Good luck foods for the Chinese New Year

Serve coin-shaped foods for prosperity, and noodles for longevity.

Traditional chinese noodles (photo credit: YAKIR LEVY)
Traditional chinese noodles
(photo credit: YAKIR LEVY)
The Chinese New Year is marked by a large banquet bringing together the entire family. The foods eaten are specific to each quality of hope for a prosperous year filled with good fortune.
Accordingly, in the book Moonbeams, Dumplings and Dragon Boats by Nina Simonds and Leslie Swartz, the authors write that fried spring rolls symbolize gold bricks, vegetables are cut into the shape of coins, citrus fruits are eaten for good luck and fish is served to symbolize bounty.
The Year of the Horse begins on January 31, and new year celebrations continue for 15 days. Like the Jews, the Chinese use a lunar calendar and some of their symbolic foods might recall customs of Rosh Hashana.
Linda Lau Anusasananan, author of The Hakka Cookbook, wrote to me that in some ways the diaspora of the Hakka, a Chinese ethnic group with an estimated worldwide population of 75 million, is similar to the Jewish one.
“The Chinese characters for Hakka mean ‘guest family,’” wrote Anusasananan. “Many other words have been used to describe us as well: pioneers, nomads, migrants, gypsies... Almost 1,700 years ago, invaders forced the ancestors of the Hakka from their home in... north-central China...
They moved south... Hakkas lived dispersed as minorities throughout southern China... Chinese society denied these homeless migrants social status and looked down on them with contempt.”
Hakka food is rustic, salty, strong-flavored, meaty and fatty, wrote Anusasananan, but for the Chinese New Year, Hakkas might celebrate with refined vegetarian dishes.
Savory pounded tea rice is a Hakka classic served for the occasion.
It is composed of two dishes – a thick green soup made of green tea leaves pounded with basil, other herbs, nuts and seeds, and a bowl of garlic-scented rice topped with stir-fried vegetables and tofu. At serving time the soup is added to the rice and vegetable mixture to make a wholesome, delicious meal.
Noodles are also popular for the Chinese New Year as they symbolize longevity – by eating them, one hopes for a long and prosperous life.
* * * Faye Levy is the author of the award-winning “Faye Levy’s International Vegetable Cookbook."
Savory Pounded Tea Rice
This recipe is adapted from “The Hakka Cookbook.” Author Linda Anusasananan adds salted radish and dried seafood but notes that you can vary the vegetables, herbs and flavorings according to what is available. If you like, cook larger amounts of fewer kinds of vegetables. You can assemble the rice bowls in the kitchen or present the elements as a party buffet and let guests serve themselves. You can wash and prepare the vegetables up to 1 day ahead, wrap each separately in a towel and refrigerate in a plastic bag.
Makes 6 to 8 servings as a main dish
1/3 cup vegetable oil, or as needed
2 tablespoons minced garlic
4 cups sliced green onions mixed with 2 tablespoons minced garlic
Kosher salt to taste
225 grams (8 ounces) spinach leaves, cut into 1.25-cm (1/2-inch) pieces (about 3 cups)
225 grams (8 ounces) broccoli, cut into 1.25-cm (1/2-inch) pieces (about 2 cups)
200 grams (7 ounces) cabbage, cut into 1.25-cm (1/2-inch) pieces (about 2 cups)
140 grams (5 ounces) green beans, thinly sliced crosswise (about 1 cup)
3 medium leeks (600 to 900 grams or 1 1/2 to 2 pounds total, untrimmed weight), root
ends and dark green tops trimmed
225 grams (8 ounces) firm or pressed tofu, cut into 1.25-cm (1/2 inch) cubes
1 cup roasted, salted peanuts
30 grams (1 ounce) basil leaves (about 2 cups)
30 grams (1 ounce) fresh mint leaves (about 2 cups)
2 teaspoons vegetable oil
1 teaspoon chopped garlic
1/4 cup chopped cilantro (fresh coriander)
2 tablespoons dried green tea leaves
6 black peppercorns
2/3 cup roasted, salted peanuts
3 tablespoons toasted sesame seeds
1 cup cold water
4 cups boiling water
1 teaspoon kosher salt, or to taste
Garlic Rice (see next recipe)
For the toppings: Up to 3 hours before serving, cook the toppings. Set a 30-cm (12-inch) nonstick frying pan over medium-high heat. When pan is hot, add 2 teaspoons oil and rotate pan to spread. Add about 1 teaspoon garlic and stir until it softens, about 30 seconds. Add green onion mixture and stir-fry until slightly wilted, 1 to 2 minutes; add a spoonful of water if vegetables begin to burn. Add salt to taste. Pour vegetables into a small bowl.
Repeat, using same pan (no need to wash), with the spinach, broccoli, cabbage and green beans, adding 1 teaspoon garlic with each; cook in separate batches until leafy greens wilt or denser vegetables are crisp-tender, 1 to 2 minutes, adding a little water if vegetables begin to burn. Place each cooked vegetable in a separate bowl. Each vegetable should measure about 1 cup cooked.
Cut white parts of leeks in half lengthwise, rinse well between layers, and drain. Thinly slice leeks crosswise to make about 2 cups. Return unwashed pan to medium-high heat and add 2 teaspoons oil and remaining garlic. Stir until garlic softens, about 30 seconds.
Add leeks and tofu; stir-fry until leeks wilt and tofu is hot, 2 to 3 minutes. Add salt to taste and place in a small bowl. Pour peanuts into a small bowl.
For the tea: Up to 2 hours before serving, coarsely chop basil and mint. Set a 25- or 30-cm (10- or 12-inch) frying pan over medium-high heat. When pan is hot, add oil and rotate pan to spread. Add garlic and stir until it softens, about 30 seconds. Add basil, mint and cilantro; stir-fry just until herbs wilt and turn bright green, about 30 seconds.
Remove from pan.
In a blender finely grind tea leaves and peppercorns. Add peanuts and sesame seeds; blend until finely ground. Add basil mixture and cold water, and blend until smooth. Let stand, covered, until shortly before serving.
About 30 minutes before serving, prepare Garlic Rice.
Just before serving, add 1 cup boiling water to herbs in blender and whirl until smooth, holding blender lid down with a towel. Pour into a 2-liter (2-quart) pan. Add remaining 3 cups boiling water and salt; whisk until blended. Cover to keep hot.
To assemble, scoop hot rice into 6 to 8 large (2 1/2 to 3-cup) bowls and spread rice to level. Mound equal portions of toppings over rice. Reheat the tea, if cool, and pour the hot tea into small bowls to serve with rice; or pour 1/2 to 3/4 cup hot tea over each bowl of rice. To eat, mix the tea and rice together to moisten. Or, to serve buffet style, arrange rice, toppings and tea on the table. Provide large bowls. Guests fill bowls with rice, cover with toppings and ladle enough hot tea over the rice to moisten.
Garlic Rice
From “The Hakka Cookbook.”
Makes 6 to 8 servings
3 cups jasmine rice
1/4 cup vegetable oil
3 tablespoons minced garlic
4 cups water
1 teaspoon kosher salt
Place rice in a fine wire strainer; rinse with water, stirring rice occasionally, until water runs almost clear. Drain well. Set a 3- to 4-liter (3- to 4-quart) pan over medium-high heat. When pan is hot, add oil and garlic, stirring until garlic softens, about 30 seconds.
Add rice; stir until all grains are thoroughly coated with oil. Add water and salt; bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low. Cover and cook until rice is tender to the bite, about 20 minutes.
Crisp-Cooked Vegetarian Noodles
This recipe is from “Moonbeams, Dumplings and Dragon Boats.” In addition to the soy sauce, author Nina Simonds flavors it with 3 tablespoons of Chinese oyster sauce, which is salty and slightly sweet; vegetarians and kosher cooks use vegetarian oyster sauce flavored with mushrooms. You can instead add a little extra soy sauce and a pinch of sugar, to taste.
Makes 6 servings
350 grams (3/4 pound) thin Chinese egg noodles, or fresh angel hair or vermicelli noodles
1 teaspoon toasted sesame oil
4 leeks, ends trimmed
2 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon safflower or corn oil
2 tablespoons minced garlic
2 tablespoons minced fresh ginger
10 dried Chinese black mushrooms, softened in 4 cups hot water about 20 minutes
(retain liquid for sauce), stems discarded and caps sliced into julienne shreds
3 medium carrots, peeled, trimmed and grated (about 4 cups)
3 tablespoons rice wine or sake
4 cups bean sprouts
Sauce (mixed together):
2 cups retained black mushroom soaking liquid
2 cups water
2 tablespoons soy sauce
1 1/2 teaspoons sesame oil
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 1/2 tablespoons cornstarch
In a large pot, bring 4 liters (4 quarts) water to a boil; add noodles and cook until nearly tender (about 4 minutes for fresh and 7 minutes for dried). Drain noodles in a colander, rinsing lightly to remove the starch. Add 1 teaspoon sesame oil and toss gently.
Slice leeks along the length in half and rinse thoroughly under cold, running water. Drain
well. Cut into 5-cm (2-inch) lengths and then cut into thin, matchstick-sized shreds.
Preheat the broiler. Lightly oil a cookie sheet with 1 teaspoon safflower oil and spread
the noodles evenly on it. Broil noodles about 10 minutes until golden brown, flip and
broil second side until golden brown. Keep warm in a preheated 95C (200F) oven.
Heat a wok or skillet; add 2 tablespoons safflower oil and heat until hot. Add garlic
and ginger and stir-fry until fragrant, about 10 seconds. Add leeks, mushrooms and
carrots, and stir-fry lightly over high heat for about 1 minute. Add rice wine and cook for
1 minute. Add bean sprouts and the Sauce and stir until thickened, to prevent lumps.
Toss lightly to blend.
Transfer noodles to a platter and shape into a round. Spoon vegetables over cooked noodles and serve.