Can Food Save Lunar New Year in America?
On the eve of the Year of the Pig, Asian-American chefs weigh in on the modern state of our under-appreciated spring festival.
February 4, 2019 ● 7 min read
By Dan Q. Dao | Photographs courtesy Shuai Wang, Thomas Kim/ Art by ChefsFeed
Growing up in a traditional Vietnamese family, we enjoyed a simple New Year celebration, or Tet, at my grandma’s house. The kids would recite well-wishes to the adults, for prosperity or health, in order to receive red envelopes filled with good luck money. Sometimes, we’d play a traditional low-stakes betting game involving dice, watch lion dance performances in Houston’s Chinatown, or go out for a big feast nearby.
Despite enjoying the occasion, I never spoke of it at school. My American friends would never understand, and who could blame them? For all the classic New Year’s Eve moments in films like When Harry Met Sally or Bridget Jones’ Diary, I can’t think of a single Tet moment on screen.
Though the Lunar New Year spring festival is observed by some 1.5 billion people across the Sinosphere (China, South Korea, Taiwan, and Vietnam), Asian-Americans are a proportionately small group, one accustomed to invisibility. Our history has long been a footnote in school textbooks, our elders’ broken accents the butt of endless jokes, and our foods exotic spectacles. It’s a perpetual-foreigner status, coupled with a survivalist, must-assimilate-now mentality of earlier generations.
If you grew up Asian, cultural shame is likely a familiar story. It’s that “time I brought a smelly lunch to school” story. “I think a lot of people grew up in the same situation we did, bringing the traditional lunch to school,” remembers Houston-born chef Dennis Ngo of Di An Di, a modern Vietnamese charmer in Brooklyn. “I might have been proud of my culture at home, but it wasn’t always easy outside.”
Come this Year of the Pig, however, many of us are likely telling a much different story than we were 10 years ago—thanks in part to the recent breakthroughs of Asian-Americans in every arena from film to sports and food. These days, I get fewer nail-salon jokes and more Crazy Rich Asian compliments; people are less weirded-out by what I’m eating and more interested in my experience growing up with Vietnamese-Cajun crawfish™, as seen on David Chang’s Netflix series, Ugly Delicious.
“It feels like the world’s finally caught up now, and food played a huge part in that,” Ngo says. “It gives us a reason to celebrate our culture every day.”
But despite this progress, I can’t help but wonder how much damage has already been done to the ultimate fate of our traditions. Years and miles of separation from the homeland of our forefathers—along with the burning desire to be seen as American—have eroded so many pillars of heritage, from religion to language. I often struggle thinking about whether I even have the ability to pass down my half-proficient Vietnamese to my kids one day. And what will happen to Chinese, Korean, or Vietnamese New Year when no one can speak Chinese, Korean, or Vietnamese?
After all, with every generation, a little more is lost. Such is the bittersweet reality of becoming more American—you become less of whatever else you’re holding on to. My parents, to their credit, forced my brother and me to read books and write essays in Vietnamese every Sunday of our childhood, and still to this day remind us to light incense and pray to our ancestors. But such daily struggles go unseen outside the home—with much of tradition being performed privately—and it’s tough to know what really counts until it’s too late. Lunar New Year, however, stands a chance thanks to one element of universal appeal: food.
So it may well be those dishes, with their powerful ability to evoke memory and nostalgia, that ensures the longevity of Lunar New Year. In China, that’s dumplings, representing little purse pockets for wealth, while in Korean culture, it’s tteogkguk rice cake soup, each round disc conjuring the image of money coins. Perhaps it’s through these dishes, ingrained in our memories since childhood, that a holiday like Lunar New Year can be celebrated, and understood, in any language.
“My kids go to a Chinese school and their knowledge of characters has already surpassed mine,” explains pioneering New York restaurateur Wilson Tang of Nom Wah Tea Parlor and Boys Don’t Cry. “So I use food to explain Lunar New Year to them. I tell them we have the eggroll to symbolize a gold bar of wealth, noodles for longevity, and the sesame balls, whose roundness means we are coming full circle. These are the talking points we can share with our children.”
Corrie and Shuai Wang | Courtesy Shuai Wang and the Charleston Food and Wine Festival
Other dishes are chosen for their color—in Vietnamese Tet celebrations, you might be greeted with a tray of chalky dried fruits and candied coconut known as mut tet. They can be a bit bitter and off-putting, especially if you get a big piece of ginger, but their golden hues made them auspicious for the coming year. “As a kid, I didn’t love them but I’d still try to eat them every year to make sure they were still not good,” jokes chef Christina Nguyen of Hai Hai in Minneapolis.
And beyond specific dishes, there’s the broader ritual and labor that goes into preparing these grandiose feasts, which speaks loudly to the family-centric ethos of Lunar New Year. “As a child, I remember going to the wet market to shop for all the ingredients for the big Lunar New Year meal,” recalls chef Eric Sze of the lauded Taiwanese newcomer 886. “The market would be in full force by the crack of dawn as people swarmed and jostled each other for the best fish or cut of pork. It was loud, crowded, decked out in and red and gold—amazing.”
Ngo remembers making the labor-intensive banh chung, the traditional Vietnamese glutinous rice cake wrapped in banana leaf. “Banh chung is not a one-person job—you’ve got to get the entire family together to roll it and wrap it,” he says.
It’s the communal aspect that separates Lunar New Year from the western New Year, a day to set resolutions and drink the past year away. During Lunar New Year, you think about how to wish success for loved ones and drink to celebrate what you’ve been given thus far. “American New Year is a lot more focused on self-improvement and ‘new year, new you’ resolutions,” says Sze. “Lunar New Year is much more about the community and wishing wellness for everyone.”
“I think of it as a Chinese Thanksgiving because the whole family gathers, makes dinner together, plays games, shoots fireworks, and eats until we need to lay down—then eats some more,” adds Shuai Wang, chef-owner of Short Grain in Charleston. “There’s no counting down the clock, pouring champagne down your throat till you can’t see, confetti, and all that. It’s more of a celebration about food, family, good health, and fortune.”
While most of the chefs we spoke to believed that Lunar New Year could persist through future generations, it’s important to remember that Asian-American groups hardly have a monolithic experience of assimilation. According to a 2013 Pew Research Center study, 93% of Vietnamese-Americans said they still celebrated Lunar New Year, compared to 82% of Chinese-Americans, and 45% of Korean-Americans. Korean-American chefs Thomas Kim and Kat Melgaard of The Left Handed Cook in La Crescenta say they’re not sure if their daughter will celebrate Lunar New Year as an adult.
“Our daughter recently participated in her first seol-nal and, while she enjoyed the activities and going through the customs with her cousins, I don't think she would continue the traditions on her own,” Melgaard says. An attempt to feature traditional food at their restaurant didn’t go over as well as expected. “We tried to introduce tteokguk (rice cake soup) in our restaurant but the texture of the rice cakes didn't appeal to our guests.”
Thomas Kim and Kat Melgaard | Courtesy of Thomas Kim
In planning the menu for a Tet party at Di An Di, Ngo similarly feared that guests would not take to the dense texture of the classic banh chung. “It would be too filling,” says Ngo, who instead prepared a four-course prix-fixe menu with a more familiar-to-westerners format—dishes include Vietnamese charcuterie, crab soup, crispy pork, sticky rice, and a pomelo pudding.
Lunar New Year parties like the one at Di An Di have become more popular than ever. I vividly remember feeling fat, happy, and proud leaving one such feast at Mission Chinese Food in 2016, where some of the country’s top chefs had come together to turn out amped-up papaya salads, green tea noodles, and “orange chicken sweetbreads” to a star-studded crowd that included Aziz Ansari and Padma Lakshmi. As I turned my back to the firecrackers being set off out front, I thought to myself: is Lunar New Year cool now?
For better or worse, assimilation has done a number on the grip of Asian-American traditions. On the surface, this means traditional wedding garments replaced with suits and bridal gowns, but on a deeper level, it means a shift from filial piety—that is, the virtue of obedience to one’s parents—to the American ideal of self-fulfillment. Now, the mainstream acceptance of our culture offers a chance to become more American than ever while still consciously preserving the integrity and essence of who we are. No one is better equipped to lead the way and function as an intermediary between two worlds than Asian-American chefs.
“Because we grew up here immersed in both cultures, we feel more empowered to give voice to our Asian-ness—and Americans are more likely to listen because we have a lot in common with them,” explains Nguyen. “I think that as more second generation Asian-Americans are coming of age, we are opening businesses or doing creative things that give us a platform to educate people about our cultures through food, entertainment, and art. And luckily, now we’re in a time where the world is a lot smaller and people do care to learn about different cultures, so it’s cool to be curious and educated about these things.”
Our hybrid lives have produced new traditions and created distinct hyphenated identities, but there’s something to be said for going back to and reconnecting with the places we came from. Nguyen tells me it was a trip to Vietnam that woke her up; that urged her to explore her heritage and keep those traditions alive. This year, she’ll spend her very first Tet in Vietnam, and she’s bringing her family who has not been back since they fled following the Vietnam War.
“It’s hard to say if Lunar New Year will become more prominent in the US—I think it will still be celebrated but the traditions might change and evolve over time as they already have,” says Nguyen. “Tradition is harder to maintain with each degree of separation we have from our motherland. It’s easy enough to get engulfed in American culture when that’s half of who you are, but I think it’s important to keep the parts of your culture that you treasure and that have meaning to you.