taiwan during the Cultural Revolution, we left our home behind and also some family, so being surrounded by the relatives and friends we had in our new home during this two week holiday made Chinese New Year very special.
Our New Year’s Day celebration started with my father lighting a long string of fire crackers hanging over our front gate. The loud sound is meant to chase the bad spirits away so that we would have a lucky new year. I would also help him hang up a sign that said “Spring” upside down to mean that spring is coming. It’s written on a red paper since the color brings good luck. Shortly after, the neighbors would begin to get together to knock on our door to wish us happy new year . My parents and I would then make our rounds in the neighborhood and joyously say “Shing nian kuai le!”, which meant “happy new year”, followed with a bow. Sometimes the children would be lucky to receive presents from the adults like a red money envelope in addition to candies and watermelon seeds
The same respect was given to our ancestors by positioning ourself in front of an altar that had burning incense and bowls of fruit and other treats. I would bow by touching my head to my knees and let the incense fill my lungs. We then turned to our parents who would hand us a red envelope, holding this treasure in both hands as the kids eagerly took it, excited to spend it to see the next big movie with actress Liang Tsau Bau; she was very famous back then and played male characters in movies.
Chinese New Year was everyone’s favorite holiday growing up because we gathered with loved ones and enjoyed a decadence of food and treats. Days before, my mother would prepare the food for the special Chinese New Year meal; all of my 5 siblings would countdown for this holiday the whole year. The dishes would include chicken, pork, beef and the mandatory fish dishes. The fish has to be a whole fish to mean completeness or entirety. The phonetic sound of fish in Chinese, “rue” also means “extra” or “left over”, meaning we would have food left over and we wouldn’t go hungry the next year. Times were different back then and we lived scarcely. By eating “rue”, we were wishing for overabundance and prosperity.
I have fond memories of being in the kitchen with my mother, smelling the delicate fragrance of Soy Sauce Chicken cooking on the stovetop. My mother would gracefully lower the whole chicken into the pot and, with the instinct of someone well-versed in the kitchen, she would carefully pull the chicken out of its broth when perfectly tender without a timer. The broth was really something special; simple to make but with a balance of savory, sweet, and almost floral flavor. Back in the days when food was not in such abundance, chicken was only served during special days such as birthdays or Chinese New Year, or as an offering to the gods. The chicken thigh was always considered the best part of the bird and served to the elders. Serving a whole bird symbolized family unity, a good marriage, and joy.
The dinner table would also be filled with dumplings, but they weren’t just any ordinary dumpling, they were money dumplings; if you were lucky, you could bite in and find a coin wrapped inside which meant you would have a prosperous year. A sweet dish that was a household favorite was nean gau, or rice cake which my mother would make by soaking sweet rice and grinding it into a stone grinder to make rice milk. She boiled the liquid until it became thick and finally steamed the liquid to make it into the final cake shape and texture. It was sweet but not very filling, and the texture is chewy. Other sweets we ate only on New Year’s Day were a variety of melon seeds such as salted, roasted, and winter melon seeds and an assortment of peanut candies.
The Lunar New Year meant I would get a new dress, hand made by our mother, and a pair of new shoes. We would wait all year for this new dress since new clothing was only given to us on very special occasions. When I was a child, I really treasured everything around me because we didn’t have much and would adoringly look at the stitching and fabric, grateful of the beautiful garment my mother made for me.
Chinese New Year is the happiest day for all children. On this special day we feel we have everything we could ever wish for – prosperity, happiness and hope. Most of all we have love from our parents. The difficult time from the previous year is long gone. The parents made sure their children feel like royalty on that one day!”