Why I Challenge Myself to Make a New Dumpling Every Lunar New Year
For me, keeping old traditions alive while creating new ones is what the holiday is all about.
Lunar New Year is a big deal in my family. It signifies the passing of a whole year, according to the Lunar calendar, and Asian families around the world celebrate it with good food and time-honored traditions. The amount of prep work involved — and food served — would make you think we were celebrating Thanksgiving all over again!
For most of my life, I celebrated Lunar New Year by putting on my best red-centric outfit and gathering with my whole family for dinner at my grandparents’ house. We would feast on noodles, whole steamed fish and roast pork, and stuff our pockets with Chinese candies. As a kid, I excitedly looked forward to receiving red envelopes (hong bao) filled with lucky money from all the adults in the family, and watching the lion dances at our local Chinatown plaza.
I now live almost 3,000 miles away from my family, who are all in my hometown of Cleveland, Ohio. It’s been a few years since I’ve been able to fly back home to celebrate Lunar New Year with them, but I’ve managed to continue some of the traditions on my own and create a few new traditions along the way!
In terms of prep, I make sure to dedicate a few days to totally deep clean my house and decorate it with a few touches of red and gold New Year flair. It’s tradition to clean the house before New Year’s day because it symbolizes sweeping away any bad luck from the year prior. It also feels good to start anything new feeling fresh and clean! I place little mandarin oranges (with the stem leaves still intact) on tables and shelves throughout my house and kitchen, and I hang up a few paper lanterns, both bringing good fortune and some colorful cheer to my home. I also arrange a vase with budding cherry blossoms or quince branches because the seemingly dead branches with buds that still blossom represent new life, and simply look beautiful on my dining table. My grandma loves to decorate her house with a new red and gold Chinese calendar and couplets hand-painted by my grandpa.
I make dumplings year-round, but I especially like to stock my freezer with dumplings for the New Year. Dumplings symbolize wealth because they look like little pouches of money. As tradition goes, the more dumplings you eat, the richer you will be! A few days before my Lunar New Year dinner, I’ll prepare a bunch of different dumpling fillings and knead dough of various colors for a dumpling-making marathon. It’s a great time to practice my pleating skills and a fun occasion to invite friends over to help me pleat. I make my family’s classic pork and shrimp dumplings every year, but I’ve made it a tradition to create a brand-new dumpling filling as a challenge to myself. This year, I’m making Scallop Wontons in a Soy Butter Sauce and they may be one of my favorite dumplings yet!
Scallops are already popular for Lunar New Year because their round shape makes them look like gold coins, so these dumplings are extra lucky in the financial department. I wanted to keep the dumpling filling fairly simple to really let the flavor of the scallops shine. Minced jalapeño adds a gentle heat that compliments the natural sweetness and salinity of high-quality scallops. I also use green onions in practically any dumpling I mix. Tossing the wontons in soy sauce and butter with a touch of chili flake is also a non-traditional route that I will continue to repeat after this New Year. It’s a rich sauce that coats and seeps into every groove of the wontons, and butter is always an excellent partner for scallops.
For my big Lunar New Year feast, I invite as many people that can cram together at my dining table (or my house, depending on if I’m in the mood to host a Lunar New Year house party instead). It’s a rotating cast of old friends, new acquaintances, coworkers and neighbors. I treat my meal as a way to connect with people and share a little bit of my culture with them. I explain to curious minds what a "Tray of Togetherness" is, and convince them that candied winter melon is actually really delicious!
Traditionally, there’s at least 8 dishes (a lucky number) on the dinner table, and each one represents a wish for the New Year. Long hand-pulled noodles symbolize longevity. Freshly golden-fried spring rolls resemble bricks of gold and represent wealth. An abundance of leafy green vegetables stir-fried with oyster sauce and garlic embody health and wellness. Glutinous rice cakes called Nian Gao bring prosperity and positive growth in the future. I craft my menu based on my hopes and intentions for the year ahead.
No matter what I serve for dinner, I feel connected to my family as if I’m celebrating with them at my grandma’s table. That feeling of connection embodies the spirit of Lunar New Year. It’s a holiday full of poetic symbolism, hope for the future and focus on being present with the people you care most about, no matter how far away they are. It’s my favorite holiday to celebrate, and I’ll continue to do so with the traditions I’ve learned from my family and the new traditions I make each year.
Kristina Cho is a food blogger (@eatchofood) and cookbook author based out of the San Francisco Bay Area. Her debut cookbook, Mooncakes and Milk Bread, is an evocative and long-overdue celebration of Chinese baking that brings together personal storytelling with fresh, uncomplicated interpretations of classic recipes for the modern baker. The book was released to much acclaim and named one of the Best Cookbooks of 2021 by The New Yorker.