A healthy way to start the new year and honor Asian culture.
The Lunar New Year is celebrated throughout Asia and has always been the most important holiday of the year for my Chinese American family.
For many Asian people, it’s a 2-week celebration culminating in fireworks, red envelopes, and most importantly, a sumptuous feast.
These culinary staples can be a healthy way to start out the new year and honor the vibrancy of Chinese culture.
Many Chinese banquets begin with soup to warm the heart and spirit. As a kid, I loved doling out generous portions of soup and passing it to each family member via a rotating tray, sneakily fishing out sweet jujubes for myself.
“When I was growing up, my mother was always making soups for me,” says Cindy Chen, co-founder of China Live in San Francisco. “Cantonese consider soups to also be tonics, a way to help keep your body and qi balanced.”
Double-boiling is a delicate Chinese technique for making nourishing, flavorful consommé. It involves submerging an earthenware pot in water for slow, even cooking at a gentle boil.
Fish heads, bird’s nests, and fish maw are all delicacies often used in double-boiled soups, but chicken works just as well.
Chen recommends using an old rooster or black chicken for a more flavorful stock. She then adds Chinese herbal ingredients like ginseng, ginger, and jujube, garnishing with Napa cabbage for a healthy crunch.
You can try the recipe for double-boiled black chicken herbal soup at The Burning Kitchen.
Korean American chef Caroll Lee is a holistic health coach and founder of Provenance Meals. She fondly remembers making misshapen dumplings, called mandu, with her mom as a kid. She remembers the juicy filling squeezing out the sides.
It’s a tradition she continues on New Year’s Day with her own kids, using ingredients like mung bean sprouts, firm tofu, scallions, garlic, and ground beef.
Dumplings may have originated as a humble peasant food, but their plump shape resembles ancient gold and silver ingots. For this reason, they’re considered especially auspicious.
Pork and cabbage is the most common filling, but you can tailor them to suit any dietary preference.
Lee recommends using tamari to make your dumpling dipping sauce if you’re avoiding gluten.
“Tamari is a byproduct of miso production that has a richer flavor than standard soy sauces that often contain wheat,” she says.
Opt to steam rather than pan-fry dumplings to reduce fat and calories.
The longer the noodles, the longer the life, according to Chinese superstition. I once anxiously asked my mom if I was doomed to die young for cutting my noodles into bite-sized pieces rather than slurping up each one whole.
Longevity noodles are a staple carbohydrate for a Lunar New Year celebration. You can prepare them simply with just sesame, soy, and scallions, or pepper them with a medley of vegetarian delights like:
Try the recipe for longlife noodles at Pickles and Tea.
Each person gets a mini soup strainer and cooks their own dinner one bite at a time. The host simply needs to plug in an electric hot pot filled with broth and supply the raw ingredients.
Choose healthy items like leaner cuts of meat and seafood instead of processed fish balls and imitation crab sticks.
Don’t forget to include a variety of mushrooms, tofu, and Chinese leafy greens, like bok choy, pea tips, mustard greens, and watercress.
Bone broth is a great choice unless one of your guests is vegan. In that case, use veggie broth.
A whole fish is the centerpiece of many Lunar New Year feasts, often a grand finale main course before dessert. The Chinese character for fish is a homonym for abundance, and the phrase “年年有魚/餘” is a wish to have more than enough material wealth for the coming year.
“One reason, other than delicious fish cheeks, for having a whole fish with both head and tail is so that the fish can swim back to you,” Chen says. “Families that have fish in front of their home in a stream or river will never go hungry.”
To keep the dish healthy, Chen simply steams the fish with black mushrooms and bamboo pith.
“I finish the dish at the end with a sizzling ginger scallion oil,” she says.
Try the recipe for Chinese steamed fish from Red House Spice.
Ask the fish monger to descale and clean the fish for you. This will save a lot of time and effort.
The Chinese name for these sticky, glutinous rice cakes is 年糕. It translates to “year cake.” The word for cake (糕) is a homonym for 高, which means “higher,” an aspiration for the next year to be better than the last.
Frankly, these are a dense, high caloric treat rather than a health food, but you can make them healthier by steaming or baking them.
Try the recipe for coconut sticky rice cakes at Jeanette’s Healthy Living.
These chewy, glutinous rice flour dumplings are a staple dessert at Lunar New Year. They symbolize family reunion and togetherness (團圓), which both sound similar in Chinese.
The doughy texture is similar to mochi. Like doughnuts, they can be filled or unfilled. Common fillings include red bean or black sesame paste. You can make the fillings healthier by reducing the sugar content and using honey instead of refined sugar.
The dumplings are then served in a warm broth and traditionally paired with jiu niang (酒酿), a slightly boozy, sweet fermented rice.
Taiwanese American chef Tiffany Ran of Seattle’s Babalio adds a light ginger syrup to tang yuan to bring out warming qualities along with jiu niang.
“Ginger is regarded as a warming food in Chinese medicine and also aids in digestion,” she says. “The sharpness of ginger and boozy sweet rice wine cuts the dense cloying nature of tang yuan.”
You can then add additional ingredients for color, texture, and nutrition.
“I like to add goji berries to the broth, which are great for the kidney and high in antioxidants and vitamin C, as well some snow fungus (tremella mushrooms) as they are high in vitamin D and anti-inflammatory,” says George Chen of China Live. “Chinese believe snow fungus is great for the skin as it’s known to hydrate skin and reduce wrinkles.”
Try the black sesame tang yuan recipe at What to Cook Today.
These recipes are Lunar New Year staples that provide a well-rounded, healthy meal with just a little bit of sweet.
Whether you’re celebrating alone or with family, these dishes can help you evoke tradition as another year begins.
Amber Gibson is a freelance journalist specializing in luxury travel, food, wine, and wellness. Her work appears in Condé Nast Traveler, Robb Report, Departures, Bon Appétit, and Travel + Leisure.