For Chinese New Year, which is February 12, families gather from near and far to sweep out the old and ring in the new. The date is set by a lunar calendar, with each year represented by an animal. Today starts the Year of the Ox.
In Chinese culture, the new-year celebration continues for more than two weeks, ending with the Lantern Festival on the first full moon of the first month in the Chinese lunar calendar. It’s like Thanksgiving and Mardi Gras rolled into one.
Like family reunions worldwide, food plays a central role at Chinese New Year. Certain dishes symbolize luck and portend prosperity, especially when served on New Year’s Day itself (think of it as the Chinese equivalent of the Southern new-year ritual of serving black-eyed peas, greens, and ham).
Many of these symbolic foods are familiar here in Alabama.
What to eat on Chinese New Year:
Spring rolls, which are said to resemble gold bars, signify prosperity for the coming year. Their thin wrappings are made without egg (egg rolls were created in the United States), making the fried snacks crisp and golden. They are filled with seasoned meat, vegetables, or a combination.
Dumplings also are believed to foreshadow wealth in the coming year because they look like old-fashioned Chinese silver and gold ingots. The more you eat, the more money you’ll supposedly make. Served boiled, steamed, or pan-fried, they should have plenty of pleats along the seam where the filling is sealed inside — flat tops signal poverty, according to Chinahighlights.com. Similar to the plastic baby in a Mardi Gras King Cake, sometimes a coin is added to one of the dumplings, bringing good luck to the person who gets it.
Noodles are a symbol of longevity, and the tradition at the new year is to serve extra-long strands to slurp without cutting them.
Fish represents surplus, and those powers hit a peak when it’s steamed and served whole. Catfish and carp are considered especially auspicious, but any whole fish will fit the bill. When placed on the dinner table, the head of the fish should point toward a guest or an older relative as a sign of respect. The server utters a wish that everyone enjoys a surplus in the coming year. Don’t flip the fish when the top is picked clean; that could bring bad luck.
Other lucky foods to eat for Chinese New Year include savory cakes made from glutinous (sticky) rice, which symbolizes family togetherness, and tangerines or oranges to bring good luck in the coming year.
Where to celebrate Chinese New Year in Alabama:
If you’re going to usher in the Year of the Ox through Chinese food traditions, you’re best off seeking out restaurants that specialize in traditional Chinese food. The pandemic has left many dining rooms shuttered or at partial capacity, but they offer to-go options. Here are some traditional Chinese restaurants around Alabama, and symbolic New Year’s food they serve:
Great Wall (Birmingham): The gold standard in Birmingham, this restaurant serves a large variety of dumplings, spring rolls and creative dishes like spicy Dan Dan Noodles and whole Steamed Fish with ginger and scallions.
Red Pearl (Homewood): At this restaurant attached to an Asian market, find spring rolls; dumplings (fried, steamed, soup buns, shrimp haukay); noodles in entrees and soups; and steamed whole fish in brown sauce. A variety of whole-fish dishes are fried or sauteed as well.
Mr. Chen’s Authentic Chinese Cooking (Tuscaloosa, Montgomery, Homewood, Hoover): The multiple locations of this favorite restaurant serve spring rolls; dumplings (steamed, pan-fried, small soup bun); and noodles in entrees and soups.
Mr. Hui’s Peacock Express (Foley): Find spring rolls, dumplings, and noodles in entrees and soups.
Taste of Asia (Opelika): This restaurant’s New Year Dishes include spring rolls (vegetarian or shrimp); dumplings (steamed, fried, or soup bun); pan-fried noodle entrees; and noodle soup.
Ding How II (Huntsville): On the daily menu, you’ll find spring rolls, fried dumplings, noodle soups, and lo mein noodles. A special weekend dim sum menu includes spring rolls, steamed dumplings, fried dumplings, shiu mai dumplings, and dumplings shaped to resemble shark fins.
Eric Velasco is a freelance writer based in Birmingham. He has written for local, regional and national publications for nearly four decades, and was a longtime contributor to Birmingham Magazine. When he’s not cooking, he’s eating.