Kiki Aranita is the co-chef/owner of Poi Dog in Center City.
Chinese New Year falls on a single day, but it is anticipated and prepared for as a season. Life becomes imbued with symbols: red to signify luck, dumplings that mimic gold ingots, fish to signify abundance. It is when people journey home to see their families.
My hometown, Hong Kong, transforms: Christmas trees and fiberglass Santas are replaced by strands of firecrackers and, thanks to this year’s zodiac, cute ornamental rats decked out in gold costumes. Homes are swept, intricate dinners are arranged, and plans are made to visit relatives. It’s the only time this fast-paced, consumer-driven city takes a break, closes up shop, and focuses on family.
I have now lived in the U.S. longer than I did in Hong Kong. During college and graduate school in New York and Philly, I celebrated Lunar New Year with other expat kids of Chinese descent, all of us displaced for different reasons. We gathered in our dorms or living rooms, cobbling together dishes from Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, and other countries. Our cultural and culinary traditions would merge on one table: long noodles slick with peanut sauce, sticky-sweet rice cake called nian gao, and crispy spring rolls fried on a rickety dorm room stove.
My favorite New Year’s tradition, though, is making dumplings. It’s something I share with my fellow Philadelphian and Taiwanese American friend Judy Ni, who owns and operates Baology in Center City.
Judy and I get together to make dumplings at my house, which fills with the fragrance of garlic, sesame oil, and soy sauce. We make two kinds, my pork-and-water chestnut wontons and her chicken-and-garlic chive potstickers, comparing recipes and contrasting our upbringings as we go.
I tell Judy that while I exercise restraint in seasoning — letting the eater add seasonings at the end — I rarely measure out exact quantities in my family’s wonton recipe. (Somehow, it tastes the same every time I make it.) She raises an eyebrow. Her recipe is far more precise.
She pinches together potstickers as she talks, pausing only to pick up chopsticks to add as much of the chicken and garlic chive filling as she can to each wrapper. “My mother always said I was the best at folding or ‘bao’-ing potstickers since I could fit the most filling into each dumpling.”
Her potstickers look like plump little presents. Her fingers pleat so swiftly and nimbly that before I know it, Judy has arranged dozens of them into a pretty circular pattern on the plate. She sears, then flash-steams them with a splash of water in the pan.
I pull out the big bowls of ground pork and water chestnuts I prepared the night before and place them on the table. In contrast to Judy’s potstickers, I like my dumplings tiny. I set up eight wonton wrappers on the counter at once, spooning barely a teaspoon of filling into the center of each, wetting all the edges, then rapidly folding them in batches.
I freeze them before cooking to help them hold their shape. When I simmer them in chicken broth, my dog runs around in circles, riled up by the aroma.
Our conversation inevitably turns to our home countries. Judy tells me she is invigorated by the reelection of Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen. I tell her about my upcoming New Year’s Day trip to Hong Kong. I share my concern that while the season carries the same sense of auspiciousness, this year’s celebrations will be freighted with caution: On recent visits, I’ve checked updates on protests as frequently as the weather. But even though the tensions are palpable, they would not prevent me from returning to Hong Kong.
In Philadelphia, my home of eight years, making and sharing New Year’s dumplings with friends temporarily takes the sting out of homesickness. And there is something extraordinary about opening up a family holiday to friends. In the process, Judy has become like family to me. She makes herself at home in my kitchen. She knows exactly where I keep the utensils, oil, soy sauce, and plates.
I pull out tiny porcelain dishes from my cabinets for her soy-chili dipping sauces, eagerly awaiting the potstickers she slides out from the pan. I ladle broth and slippery wontons into bowls, dousing mine with sesame oil and soy sauce. I raise my bowl to my lips and impatiently blow and sip at the hot broth.
As we dive into our dumplings, I ask Judy what her favorite part of the New Year as a child was.
Without hesitation, she says, “Receiving hong bao,” the Mandarin equivalent of lai see, Cantonese for “lucky money” — a cash-filled envelope that children and unmarried ones receive on the day of the new year. The crisp new bills, in auspicious denominations of 100 or 500, are given to the unmarried after they recite well-wishes to the elders and married couples in their family.
“I used to sneak into the bathroom with all my lai see packets to tally up how much I got,” I confess.
Judy looks at me enviously, “We never got to keep ours. My mother collected them for our ‘education.’”
I ask Judy, “Did you also get yelled at as a child if you forgot to pour tea for your elders at dinner?”
She looks at me askance and says, “I still get yelled at now if I forget to pour them tea.”