This week, families and friends across the city and region will gather to celebrate Chinese New Year, the day marking the turn of the lunar calendar. Originally meant to honor deities as well as ancestors, the centuries-old festival has become for many a reason to reconnect with family and loved ones and a time to share a traditional feast meant to bring prosperity and health for the year ahead.
"It's like American Thanksgiving, plus July Fourth," said Eric Li, chef at Nom Wah Tea Parlor in Chinatown, the local outpost of the Nom Wah dim sum restaurant that has been operating in New York for almost a century. "In China, you go home, you have a vacation. The kids love it. They get lucky money in the red envelopes. You have a parade, you have dancing, you have fireworks."
The Year of the Dog, which starts Friday, will be celebrated in Philadelphia's Chinatown with a weekend of dancing, performances, fireworks, a parade, and food demonstrations in Reading Terminal Market. But family celebrations often start on the night before with a feast of particular dishes that are said to sweep away any lingering bad luck from the year gone by.
Dumplings are a cornerstone of many Lunar New Year meals because their purselike shapes are said to symbolize wealth. In northern China, where dumplings are a staple, families might spend a few hours together making the dough, then stuffing the dumpling wrappers with ground meat or vegetables.
"Nom Wah," translates roughly to "southern China," but nonetheless Li and his team serve many varieties of steamed and pan-fried dumplings, from delicate shrimp shumai to Shanghainese soup dumplings to ground pork with chives. Home chefs who want to try their hand at dumplings can always take a short cut by buying ready-made wrappers.
Lunar New Year celebrations always include noodles, which are representative of a long life, said Wilson Tang, owner of Nom Wah. Those noodles are served as long as possible, he said, to signify longevity. Break the noodle, shorten the life. That's why noodles are also served at birthdays, baby celebrations, and weddings.
At Nom Wah, Li and his team made the dish using a package of thick yi mein noodles, though Li said lo mein or other kinds of noodles would also work. Coated with a thick glaze of soy sauce, oyster sauce, sesame oil, and other seasonings and served with chives and fragrant mushrooms, the noodles are comforting and savory.
Desserts are extremely important, Tang said, because they sweeten up any prospects for the new year. Glutinous rice balls are among the most popular dishes, and Nom Wah's are crunchy and coated with seeds on the outside, chewy and sweet inside.
A Lunar New Year dinner might also include turnip cakes, fish, chicken, spring rolls and fruit.
"You always want something colorful, you know?" Li said. "You put it all together and it looks colorful. You want it to be colorful and happy to look at."