Grandma Lomay was born on an island in the delta of the Yangtse River near Shanghai, China.  Her family, by contemporary standards, was a large one.  Her great grandmother, the dowager head of the family, had thirty direct descendants, from four generations, that all lived together under one roof.  That roof or, more accurately, those roofs were part of a family compound that consisted of several buildings grouped around four courtyards.  When Lomay was a child, the number of relatives living in the compound had increased to fifty.

When she married and left her ancestral home for an American farmhouse in Freedom Plains, New York, she had never cooked.  Servants, usually men, cooked in upper class Chinese families.   So she found herself, longing for familiar foods, ignorant of recipes and cooking methods, and unable to find the correct ingredients in a rural American town. Over time, and with repeated trips to New York City’s Chinatown, she taught herself to cook from memory the dishes she knew as a child on Chongming Island.

Lomay died in 2012 at the age of 104.  The following year Chinese New Year began on February 10, her birthday.  So we decided to celebrate by cooking some of her favorite dishes from recipes her daughter transcribed.  Other dishes were added to our menu in keeping with Chinese New Year traditions.

Unlike the Gregorian calendar used in the West, the Chinese calendar is based on lunar cycles and each year corresponds to one of twelve legendary animals named in the Chinese zodiac.  New Year’s Day falls on the first day of the first month of the lunar new year and it marks the beginning of the most important holiday season in Chinese culture, the Spring Festival, which lasts for fifteen days and ends with the Lantern Festival.  It is the biggest travel season of the year in China, as families return home to join in family celebrations.

Chinese New Year is anticipated by children the way western kids look forward to Christmas.  Houses are meticulously cleaned to remove any negative elements from the past year and to provide a fresh start to the new one (but don’t sweep or dust on New Year’s Day or you may brush away your good luck!).  New clothes are traditional for everyone, and children are given red envelopes that contain coins by their adult relatives and friends.  Chinese red is the color of the season, and the holiday is celebrated with firecrackers, the lion dance, ancestor worship and feasting.  Every aspect of the celebration carries special meanings.  At banquets, an even number of dishes is considered lucky; twelve total, with eight served hot and four served cold, is customary.

In Chinese households “prosperity trays” containing treats are offered children and guests on New Year’s Day.   These often are large covered lacquer trays with at least eight compartments to hold varied sweets, each with a symbolic meaning:  among these are coconut (togetherness), candied melon (good health), lychee nuts (family ties), longans (fertility), kumquats (prosperity), peanuts (long life), lotus seeds (a large family), and red melon seeds (happiness, truth).  Adults who take a candy are expected to replace it with a lai see (a red envelope containing coins for good luck).  

Steamed rice cakes and salted seeds also are traditional.  Seeds are an essential component (fertility, abundance and harvest) to remind celebrants of good things to come.  Fruits rich in seeds can be used as decoration or as ingredients in traditional dishes; lotus seeds are candied and offered as gifts, and red melon seeds are candied or used in cooking.  In addition to their seeds, the vibrant color of pomegranates symbolizes happiness and keeping away evil spirits.

Jao-tze, pork and cabbage dumplings, have the same shape as yuan bao, a gold or silver ingot used as money in ancient China.  Their rounded shape signifies unity and eating dumplings on New Years symbolizes the reunion of family.  Some hide a coin in a batch of dumplings – if the finder doesn’t chip a tooth, he or she will have a very lucky year.  Noodles are also traditional on Chinese New Year, symbolizing long life (don’t cut them!).

The Chinese word for fish (yu) is a homonym with plenty, and as a result serving a whole fish on New Year’s Eve assures abundance in the coming year.  This symbolism is emphasized by serving the fish New Year’s Eve, but saving half of it to eat on New Year’s Day.  A fish cooked with head and tail intact symbolizes prosperity and happiness, and it is a sign of respect to place the fish on the table with its head facing an honored guest.  Similarly, serving a whole chicken signifies rebirth, togetherness and prosperity.  Chinese steam or boil chicken with head and feet intact to suggest unity.

Ducks represent fidelity and eggs fertility.  Turnips are served because their name (cai tou) also means good luck.  Red dishes, such as sweet and sour pork, are popular at New Year’s in some parts of China. Oranges represent good fortune and tangerines represent wealth because they are China’s most plentiful fruit, and their vibrant color is a sign of good luck. If fruit has a stem attached, it stands for fertility.  Pommels and melons stand for a united and complete family.

In ancient times, Chinese palace dignitaries were presented with purses embroidered with eight Buddhist symbols called the “eight treasures,” which they wore hung around their necks on Chinese New Year.  Now a fruit filled rice pudding called “eight treasures” is traditional and a specialty of Shanghai.  The recipe we use is from Cecilia Chiang’s book The Seventh Daughter.

But most of all, always make more than you can eat to encourage abundance in coming year.