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Chef Martin Yan Explains Lunar New Year’s Connection to Food

The longtime host of ‘Yan Can Cook’ says there’s symbolism in many dishes

spinner image Martin Yan, celebrity chef
Stephanie Jan, Yan Can Cook, Inc.

​​Martin Yan is always in motion. ​

In the kitchen of his Bay Area home, he flits behind an island table filled with his latest creations: meatballs, rice pudding and lotus sandwiches artfully presented with a tableau of red envelopes and golden oranges. ​

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The chef, who started cooking on TV for an American audience in 1982, just finished livestreaming a free monthly cooking demonstration in partnership with On Lok, a nonprofit center that provides services to older adults in the Bay Area. The menu is timely: Lunar New Year dishes.​

The livestream is a different production than Yan Can Cook, the long-running PBS cooking show that made him a household name before the term “celebrity chef” was part of the pop culture zeitgeist. But Yan, 74, who was born in China, doesn’t miss a beat. He talks directly to the camera and flashes his megawatt smile while distilling Lunar New Year cuisine. ​

On January 22, many Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders will celebrate Lunar New Year and usher in the Year of the Rabbit. Traditional Lunar New Year food is steeped in symbolism, Yan says. He’s been the self-proclaimed ambassador of Chinese food and culture in the U.S. for over 40 years. Last year, he won the James Beard Lifetime Achievement Award. ​

For Lunar New Year, Yan spoke with AARP about the role that food plays in marking the occasion. ​

Why is food a central part of Lunar New Year celebrations? 

Yan: Lunar New Year is also referred to as Spring Festival. That’s the time that in most parts of China is the springtime. Basically, to celebrate Lunar New Year is also celebrating the coming of a new spring. Food plays a very important, pivotal role in the celebration of any special auspicious occasion. And Chinese New Year is by far the most auspicious occasion, the most celebrated occasion in the Chinese lunar calendar.​

Is there symbolism behind some dishes? 

You go to any Chinese restaurant during Chinese New Year, they will always serve the whole fish — never fish fillets. You want to serve the whole fish because when you serve whole, that is wholesomeness; that is completeness. You don’t want to have part of the fortune. You want to have the complete fortune. Fish is . In Chinese it sounds like “abundance.” Shrimp and lobster are often served, too, because shrimp and lobster look like a traditional, mystical dragon. Then, of course, another thing served on all auspicious occasions, particularly Lunar New Year, are noodles. Noodles are long, right? Being long is symbolic of long life. ​​

Should people try to go vegetarian on Lunar New Year? 

That’s another [symbol] to show people that “thou shall not kill.” Buddhists are vegetarians. They do not eat any meat. They do not kill any animals. They don’t even eat garlic and ginger, some of the stricter ones. Because ginger and garlic are so aromatic, they can stimulate your desire. Being a Buddhist monk, you always pray. You always sit down and contemplate, and you don’t want to get yourself too excited. Garlic, ginger and onion get you very excited because they’re very aromatic. Fortunately, I’m not a monk so I can eat anything. 

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Why is lotus root a dish for special occasions? 

In many parts of China, when people get married, they would have two of these [lotus roots]. Wrap it up with red paper. This symbolizes once you get married, you will stick together forever. Why? Let me show you. [He cuts the lotus root in half and slowly pulls the two sides apart. The fibers inside form weblike strands connecting the two sides.] No matter how far your path, you are connected. Once you get married, you’re stuck. ​

What do you predict for the Year of the Rabbit? 

I think we’re entering into a wonderful year. Hopefully, all of us learn to respect each other and live with each other. Right now, the world is really in turmoil — a lot of challenges, a lot of problems and a lot of violence. And recently a lot of Asian hate crimes. So that’s the reason why I think we should all learn to respect each other. The more you understand people, the more you understand food, the more you understand how to live with each other and respect each other’s culture and heritage.​

What’s your advice for celebrating Lunar New Year in a Chinese restaurant? 

Most of the Chinese restaurants actually have special Chinese New Year menus, so just ask for the Chinese New Year menu. Any good, popular Chinese restaurant will have a Chinese New Year menu. Then ask them to explain to you what [the dishes] are. If they don’t know how to do it, ask them to call me on my cell phone and I’ll show them how they should interpret.​

How does food help create community? 

Food brings people together, and food breaks down the barriers. It doesn’t matter where you come from. We sit [at] a dining table, we’re all good friends. That’s the reason why despite all these problems in society, I still keep very, very busy because I use food as a medium to bring people together. Everybody loves good food. I have a mission. That mission is, I’m an ambassador. I try to introduce Asian culture — Chinese food and Chinese culture — to the American public.​

spinner image Four happiness meatballs dish from Martin Yan
Stephanie Jan, Yan Can Cook, Inc.

Lunar New Year Recipes

Chef Martin Yan shared two of the recipes featured on Yan Can Cook that are perfect for ushering in the Year of the Rabbit. ​

Four Happiness Meatballs

Makes 4 meatballs ​


  • 2 tablespoons dried shrimp (optional)​
  • 12 ounces lean ground pork​
  • 4 ounces raw shrimp, shelled, deveined, coarsely chopped​
  • ¼ cup water chestnuts, coarsely chopped (fresh or canned)​
  • 1 green onion, thinly sliced​
  • 2 teaspoons chopped ginger​
  • 1 egg white​
  • 2 tablespoons Shao Hsing wine or dry sherry​
  • 2 tablespoons cornstarch​
  • ½ teaspoon salt​
  • 1 teaspoon sugar​
  • ¼ teaspoon white pepper​


  • 1½ cups chicken broth​
  • 2 tablespoons oyster-flavored sauce​
  • 1 teaspoon fish sauce​
  • 1 teaspoon sesame oil​
  • Cooking oil for frying​
  • 8 baby bok choy leaves, halved​
  • 1½ teaspoons cornstarch dissolved in 2 tablespoons water (optional)​


Soak shrimp in warm water to cover for 30 minutes; drain. Mince shrimp and combine with remaining meatball ingredients. Set aside for 30 minutes. Shape into 4 large meatballs. Combine sauce ingredients in a medium bowl; set aside.​

Add cooking oil to wok or stir-fry pan to a depth of about 2 inches and heat over high heat to 350°F. Add meatballs, turning occasionally; cook until golden brown, about 3 minutes. Lift out and drain on paper towels. Place meatballs and sauce in a pan. Cover and simmer over medium-low heat for 12 to 15 minutes. Place bok choy leaves over meatballs. Cover and simmer 8 to 10 minutes longer. ​

For a thicker sauce, transfer bok choy and meatballs to a platter with a slotted spoon. Add cornstarch solution to sauce in pan over medium heat; cook, stirring, until sauce boils and thickens.​

spinner image Eight treasures rice pudding dish
Stephanie Jan, Yan Can Cook, Inc.

Eight Treasures Rice Pudding

Makes 8 servings​

  • 1¼ cups glutinous rice (sweet rice)​
  • 1 tablespoon sugar or to taste​
  • ½ cup lotus seed paste or red bean paste​

Toppings (your choice) ​

  • ⅓ cup mixed dried fruit (e.g., apricots, pineapple, persimmon, cranberry, apples, raisins)​
  • 2 tablespoons shelled pistachios ​
  • 6 dried red dates, seeds removed​
  • 1 tablespoon pumpkin seeds ​


  • ⅔ cup water​
  • 3 tablespoons coconut milk or 1 tablespoon ginger juice​
  • ⅓ cup sugar​
  • 2½ teaspoons cornstarch mixed with 5 teaspoons water​
  • 4 teaspoons Triple Sec or Grand Marnier (optional)​


  • Shredded coconut​
  • Chopped pistachios​


Soak rice in warm water to cover overnight; drain well, leaving about 1 tablespoon water in rice. Toss with sugar. ​

Coat or spray a bowl to prevent rice from sticking. Arrange an even layer of half of toppings of your choice attractively on bottom of bowl. Layer half of rice on top. ​

Form lotus seed or red bean paste into a flat circle, slightly smaller than diameter of bowl, and lay circle on top of rice. Place remaining rice over paste, gently pressing rice down with a spoon to flatten.​

Place bowl in a steamer or on a rack in a wok. Cover and steam rice pudding over medium heat for 50 minutes to 1 hour, replenishing water as needed.​

While pudding is steaming, heat water, coconut milk and sugar in a small saucepan. Cook over medium heat, stirring, until syrup is reduced by about half. Thicken with cornstarch solution. Just before serving, add Triple Sec and mix well.​

To serve

Place a serving plate over rice pudding bowl and invert, gently shaking to unmold. Pour hot syrup over pudding. Sprinkle with shredded coconut and chopped pistachios; serve.​

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