Updated on April 21, 2016
Welcome Year of the Rabbit! Chinese New Year is here! The New Year celebration is the major holiday of the year in China, starting February 3rd and lasting two weeks. It’s a time for families to come together and celebrate, including having a special holiday meal. Seafood is often served at that meal, so it affords an opportunity to consider what recipes naturally incorporate ocean-friendly seafood choices.
I was fortunate to have the chance to speak with Grace Young, author of The Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchen, The Breath of a Wok, and Stir-frying to the Sky’s Edge, about Chinese New Year, the foods that are normally associated with it, and the symbolic meanings that make these “must have” dishes at any New Year’s meal.
RC: Can you tell me a little bit about Chinese New Year and the foods that are normally served as part of the celebrations?
GY: Like Thanksgiving, Chinese New Year is a time for visiting family and family reunions. It is also a celebration of the Spring Festival, a time for renewal and the beginning of the agricultural year.
People spend the first few days celebrating and after that they generally go back to work and visit friends and relatives on the weekends, bringing oranges, tangerines, and lucky money packets called lai see in Cantonese.
Symbols are important during Chinese New Year, and they are powerful as well as meaningful. For example, most businesses are closed for the first day, but hair salons are closed for several days at the beginning of the holiday. One would never cut one’s hair during this time of the year, because that would represent cutting off good fortune. Similarly, people avoid going to the doctor or pharmacist during the entire two weeks of the holiday because they don’t want to entertain thoughts of illness or medical problems. People also avoid using a knife or sharp object on the first day of the year because it cuts off luck.
RC: Can you tell me about the major holiday meal?
GY: The New Year’s Eve dinner is the most important meal during the New Year celebration and it has traditionally been cooked and served at home. These days, many young people in China lack the knowledge of how to prepare the dishes usually offered at this meal, or they just can’t be bothered to make them. Also, many older people in China grew up when going to a restaurant was unheard of, and now that restaurants are plentiful and affordable, they consider it more convenient and easier than having to spend time cooking.
Whether eaten at home or in a restaurant, the foods served at the dinner are largely symbolic, and some luxury dishes are served to celebrate the holiday as well, such as lobster, shrimp, and crabs. Of all the meals served over the course of a year, this is the one where families “go all out.” Among the symbolic dishes served are fish, shrimp, clams, chicken, pork, dumplings, lettuce, mushrooms, and noodles.
RC: Can you tell me about some of those symbols?
GY: Fish are always served whole – head to tail – at Chinese New Year. The wholeness of the fish represents a favorable beginning and end to the New Year. Fish also represent marital bliss and fertility. The word for fish is also a homonym for abundance. The whole fish is always the last dish served, and diners always make sure to leave some on the platter to serve the next day, symbolizing carrying over some of the prosperity from the passing year into the new one.
It doesn’t matter how the fish is prepared – deep-fried, steamed, or poached – as long as it is whole. Because it needs to be whole, this is a time when a stir-fried fish dish would not be served.
The name for shrimp, ha, sounds like laughter, so shrimp are associated with happiness and joy. When they are still in their shells, clams and scallops look like ancient Chinese coins, so they are associated with prosperity and good fortune. Other foods’ symbolism is based on their names being homonyms, like the fish. The name for oysters is a homonym for good business. The name for lettuce sounds like the expression for growing fortune. Other foods that are symbolic include lobster, which is symbolic of the dragon, which is itself symbolic of power and good luck. Eggs are symbolic of fertility; noodles, of longevity; scallions represent intelligence; pork represents family unity and bounty; whole chickens represent the wholeness of life, and cilantro represents compassion.
RC: What recipes can you recommend for people to try at home to celebrate this holiday?
GY: Classic Dry-Fried Salt and Pepper Shrimp and a recipe for Stir-fried Mussels from Stir-frying to the Sky’s Edge, (See the end of this post for these recipes.)
RC: Thanks, Grace! I really appreciate your taking the time to talk with us about Chinese New Year cultural traditions. Happy New Year!
GY: Happy New Year to you too!
For those interested in learning more about food rituals and beliefs associated with Chinese New Year, check out Grace’s book The Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchen. She has also written The Breath of a Wok and her newest book is Stir-frying to the Sky’s Edge. Learn more about Grace and her award-winning books at graceyoung.com.
There are many seafood dishes that can easily be made using sustainable fish and shellfish. When making these choices, it’s also a good time to look at whether mercury might be an issue for some of the seafood usually served. Anyone who eats a seafood-heavy diet should take a moment to familiarize him or herself with the list of fish that tend to contain higher levels of contaminants (including mercury) than other choices. The Blue Ocean seafood guide indicates which fish might have high levels of mercury. (Here is a video that explains how mercury gets into seafood.)
Classic Dry-Fried Salt and Pepper Shrimp
When choosing shrimp, you can make ocean-friendly choices. See our guide to shrimp. Wild-caught Canadian Shrimp or wild-caught Pink or Alaskan Spot Shrimp from the USA come from abundant populations and are caught in ways that result in little bycatch, making them ocean-friendly choices. Shrimp farmed in the USA are “light green” choices.
Classic Dry-Fried Pepper and Salt Shrimp
by Grace Young
There are many versions of this beloved dry stir-fry. The absence of liquid in the stir-fry allows you to experience a concentrated shrimp flavor accented by garlic, ginger, chilies, and Sichuan peppercorns. For this reason, it’s imperative to use the freshest ingredients. In recent years my fishmonger has been carrying fresh shrimp and in this recipe you can really taste the difference. Defrosted frozen shrimp will work; just make sure it’s the best quality possible.
2 tablespoons plus ½ teaspoon salt
1 pound large shrimp, peeled and deveined
¼ teaspoon sugar
¼ teaspoon roasted and ground Sichuan peppercorns
2 tablespoons peanut or vegetable oil
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1 tablespoon minced ginger
1 teaspoon minced jalapeno chili, with seeds
1. In a large bowl combine 1 tablespoon of the salt with 1 quart cold water. Add the shrimp and swish the shrimp in the water with your hand for about 30 seconds. Drain. Add 1 more tablespoon salt to the bowl with 1 quart of cold water and repeat. Rinse the shrimp under cold water and set on several sheets of paper towels. With more paper towels, pat the shrimp dry. IN a small bowl combine the remaining ½ teaspoon salt, sugar and ground Sichuan peppercorns.
2. Heat a 14-inch flat bottomed wok or a 12-inch skillet over high heat until a bead of water vaporizes within 1 to 2 seconds of contact. Swirl in 1 tablespoon of the oil, add the garlic, ginger and chili, then using a metal spatula, stir-fry 10 seconds or until the aromatics are fragrant. Push the garlic mixture to the sides of the wok, carefully add the shrimp, and spread them evenly in one layer in the wok. Cook undisturbed 1 minute, letting the shrimp begin to sear. Swirl in the remaining 1 tablespoon oil and stir-fry 1 minute or until the shrimp just begin to turn orange. Sprinkle on the salt mixture and stir-fry 1 to 2 minutes or until the shrimp are just cooked.
Serves 2 as a main dish with rice or 4 as part of a multicourse meal.
Stir-fried Mussels with Ginger and Scallions
Mussels are one of the most ocean-friendly choices one can make! They are filter feeders, which means that they don’t need to be given additional feed and they actually clean the water. Farming mussels requires very low amounts of energy use, so it’s efficient in that way as well. Most farmed mussels are grown on ropes, but some farmed mussels are grown on the seafloor. Blue Mussels, also known as Bay Mussels, are an ocean-friendly choice, as are Green Mussels from New Zealand and Mediterranean Mussels.
Stir-Fried Mussels with Ginger and Scallions
By Grace Young
When Chef Danny Chan prepared this recipe for me he used New Zealand greenshell mussels that were meaty and delicious. I have had equally excellent results with both wild and cultivated black mussels. It is critical to stir-fry mussels immediately after removing each mussel’s beard, which looks like a tuft of hairy fibers. Mussels must be alive when cooked, and they die soon after the beard is removed. This is an example of a “raw stirfry.” There are no ingredients that require precooking before stir-frying.
1 pound mussels (about 2 dozen)
2 tablespoons Shao Hsing rice wine or dry sherry
2 teaspoons soy sauce
1 teaspoon dark soy sauce
1?4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
1?2 teaspoon cornstarch
2 tablespoons peanut or vegetable oil
1 tablespoon finely shredded ginger
1 tablespoon thinly sliced garlic
1 tablespoon chopped scallion, white part only, plus
2 scallions, cut into 2-inch sections
1 teaspoon sesame oil
1. Thoroughly wash the mussels in several changes
of cold water, discarding any open mussels. Grab the
beard near the shell opening and give it a firm tug
to remove it. Scrub the shells with a stiff brush to
remove the grit and rinse well. Drain the mussels in
a colander, shaking out excess water. Pat dry with
paper towels. In a small bowl combine the rice wine,
soy sauce, dark soy sauce, and pepper. In a separate
small bowl combine the cornstarch and 1 tablespoon
2. Heat a 14-inch fl at-bottomed wok or 12-inch skillet
over high heat until a bead of water vaporizes within
1 to 2 seconds of contact. Swirl in the peanut oil, add
the ginger, garlic, and the 1 tablespoon chopped scallions,
and stir-fry 10 seconds or until the aromatics
are fragrant. Add the mussels and swirl the rice wine
mixture into the wok. Cover and cook on high heat
1 minute. Uncover, restir the cornstarch mixture,
and swirl it into the wok. Add the remaining cut scallions
and stir-fry 1 to 2 minutes or until the mussels
have just opened. Stir in the sesame oil. Discard any
Serves 2 as a main course with rice or 4 as part of a multicourse meal.
Grace Young has been called variously the Stir-Fry Guru by the New York Times, the Wok Queen by the Washington Post, and the Wok Evangelist by the popular website Chow.com. Her newest cookbook Stir-Frying to the Sky’s Edge was named one of the top cookbooks of 2010 by NPR, Washington Post, and Huffington Post. Grace’s career has been devoted to demystifying the art of stir-frying and celebrating wok cookery. She even travels with her own carbon-steel wok packed in her hand carry-luggage when she lectures, braving airport security in order that students can behold the beauty of a well-seasoned wok and experience the superior taste of a wok- cooked stir-fry. Grace Young is a three-time IACP award-winning writer, recipient of the World Food Media Award, Gourmand World Cookbook Award, and the eGullet Culinary Journalist Scholarship. She is the author of the award-winning Simon and Schuster books The Breath of a Wok and The Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchen.