As the Lunar New Year approaches — the Year of the Pig officially starts Tuesday, Feb. 5 — many Asian communities in Philadelphia are gearing up to celebrate one of the most important holidays of the year, centered on food and family.
Though Chinese traditions of celebrating the holiday might be most visible in the city, with a midnight lion dance in Chinatown on New Year’s Eve and a showcase including martial arts and music at the International House Philadelphia, many of Philly’s other Asian communities have traditions they’ve preserved as well.
Here, we spotlight a few.
Tết is the most important holiday in Vietnamese culture, traditionally celebrated on the same day as Chinese New Year, to mark the beginning of spring.
“New Year’s Eve is a time where we really try to let go of things of the past year, so that when we start the next day, it is the new year,” said Thoai Nguyen, CEO of the Southeast Asian Mutual Assistance Association Coalition, a Philadelphia nonprofit that provides support to refugees.
On New Year’s Day, children greet their elders with traditional Tết wishes of long life, prosperity, and good health before receiving red envelopes called lixi filled with money. Showing respect to family members who have died is also a big part of the holiday.
Nguyen said his family always sets places at the table for family members who are no longer with them on New Year’s Eve to invite them back.
“We place a bowl of rice where they would sit and lay a pair of chopsticks across the bowl,” Nguyen said. “The spirit is supposed to breathe in the essence of the food, and after the rest of us have finished our first bowls of rice, then someone can eat it. It’s considered good luck to do that.”
Nguyen also grew up eating bitter melon stuffed with pork, clear vermicelli noodles, and mushrooms, cooked in chicken broth. He said that though he hated it as a child, he loves it now.
“Bitter melon represents all the bitterness of the year that you’re leaving behind,” Nguyen said. “We eat the bitter melon to represent that we’re moving forward. I’ve always thought of that as a very elegant way to start the new year.”
Benny Lai, owner of Vietnam Restaurant in Chinatown, said that when he was growing up in Vietnam, his family would spend the morning of the new year praying to their ancestors. In order to be pure and clean for the new year, some of his relatives would eat banh chung, a square rice cake made from glutinous rice, pork belly, and mung bean and steamed in bamboo leaves, for three days before the holiday officially began.
“On the third day, we had a big feast,” said Lai, whose family escaped Vietnam after the war. “We would make spring rolls and whole fish because Vietnamese people believe that you should eat something from the head to the tail, since it represents starting something good and finishing it.”
VietLead’s Tết celebration, noon to 5 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 10, Furness High School, 1900 S. Third St. Free. vietlead.org.
Seollal is arguably the most widely celebrated Korean holiday. It takes place on the first day of the lunar calendar — Feb. 5 — and many Koreans use the holiday as a chance to visit their parents and relatives in their hometowns. Children perform sebae, a ritual in which they don traditional clothing — hanbok — and bow deeply to their elders before being rewarded with new year’s money.
Chris Chung, who co-owns Buk Chon in Old City with his wife, Alicia, said one of the most enjoyable parts of the holiday for him was being able to see family members who lived far away and having breakfast with them after sebae.
“The food that you have to eat on New Year’s Day is rice cake soup — tteokguk,” he said. “It symbolizes growing a year older and good health, as well as wishes for a long life.”
Chung’s family also celebrated by eating pancakes made with stone-ground mung beans, sliced beef, mung bean sprouts, fiddlehead ferns, and kimchi.
“Because I grew up in a big family, I loved it,” he said.
Thailand’s New Year celebration takes place a little later, on April 13 — marking the rising of Aries on the astrological chart — because it uses the Buddhist/Hindu solar calendar.
In Thailand, people typically travel to Buddhist monasteries and temples in the mornings to offer food to monks. Thai people also eat foods with “lucky”-sounding names, like laab gai, a salad made from ground chicken, and toong tong, fried dumplings with meat. Laab gai means “good fortune,” and toong tong means “money bags.”
However, the most famous part of the holiday is the water festival. Major streets are closed to traffic and used as arenas for water fights between people of all ages.
People fill up entire truck beds with ice-cold water to splash passersby in Phuket, and brightly painted elephants are given drums of water to spray onto unsuspecting victims in Ayutthaya.
The Khmer New Year is celebrated roughly at the same time as Songkran, at the end of the harvest season. On the first day of the new year — Maha Sangkran — people burn incense sticks at shrines to offer thanks for the Buddha’s teachings. They also wash their faces with holy water in the morning, their chests at noon, and their feet at night for good luck.
People also eat kralan, a steamed rice cake mixed with beans or peas, shredded coconut, and coconut milk and roasted into a bamboo stick, and other traditional Khmer dishes like fish amok, a steamed fish curry.
The Japanese New Year is traditionally celebrated on Jan. 1 of each year, because the country switched to the Gregorian calendar from a lunar one during the Meiji period in 1873. Most people visit a Shinto shrine on that day and eat a selection of dishes called osechi. Osechi typically includes daidai, Japanese bitter orange symbolizing a wish for children in the new year, and datemaki, a sweet rolled omelet mixed with fish paste or mashed shrimp that symbolizes a wish for many auspicious days.
“Mochi is another food that one eats during the New Year’s celebration,” said Katherine DiPierro, marketing manager for the Japanese America Society of Greater Philadelphia. “Especially kagami mochi [mirror rice cake], which is one mochi layered on top of another and topped with a bitter orange. It symbolizes the ending of one year and the beginning of the next.”
DiPierro said that because the holiday falls on Jan. 1, the Shofuso Japanese House puts up an exhibition of Shōgatsu decorations, setups, and tableaux during the first two weeks of December before the house closes until the spring. Maido, a Japanese marketplace in Ardmore, also holds a mochitsuki, the pounding of sweet rice in a hollowed-out log to make mochi on the last Friday of every year.
Serves 6 to 9
- In a small bowl, cover the mushrooms with hot water and soak until they inflate, about 3 minutes. Drain, rinse well, and chop.
- In a large bowl, soak the cellophane noodles in cold water until soft, about 3 minutes. Drain and, using scissors, cut into 2-inch pieces.
- In a medium bowl, combine the wood-ear mushrooms, cellophane noodles, pork, onion, salt, and black pepper. Mix well, using your hands to combine thoroughly.
- To wrap the spring rolls, place the rice paper on a clean surface and put a generous tablespoon of the filling mixture about half an inch from the bottom edge of each wrapper. Fold the bottom of the wrapper up over the filling, enclosing it in a 2-inch log. Fold the sides in and smooth the rice paper over the filling. Roll the wrapper very tightly.
- In a large skillet, heat 1/3 inch of oil over medium-high heat until it registers 350 degrees with a deep-fry thermometer. Make sure the oil stays at this temperature. If it gets too hot, the spring rolls might burst. Fry about 10 rolls at a time until golden brown, about 5 minutes per side, turning once. Drain on paper towels and repeat with the remaining rolls. Serve hot or at room temperature with Nuoc Cham Dipping Sauce.
- In the bowl with chili peppers, add the bottled fish sauce, lime juice, carrot, garlic, and sugar.
- Stir in 1½ cups warm water until the sugar is dissolved. Serve at room temperature.
— Benny Lai of Vietnam Restaurant
- Rinse the brisket in very cold water to get rid of any blood before covering with cold water in a large pot. Bring to a boil and simmer for 2 hours.
- Rinse and soak the rice cakes in cold water for 30 minutes. Rinse and soak the brisket in cold water for 30 minutes.
- Slice the brisket into thin strips and season it with soy sauce, sugar, mirin, sesame oil, pepper, garlic, and scallions.
- Heat the beef stock in a pot over medium heat. Add salt, gook kanjang, and chopped garlic. If desired, add sliced onions and carrots to the soup for color and nutrients.
- Bring to a boil. Taste the soup and adjust seasoning if needed. Add the rice cakes and cook for an additional 5-8 minutes, until rice cakes are soft but not overcooked.
- Ladle the soup into a bowl, add beef, and garnish with dried seaweed, black pepper, and green onions. Serve with kimchi.