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Ringing in the Asian New Year

00:00 December 19, 2012
By: Kristal Blue

What's beautiful about Asian food, aside from sultry pho, mango-studded creamy rice pudding, or mineral-fresh fish spiked with wasabi? It's that the food is a gateway to a culture rich with tradition, especially as the new year approaches. Here, how to get in on the party:

Chinese

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[Where Y'At Staff/Provided Photo]

New Year: Feb. 10-12 (in 2013, it's the Year of the Snake) Traditions: Chinese New Year actually marks the beginning of spring, and in the days leading up to it, you'll see public spaces decorated with red lanterns and cherry blossom art; homeowners will often hand-paint a pair of wise sayings, and hang them on either side of the front door to bring happiness and good luck to whoever walks through it.

The big event happens New Year's Eve, when families reunite for a feast, which includes many symbolic dishes: a whole fish suggests plenty, while wrapped dumplings look like ancient gold pieces and suggest wealth (so does black seaweed). The cuisine doesn't change, regardless of which Chinese zodiac sign is associated with that particular year.

During the evening, grownups hand out red, cash-filled envelopes to children, who will sleep with them under their pillows. On New Year's Day, they typically take the cash and go shopping.

Most Chinese observe three days, but New Year celebrations can last up to 15 days.

"How I Celebrate" with Jung Tam, owner of Jung's Golden Dragon: From the Mandarin province of China, Jung's New Year dishes include pig's feet and pork leg marinated in a brown sauce and baked with a honey glaze; lotus-shaped fried fish; whole fish - striped bass, speckled trout or redfish - steamed or deep-fried, and served with either a ginger or black bean sauce.

At the restaurant, also look for Jung's pork dumplings - if you find a coin inside, consider it very good luck. Pair them all with Beijing rice wine, 150-proof and served at room temperature.

Vietnamese

New Year: Feb. 9-15 Traditions: Ahead of Tet Nguyen Dan (meaning passage of the new year, and Tet for short), Vietnamese will decorate their homes with kumquat trees, peach blossom branches, and other flowers representing the generations of a family.

On the first day of Tet (New Year's Day, Feb. 10 this year), Vietnamese homeowners carefully choose who will be the first to walk through their front door, as the person's character is believed to affect the family's fortune for the coming year. That same day is meant for worshipping ancestors, which often includes burning incense in graveside rituals; others pay homage to their ancestors by arranging fruits (the custard apple, prickly citrus soursop, coconut, papaya and mango) at the family altar. Roasted watermelon seeds, which represent fertility, are also popular during Tet.

Children get a red envelope with "lucky money" inside, and many enjoy setting off small firecrackers in the street, meant to ward off evil spirits.

"How I Celebrate" with Luu Tran, owner of Magasin: The young restaurant has not, as of press time, decided how it will observe the coming Vietnamese New Year, though they'll likely close a few days during Tet. You won't find New Year's foods on their regular menu, so Tran shares with us his family's feast, always held at an elder's home: "We serve more finger foods, buffet-style, like at Thanksgiving," he says. On his family's table: crunchy roasted pig, fried and stuffed chicken wings, and rice patties topped with lump crab meat in a creamy sauce.

Japanese

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[Where Y'At Staff/Provided Photo]

New Year: Jan. 1 in mainland Japan; Feb. 10 on Okinawa Traditions: A popular pastime is to send postcards, called nengajo, to arrive at your friend or family member's home on Jan. 1. Traditionally a way to assure faraway friends that you're alive and well, now nengajo are as likely to be laser-printed as to be written by hand.

Also ahead of the New Year, many Japanese make mashed sticky rice cakes, served with bitter oranges; other osechi, or New Year's foods, include herring roe for prosperity and beans for good health. It's also traditional to recall a time before refrigeration (and maybe give thanks for this advancement) by having preserved foods on hand, like candied dried sardines or pickled lotus roots.

On New Year's Eve, many Japanese eat brown noodles in broth while waiting for their neighborhood temple's bell to chime (108 times, symbolizing our release from the 108 earthly sins).

On Jan. 7, many Japanese eat sevenherb rice porridge, nanakusa-gayu, as a way to recover from all the eating during the holidays.

Thai

New Year: Songkran, April 13-15 Traditions: Songkran (derived from Sanskrit, referring to the sun's movement) is celebrated during Thailand's hottest season, so it's no surprise that the festivities include spontaneous water spraying in the streets - in balloons, from garden hoses, or playful water guns (water symbolizes cleansing, and good fortune).

More traditional revelers will cleanse statues and images of Buddha instead, as well as feed local monks and pay respects to elder family members.

Another way local Thais show respect during Songkran is to build and decorate sand pagodas on temple compounds; this symbolizes restoring the sand they carried away on their shoes from the temple during the year.

The warm weather accounts for street food being a popular way to ring in the New Year, including coconut rice cakes, skewered chicken satay, sliced mangoes served with sticky rice, and krayasad, a kind of granola made with puffed rice, oats, peanuts and sticky with coconut syrup.

Korean

New Year: called "Seollal," Feb. 9-11 Traditions: An enduring ritual observed on New Year's is to wear traditional Korean garb, or hanbok, and deeply bowing before the family elders. Then they offer the day's meal to deceased ancestors, who are believed to return and partake.

After the ritual, Koreans eat a traditional New Year's breakfast or lunch highlighted by tteokguk, a beef broth loaded with thin rice cakes (and sometimes dumplings) that symbolizes a clean start. All Koreans celebrate a birthday on New Year's day, and once they've finished tteokguk, they've marked being one year older.

Following the early meal, families often fly kites or play a version of football called jegi chagi, or stay inside and play yut nori, a board game that uses wooden sticks for dice.

During the days-long festival, Koreans will also attend traditional percussion concerts, visit royal shrines and make their own good luck charms.

"How I Celebrate" with Joyce Park, manager at Little Korea: The cooking begins at least two days ahead of her family's New Year's feast. "It's very complicated and it's a long process and a lot of food involved," said Joyce. You can find many of these dishes on Little Korea's year-round menu, including stir-fried marinated beef (bulgogi), stir-fried glass noodles (jab chae, which symbolizes long life), as well as tteokguk. She also explains the importance of games on the feast day: "In our family, the group that loses has to do dishes," she said.

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