As a young girl, New York City Chinatown native Eileen Leong relished the aromas that wafted from the batches of black seaweed soaking in her mother's kitchen. "It was a yucky smell, but it meant that the New Year was coming," Leong remembers. The seaweed symbolizes luck, and was one of the many dishes her family made to welcome the Chinese New Year. "We would always spend a lot of time with the preparations. It's like Christmas. The whole family gets together and everyone is excited and busy and happy."
On January 26, 2009, the Year of the Ox begins — a year numbered 4707 on the Chinese lunar calendar. The holiday ushers in a 10-day period when families and friends exchange token gifts, give children red envelopes with "pocket money", and reunite over extravagant feasts. Tradition dictates that an even number of courses — often eight, 10 or 12 — be served at the meal, because multiples of two represent double happiness and fortune. Nearly every dish on the table, and nearly every ingredient in each dish, is loaded with meaning.
While each family has its own food traditions for the new year, most feasts include a whole fish. Because the sound "yue," or fish, is represented by the written character meaning "more than enough," the fish symbolizes togetherness and abundance. The fish is never fully eaten, signifying that the family will always have more than enough. To guarantee continuous good fortune, it's important not to break the fish during or after cooking.
Many dishes for the new year include whole or unbroken ingredients. Chickens are presented with head and feet, and leafy greens, noodles and other ingredients are not chopped. In fact, using knives, cleavers or any sharp object during the holiday season is considered unlucky because it may cut off or divide good luck.
On the last night of the New Year festivities, many families serve Fire Pot, a fondue-style meal where participants dip assorted meats, seafood, mushrooms, and noodles in a rich broth bubbling in a large pot on the table. Each simmering ingredient carries a special meaning. Long noodles represent long life. "Hao," or oysters, sounds like the word for "an auspicious occasion or event" and symbolize receptivity to good fortune. Lettuce, or "sang choi," symbolizes prosperity because its name sounds like the word meaning "to bring about wealth and riches."
Dumplings, which represent wealth, are always a treat. People often get together before the new year to prepare dumplings — which becomes a party in itself — so no one has to work over the holidays. "Everyone works their head off all year long," laughs Leong, "and once a year, they take some time off just to enjoy and get together."