The Lunar New Year is more than exchanging greetings and blessings on the first day and eating dumplings. In Chinese culture, it’s a fifteen-day holiday on a schedule wherein each day is a celebration for a specific reason or requires doing something. Inspired by the traditions of each day, Simone Tong, chef and founder of Little Tong Noodle Shop — a restaurant in New York’s East Village that specializes in rice noodles inspired by noodles from Yunnan Province in southwest China — created a menu to be offered during the holiday. From February 15 – March 2, guests can learn about the meaning behind each day through sixteen (fifteen plus New Year’s Eve) daily specials that creatively interpret and delightfully teach the meaning behind each day.
The restaurant shared the menu last week, and descriptions and the reasons behind many of the dishes can be found below.
The first week of the Year of the Dog has already passed, but there’s still plenty of food to be eaten. Mark your calendars for which day you’re going to go!
2/15 — Chu Xi — New Year’s Eve
Shanghainese-style nian gao (rice cake).
The Chinese words Nian Gao literally mean “year cake.” The word “gao,” or cake, is also a homonym for the Chinese word meaning “high,” or a sense of rising. So, this rice cake symbolizes a coming year that is a “rise” from — or better than — the last.
2/16 — Spring Festival/New Year’s Day — Celebration of the Chicken
Shaokao (fire-grilled) chicken wings with gingko
2/17 — Chu Er — Celebration of the Dog
Goubuli 18-fold dumplings
Literally, “Dog Ignores” dumplings. This brand is actually a type of stuffed steam bun from Tianjin, but we’re adapting them to be dumplings. There are a lot of stories around why they’re called Goubuli but no one can really agree on just one. And while dumplings are most often eaten on the fifth day of the new year (to celebrate the birthday of the god of good fortune, as the shape of dumplings are meant to resemble Chinese gold ingots), we’re serving them on the day of the dog to give nod to the Year of the Earth Dog by offering the hallmark Chinese food item — both for the new year and in every day.
2/18 — Chu San — Celebration of the Pig
Red-cooked pork belly
This is a crowd pleaser on any special occasion!
2/19 — Chu Si — Celebration of the Lamb
2/20 — Chu Wu — Celebration of the Cow
2/21 — Chu Liu — Celebration of the Horse
Savory Chinese carrot cake
2/22 — Chu Qi — Celebration of the Human (Ren Ri)
Lao Yu Sheng (Prosperity Salad)
This is a Cantonese-style raw fish salad, usually consisting of raw fish, shredded vegetables, and a variety of sauces and condiments. Yu Sheng literally means “raw fish” but since “yu,” the Chinese word for “fish,” is a homophone for abundance, and “sheng” is a homophone for “yu sheng,” it is often interpreted as an increase in abundance. Thus, the dish is considered a symbol of abundance and prosperity.
According to Chinese folklore, Ren Ri was the day of creation of human beings, and Nuwa is the goddess who created the world. She created the aforementioned animals on different days, and human beings on the seventh day after the creation of the world.
Fishermen along the coast of Guangzhou traditionally celebrated the seventh day of the Chinese New Year by feasting on their catches. In Malaysia’s colonial past, migrants imported this tradition; porridge stalls sold a raw fish dish, which is believed to have originated in Jiangmen, Guangdong province, that consisted of fish, turnip and carrot strips served with condiments of oil, vinegar and sugar that were mixed in by customers.
Today’s version of Lao Yu Sheng and the practice of eating it on the seventh day of the Chinese New Year is pretty unique to Malaysia and Singapore. Four local chefs are credited with developing Yusheng as we know it today. They named the dish “Lucky Raw Fish” and popularized it as a New Year delicacy.
This dish is usually served as an appetizer to raise ‘good luck’ for the new year, by everyone gathering around the dining table and raising their chopsticks to mix the ingredients of the salad together. The higher one raises their chopsticks to mix the salad, the better luck one will get for the coming year.
Overall, it’s an eye-opening tale of how customs, tradition and authenticity are anything but static!
2/23 — Chu Ba — Celebration of Millet
Millet porridge with century egg
The eighth day of the new year is considered the birthday of millet, a critical crop of ancient China. While rice has taken over as a staple crop, the celebration of this day is still significant for the people who attach serious importance to agriculture and the cherishment of food (nose-to-tail, no waste!) It’s also believed that if the weather is clear on this day, the year of harvest will be abundant. But if the weather is cloudy or rainy, the harvest will suffer the entire year.
2/24 — Chu Jiu — Celebration of Jade
Qingtuan — a very traditional jade-green steamed stuffed sticky rice bun (that’s increasingly harder to find in China!)
This is the birthday of the Jade Emperor (the supreme deity of Taoism).
2/25 — Chu Shi — Celebration of Stone
This is the birthday of the God of Stone. The Chinese traditionally make offerings of pancakes to the god.
2/26 — Chu Shi-Yi — Celebration of the Woman
White wood-ear (also known as snow fungus or tremella) soup with goji berries
On this day, the Chinese welcome Zi Gu (the Purple Lady), who serves as a guardian angel to women.
Snow fungus and goji berry soup has long been believed to be a “women’s soup” (good for women due to its health benefits). It’s served when one needs to nourish and repair the body (particularly during pregnancy), and it’s known for its anti-inflammatory qualities. It’s also said that eating snow fungus keeps skin young due to its high collagen content.
2/27 — Chu Shi-Er — Celebration of Fire (specifically cypress)
Tea-smoked duck and cheese
It’s believed that cypress fire can drive out evil spirits, so in some parts of China, people will burn cypress branches or old furniture on this day as they prepare for the Lantern Festival (day 15).
2/28 — Chu Shi-San — Lantern-Viewing Day
Pumpkin, crab and salted duck yolk stir-fry
In the north, day 13 of the new year is an ominous day with a legend that refers to a death between a father and son. But in the south, where we’re from, day 13 is a day to go to local temples and appreciate the lanterns ahead of the Lantern Festival.
3/1 — Chu Shi-Si — Celebration of the Dragon
Red snapper and dragon fruit slaw
This is the day of preparation for the ultimate next day: the Lantern Festival. Performers begin to practice lion and dragon dancing in the streets for the festival.
3/2 — Chu Shi-Wu — Lantern Festival
Yuan Xiao (sweet sticky rice ball soup)
This is the ultimate day of celebration. In the morning, dancing dragons and lions parade down the streets filled with people. The outdoor celebrations continue through the afternoon. In the evening, people go out to light colorful lanterns as families unite to enjoy the full moon.
With this full moon viewing, we eat Yuan Xiao — also known as Tang Yuan (literally meaning “soup ball”) — sticky rice balls filled with black sesame paste and served in either a clear or sweet soup. It’s the most universal food eaten during the Chinese Lantern Festival. It elicits sentiments of togetherness, because “tang yuan” is a homophone for union (“tuan yuan”), and because the round shape of the balls (as well as the round bowls they are served in) symbolize unity.