Roast pork, potlucks and pocket money will help usher in the Year of the Dragon.
During Sam Low’s first visit to China, he bit into a water caltrop (菱角), a black, ram-horn-shaped water chestnut. It was void of flavour, but etched a lasting memory into his mind.
“I stopped and thought it was really strange that you would eat something purely just for its symbolism,” says the Masterchef 2022 winner. It’s a sentiment many who grew up celebrating Lunar New Year will recognise about its food.
“We’re still eating the same things since I was like five,” Low adds. Lunar New Year’s Eve dinner with Low’s family is “guaranteed” to have crispy roast pork, whole fish, whole chicken, vegetarian dishes, glutinous rice balls and probably some sesame balls and his dad’s long-life noodle dish. This food is customary because it symbolises things that are auspicious: whole fish and chicken, from head to feet, represent wholeness and entirety, for example; mandarins represent luck; and dumplings represent wealth and prosperity.
In many cultures, Lunar New Year’s Eve is the most significant day of the new year period. It is a day to clean, make sacrifices to ancestors, ward off unwelcome visitors, and most importantly, gather to eat. The days after new year’s day are for visiting friends and neighbours and enjoying fireworks and lanterns on the 15th day.
This year, February 10 will be the first day of the Year of the Dragon. The days leading up to the 9th of this month are a great time to clean the house before New Year’s Eve, which is focused on the reunion dinner. “The stove gods go away on holiday for the first few days of the new year and if you cook it calls them back early, which then brings bad energy for your food,” says Sophie Sun 孙祯惠. “Similarly, you can’t wash or cut your hair, as that washes away your luck.”
Sun says everything they know was passed down from their dad, and they still ask him what they need to do on certain days. Even though they didn’t have big Lunar New Year celebrations, they still practise the customs around the occasion.
Sun has been celebrating Lunar New Year’s Eve with a potluck with friends. This year’s celebration starts with rolling oranges (symbolic of money) around the house to ensure that prosperity flows into the front door. “Normally I celebrate this with my family, but as an Asian child with trauma, I haven’t celebrated it properly with my family in a few years,” they say. “I thought that it’d be nice to extend my culture with others as the celebration is still really important to me.”
In the past, they’d go back home to Shanghai to visit family. “Even if we hadn’t seen each other for years, suddenly everyone is family,” Sun adds. “I remember going to rural China with my friend to celebrate Lunar New Year with her family and her whole village treated us like they’d known us our whole life. It was unifying.”
It’s a time when Sun feels most in touch with their customs. “I’ve never felt connected with Western New Year’s, and Lunar New Year always symbolises change and beginnings for me.”
Josephine Won, 66, has celebrated Seollal (Lunar New Year) since she was a child. Leaving South Korea in 1995 with her husband, she still views it as an occasion of deep significance. “It’s a time to be grateful for the past year’s blessings and successes and to anticipate and hope for the year ahead,” she says. “Most importantly, it’s a time to wish for the health and happiness of our family members and loved ones.” She now gets to share Lunar New Year traditions with her grandchildren, Alex Shaw (10) and Olivia Min (11), like sebae 세배 (worshipping elders) and exchanging saebaedon 세배돈 (pocket money).
“The scope of our Lunar New Year celebrations may be smaller in New Zealand, but the essence remains largely unchanged,” she adds. “We still enjoy the holiday with family in a simple manner.” Unlike in South Korea, Seollal isn’t a public holiday here, but families still make the effort to make up traditional dishes like tteokguk 떡국 (rice cake soup), share blessings and gifts with whānau and catch up with family overseas through phone calls and videos.
Won wants to instil the significance of Lunar New Year into her children and grandchildren, and through its customs, give them a way to embrace their Korean heritage and continue the legacy of their culture.
As Low has learned more about the diaspora and accessibility of ingredients, he’s started to understand why these food items were created. Low’s parents, who come from Zhong San in the south of China, grew up with limited resources, he says. “So they would give meaning to foods that they had access to, so then people from that region believe it to be a food of an occasion that is worthy of celebration.”
Low’s parents had explained that some ingredients were used because they sounded like phrases or words that evoke prosperity in Chinese languages. For example, a black sea moss (fat choy) sounds like a part of 恭喜发财 (gong hei fat choy, or gong xi fa cai); a common saying to wish someone happiness and prosperity in the new year. Low says it’s quite a hard ingredient to find even in Asian supermarkets, “but you can still take that concept and apply it to what you can have here … you can just do a wakame salad … as long as you still believe that that’s what the dish is representing for you personally.”
On the morning of the new year, Low goes to his parents’ house to offer them a candied lotus, plus date and goji berry tea along with his blessings. Then a red packet will be given to him. “My parents would eat vegetarian only for that day,” he says. “It means a clean slate – that you’re starting off new and not imposing any impurities that you might have for the year coming.”
Even though it’s not the most important event on his own calendar, Low drops everything to make it to his family’s Lunar New Year dinner. “I think if we don’t honour that as kids of diaspora, I feel like we’re just creating more of a separation from tradition, and when tradition slowly disappears, the idea of origin and creation is removed.”
Low was born in Fiji but all of his Lunar New Years, whether in Fiji or Aotearoa, have felt the same. “It feels like it’s still the symbolic foods, it still smells like the incense burning and there’s mandarin oranges everywhere.” For him, the occasion’s significance is to gather friends and share dishes that are meaningful to everyone and eat around the same table.
The Year of the Dragon is a good time to try something new, Low adds. “Even as a Chinese person, try something that you’ve never had before,” he says. “It’s a good time to just explore flavours and think about other cultures and people and what’s meaningful to them.”