Just as many families could hardly imagine Thanksgiving without turkey, for those who celebrate it, the Lunar New Year is often synonymous with special foods — many of them whose origins date back millennia.
More than 400,000 Asian Americans live in Maryland, according to the most recent census statistics. Many of them celebrate the Lunar New Year, which falls on Feb. 5 this year and marks the beginning of the Year of the Pig.
In many Chinese households, families gather to make jiao zi (饺子), or Chinese dumplings, on Lunar New Year’s Eve, to mark the start of the Spring Festival. Koreans traditionally celebrate the new year with tteokguk (떡국), a savory soup made with rice cakes. And in Vietnamese homes,a new year is almost always accompanied by bánh chưng, a sticky rice cake prepared with pork and mung beans and wrapped in banana leaves. Afterward, the cake may be placed on a family’s altar as an offering to one’s ancestors.
In honor of the Lunar New Year, The Baltimore Sun takes a look at a few food traditions celebrated by many families in the region.
Chinesejiao zi (饺子)
Dumplings in particular are considered an auspicious food because their shape resembles that of gold ingots, an ancient Chinese currency. Another legend says that dumplings were invented more than 1,800 years ago by Han dynasty physician Zhang Zhongjing, who served them to the poor to warm up their frostbitten ears during the cold winter months. He called the ear-shaped food jiao er (娇耳) — er (耳) is the word for “ear” — a precursor to the modern-day Chinese name for dumplings, jiao zi (饺子), pronounced “jiow dze.”
Traditionally eaten in China’s northern areas, including Beijing, dumplings have now spread throughout China and the world, said Jiang, who remembers helping her mother fold dumplings as a child in her hometown of Shanghai, considered part of the south.
For many Chinese families, the Year of the Pig holds special significance, as the word for “family,” 家, is derived from ancient glyphs of a roof (宀) with a pig (豕) drawn inside.
Where to find it: $9 for a dozen dumplings at Zen Garden (available upon request during the Lunar New Year season), 10039 Baltimore National Pike, Ellicott City. 410-313-8818.
Korean tteokguk (떡국)
For Koreans, nothing signals the start of a New Year like tteokguk soup.
Typically eaten for breakfast, the rice cake soup, which also includes egg, noodles and beef, is a deeply ingrained aspect of Korean New Year celebrations, said Kyung-Eun Yoon, coordinator of Korean studies at the University of Maryland Baltimore County. In addition to wishing a happy new year to family and friends, many Koreans ask, “Did you have a tteokguk soup?”
On a recent Saturday night, 23-year-old Jonathan Eom stood in the frozen food aisle at Lotte Plaza, a Korean grocery store in Ellicott City. His parents were making tteokguk and had asked him to bring home a bag of rice cakes. Though Eom doesn’t celebrate the Lunar New Year, the smell of tteokguk on the stove on a winter morning triggers happy memories, the way other people might feel about pancakes and bacon, he said.
“It’s a comfort food,” said Eom, one redolent with warmth and tradition.
Tteokguk, pronounced “TUH-kook,” is a specialty dish at Yetnal House, which makes the rice cakes from scratch and sells them in an adjoining shop along with freshly-made kimchi and mandu (Korean dumplings). Located just a few miles down the road from Lotte in Ellicott City, the unassuming Korean restaurant — its storefront is in Korean characters — is inside a shopping complex next to Bippy’s Pub and a local outpost of The Korea Times.
While Koreans living in Asia may celebrate the Lunar New Year, known as Seollal, for several days, immigrants in the United States are more likely to celebrate the New Year according to the Gregorian calendar — Jan. 1. “We are conscious of both of the days, but we have to live within this American society,” Yoon said.
Where to find it: $8.95 at Yetnal House, 10194 Baltimore National Pike, Ellicott City. 410-465-0040.
Vietnamese bánh chưng
According to legend, bánh chưng, pronounced “bun tchung,” was first prepared by a prince for his father, who was so impressed by the dish’s deliciousness he made his son the next king of Vietnam. The dish is so labor-intensive that most modern families celebrating Tết — the start of the Lunar New Year in Vietnam — purchase it at the store rather than make their own.
But Trang Nguyen makes hers from scratch. One frigid afternoon, bowls of sticky rice and mung bean paste sit on a Lazy Susan in a corner table of Pho Bac, the Rosedale cafe Nguyen runs with her husband.
Preparing the bánh chưng, Trang Nguyen places a wooden frame atop a banana leaf, using a spoon to layer rice and mung bean paste at the bottom before arranging strips of seasoned pork belly in the middle.
Wrapping the banana leaf is the hardest part. Trang Nguyen gets her husband’s help: after she arranges the greens around the dense, square rice cake, he ties the red string around it like a present.
Though she left 30 years ago, Nguyen still cries when she talks about her homeland. “I miss Saigon,” she said. At Pho Bac, she seems to translate longing into food, priding herself on adhering to original Vietnamese recipes.
“How you eat in Vietnam is how you eat in my restaurant,” she said.
Where to find it: $20 for one cake at Pho Bac, located inside the Golden Bridge Supermarket, 7501 Pulaski Highway. 443-470-0955.
From Lijie Zhen, Zen Garden Asian Restaurant. Makes about 80 dumplings.
½ pound ground pork
½ cup water
1 tablespoon minced fresh ginger
4 tablespoon light soy sauce
4 tablespoon toasted sesame oil
1 tablespoon Shaoxing Chinese cooking wine (or substitute red cooking wine)
1 tablespoon salt
3 scallions, minced
1 lb. leek
1 lb. shrimp
½ teaspoon black pepper powder
Around 80 round dumpling wrappers (2 packages, if using store-bought wrappers)
Black vinegar, soy sauce and dumpling sauce for serving
For the filling:
In a large bowl, combine the pork, water, ginger, soy sauce, sesame oil, scallions, salt and cooking wine and mix well.
Cut leeks into small pieces.
Cut shrimp into small pieces, and mix with black pepper powder.
Combine 1, 2 and 3 and mix well.
For the dumplings:
Place a dumpling wrapper on your palm, brush water around the edge, and fill the center with a heaping tablespoon of filling.
Fold the wrapper in half to form a half-moon shape.
Use your thumb and index finger of one hand to fold 4-5 pleats across the back side of the dumpling, pressing the edges together to seal the dumpling.
Gently curve the dumpling so that it sits up when placed on a flat surface. Repeat to make the remaining dumplings.
Lightly dust a baking sheet with flour. Place the finished dumplings on the baking sheet and cover with a damp towel. (To serve at a later date, freeze the dumplings in a single layer until they are hard and then transfer to a sealable plastic bag.)
Boiling the dumplings:
Fill a large pot two-thirds of the way with water and bring to a boil.
Add as many dumplings as can fit comfortably in a single layer in the pot and cook them until they float.
Let them cook an additional two to three minutes.
Remove and serve with black vinegar, soy sauce or dumpling sauce.
From The Korean Food Foundation, first published in The Daily Meal. Makes 4 servings.
1 cup thinly sliced Korean rice cake
14 cups water
½ pound beef brisket, cut into chunks
8 ounces beef, cut into thin strips
2 dried shiitake mushrooms, soaked and sliced thinly
½ teaspoon soy sauce
1 teaspoon sesame oil
½ teaspoon minced garlic
8 ounces zucchini, cut into thin strips
Salt, to taste
2 eggs, beaten
4 green onions, cut into 1-inch pieces
2 sheets dried laver seaweed (Kim in Korean), crumbled
Soak the rice cake in cold water for 30 minutes. Put 14 cups of water and the brisket in a pot. Bring to a boil, and then reduce to a simmer until tender (about 30 minutes). Strain out the beef and return the broth to the pot. Cut the beef into thin strips, and then set aside.
Sauté the shiitake mushrooms in the soy sauce, ½ teaspoon sesame oil, and minced garlic, then set aside. Sauté the zucchini with the remaining sesame oil and salt, then set aside.
Fry the beaten egg and slice thinly, then reserve for garnish or pour the egg little by little directly to the broth at the end.
Bring the broth to a boil and then add the rice cakes. Bring to a boil again, and then reduce the heat to medium and cook until tender (usually the rice cake will float to the top when fully cooked).
Add the green onions. Serve into bowls and garnish each bowl with some beef, shiitake mushrooms, zucchini, egg and some crumbled Kim.
Where to shop for Lunar New Year:
Looking for recipe ingredients like dumpling wrappers, black vinegar or Korean rice cakes? Check out these local Asian grocery stores.
Are we missing any Asian grocery stores in the Baltimore area? Letusknow.