Each year Joanna C. Lee makes 600 to 800 dumplings to celebrate the Lunar New Year and then flings open the doors to her home to a stream of friends.
This year, because of the coronavirus pandemic, Lee is planning a socially distant version of the celebration that marks the beginning of the lunar calendar. She'll invite people to drop by on Feb. 12 and pick up a take-out container of the dumplings to celebrate the beginning of the 12 sometimes 13 cycles of the moon's phase that make up the lunar calendar.
"We are finding ways to make sure that my friends who I love will get some food, and I can see them,” says Lee who lives in New York City and, along with her husband, Ken Smith, writes The Pocket Chinese Almanac. They've published it every year since 2010, based in part on the predictions of a geomancer. The couple, both over 50, will also be following other traditions to bring luck and wealth into their lives in the coming year: starting off with a clean house (don't clean on Lunar New Year, though, or you'll risk sweeping out the good luck), clean clothes and full bottles of everything.
People across the U.S. are finding new ways to mark the Lunar New Year amid the pandemic. The holiday is celebrated by over 1.5 billion people across many Asian cultures and traditions — Tet in Vietnam, Seollal in Korea, Losar in Tibet. This year marks the Year of the Ox.
The Lunar New Year holiday is traditionally a time for families to gather, eat, decorate their homes and follow traditions to invite in luck and banish evil. Here are some ways you can celebrate this year.
Food for luck and prosperity
There's a buffet's worth of foods customarily eaten for Lunar New Year, though some dishes depend on whether you're celebrating with China, Vietnam, Thailand or other countries in mind, says Alan Kang, a chef-instructor at the Institute of Culinary Education in Los Angeles. Dumplings, with their plump fillings, look a bit like old-fashioned gold ingots and are thought to represent fortune, he says. “The more pleats in your dumplings, the wealthier you will be,” he says.
Try making your own dumplings with a recipe (see below) from the Institute of Culinary Education, or enjoy watching an online dumpling making demonstration Feb. 12 from the Asia Society Texas Center.
Pork and Chive Dumpling with Black Vinegar Dipping Sauce
Makes about 16-18 dumplings
- 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
- 1/4 bunch (about 2 ounces) Chinese chives, finely minced
- 1/2 pound fatty ground pork
- 2 teaspoons granulated sugar
- 2 teaspoons soy sauce
- 1/2 teaspoon sesame oil
- Pinch of white pepper
- 1 1/2 teaspoons Shaoxing rice wine
- 1 teaspoon water
- 1 teaspoon ginger, minced or grated with a Microplane grater
- 16-18 thick, round dumpling wrappers
Make the dumpling filling: Mix all ingredients except the dumpling wrappers and cornstarch in a medium-sized bowl with your hands until well combined. To test, cook a small piece of the filling and adjust seasoning to your liking. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and refrigerate it until you are ready to use, up to 24 hours.
Fill the dumplings: Place 1 tablespoon of filling in the center of a dumpling wrapper. Moisten the edges of the wrapper with a wet fingertip or a pastry brush. Fold it in half and pinch the bottom-right corner closed. Pleat the front edge of the wrapper repeatedly, pinching the edge closed after each pleat until the entire dumpling is sealed. Transfer the sealed dumplings to a sheet tray dusted with cornstarch.
Cook the dumplings: Bring a large pot of water to a boil, and season well with kosher salt. Add 10 to 12 dumplings and boil until they float (about 1 minute). Continue boiling for 2 minutes longer, then transfer to a plate with a wire-mesh spider or slotted spoon. Repeat with the remaining dumplings, working in batches. Serve with Black Vinegar Dipping Sauce.
Black Vinegar Dipping Sauce
Makes about 2/3 cup
- 1/4 cup soy sauce
- 1/4 cup black vinegar (or rice vinegar)
- 2 teaspoons sugar
- 2 tablespoons finely sliced scallion greens
- 2 teaspoons grated ginger
Combine all ingredients in a small bowl and set aside at room temperature.
Recipe credit: Institute of Culinary Education
Noodles (representing longevity), a whole fish (the Chinese word for fish is similar to the word for prosperity), and spring rolls, which resemble a golden bar when fried, are all often on the table, Kang says. His family's spread typically includes a whole steamed fish, noodles and dumplings and — if they're feeling “extra splurgy” — a Peking duck. For dessert, tang yuan — similar to a mochi ball, and often stuffed with sesame, red bean or lotus paste — is said to bring good fortune. Certain fruits and candies are also part of the tradition, Kang says. Citrus fruits — tangerines, pomelos and oranges — have a golden hue and a round fullness to symbolize wealth.
Learn more about Lunar New Year food traditions through this virtual event organized by the Smithsonian's National Museum of Asian Art.
Red and gold for an auspicious Lunar New Year
Red and gold bring good luck. Red is festive and bold to scare off bad luck, and gold was the color of the emperor, symbolizing prosperity, Smith says. People often wear red for Lunar New Year. For an added boost, some might invest in red underwear to continue wearing red in some form all year long, Lee says.
Printed signs and banners, typically red with gold lettering, emblazoned with lucky couplets or phrases can be hung all over the house, says Joanne Kwong, president of New York City-based Pearl River Mart, an emporium that features everything from furnishings to food with an Asian influence. Others like to decorate with the year's zodiac animal — this year the ox — or with paper lanterns or red infinity knots to draw good energy. If you're looking to make your own decorations this year, the Museum of Chinese in America created a video that demonstrates how to make paper flowers and beads for a Lunar New Year home makeover.
Make Your Own Red Envelopes and Party Crackers
Celebrate the Lunar New Year with red envelopes for distributing lucky cash and party crackers for scaring away bad luck. Make your own versions with AARP's PDFs, decorated for the Year of the Ox.
Older people and married couples also usually give out red envelopes filled with cash to children and unmarried singles, Kwong says. “Luck begets luck, so the more good wishes and cash you give, the more you will be lucky,” she says. You can easily make your own red envelopes at home. And if you want to scare away the evil spirits, try decorating with dragons, investing in some firecrackers, or making your own party cracker.
Virtual Lunar New Year Events
While some Lunar New Year events may be altered this year because of the pandemic, there's no shortage of ways to enjoy the holiday virtually. The live version of the annual San Francisco Chinese New Year Parade is moving online, with a parade special on Feb. 20 at 6 p.m. The Chinese Chamber of Commerce in San Francisco is also unveiling 11 life-size oxen, including one sponsored by AARP, to be publicly displayed across the city through March 14.
The Asia Society Texas Center has a full schedule of Lunar New Year events rolling out over a period of two weeks starting Feb. 12. Dance performances, craft demonstrations, a tour of a Vietnamese Buddhist temple and Chinese zodiac games are all part of the online festival.
You can also take a tour of Asian art at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Asian Art or send an e-card featuring some the museum's artwork to friends and family.
The Meaning of the Year of the Ox
The Chinese zodiac is based on the lunar calendar and classifies years in a 12-year cycle, each year represented by a different animal. This year is the Year of the Ox — the metal ox to be exact. The animal designations of the zodiac come from a Chinese legend that describes a great race sponsored by a prominent emperor. The order of the animal years in the 12-year cycle is based on the order in which the animals crossed the finish line of the race, says Joanna C. Lee, author of The Pocket Chinese Almanac along with her husband, Ken Smith.
The ox symbolizes strength, loyalty, persistence and steadiness — traits we might all need after the developments of last year's Year of the Rat. Those born in the Year of the Ox are said to have some of those diligent, dependable characteristics. And how does metal come in? Another layer to the lunar calendar are five elements — wood, fire, earth, metal and water — that are also assigned to each year. Determine your own Chinese zodiac sign with this calendar.
And while this Year of the Ox might be the time to keep your head down and plod forward, we might look ahead to 2022 and the Year of the Tiger — sure to bring some excitement and something new.
Michelle Davis covers home, family and multicultural stories and is a feature editor for AARP. Previously, she was the senior writer and social media strategist for EdWeek Market Brief and a senior correspondent at Education Week. She also was a regional correspondent in Knight Ridder's Washington bureau, covering the U.S. Congress and the White House.