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Chinese New Year: Lucky foods for the Year of the Dog

A Chinese New Year feast amounts to more than the sum of its ingredients.

Traditional foods served during the meal celebrating the start of the Chinese lunar calendar — falling this year on Feb. 16 — won’t weigh you down like Thanksgiving dinner, but they are heavy with symbolic significance.

“Around the New Year everything is about wishing prosperity, good fortune, good luck and long life to your loved ones and the ones around you,” explains Sean Tang, 32, a partner at Pinch Chinese. His Soho soup dumpling and cocktail spot is serving New Year’s specials said to bring diners those blessings during a weeklong celebration later this month.

“You find that a lot of the food that goes into the new year, it’s very subtle,” says chef Dale Talde, 39, whose Chinatown restaurant Rice & Gold is offering a special family-style New Year’s menu for two nights. “It’s not really, really spicy or really, really tart or really, really sweet. It’s almost Zen.”

The reasoning behind these mild flavors, says Talde, who celebrates the annual festival with his wife’s family, is that your mindset on the first day of the new year sets a critical precedent for the next 12 months, and “if you start it out energetic and light and with a sense of calm, the rest of your year is going to be the same way.”

So what exactly should you be eating to guarantee dàjí dàlì (good luck and great prosperity) in the Year of the Dog? Tang and Talde help us break it down below:

Dumplings

Photo Credit: Rice & Gold

"I think this is the one thing everyone understands about Chinese New Year: Dumplings are very traditionally consumed," says Tang, whose family would prepare them from scratch in the afternoon and eat them at a potluck dinner. "It's deeply ingrained that if you eat dumplings... you will have a prosperous new year," he explains. To consume one is to metaphorically eat money, because its shape mirrors the Chinese currency used before the paper kind, boat-shaped metal ingots called yungbao.

At Pinch, your dumpling choices range from the standard vegetable kind to the eclectic chicken soup version. At Rice & Gold, the family-style meal features pork dumplings with a touch of truffle, because, says Talde, "it's a luxurious item."

Whole fish

New Year traditions vary by region in China,
Photo Credit: Pinch Chinese

New Year traditions vary by region in China, but across the board, Tang says, "fish is always a centerpiece of the meal." Leaving some meat on the bones at the end of the meal is a wish for surplus and abundance in the new year.

According to Talde, tradition also says that the head of the fish should be oriented toward the dinner's most important guest, indicating respect.

Pinch will serve a whole sea bass, Rice & Gold an entire fish braised in rock sugar, star anise, cinnamon, rice wine and beet juice, to stain it a lucky red color.

Rice cakes

On Chinese New Year, the glutinous snack is
Photo Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto / iStock

On Chinese New Year, the glutinous snack is served in soup or stir-fried with vegetables and meat. It's considered good luck to eat them because their Chinese name has two meanings: sticky (nian) cake (gao), or tall (gao) year (nian).

Pinch executive chef Charlie Chen is experimenting with roasting his rice cakes in the oven or grilling them on a plancha before stir-frying them.

Longevity noodles

The symbolism here is obvious --
Photo Credit: iStock

The symbolism here is obvious -- "the longer the noodle, the longer the life," as Talde puts it.

Pinch will serve its house-made noodles in spicy Sichuanese seafood stew, and Rice & Gold is adding mushrooms to theirs, for some extra umami flavor.

Turnip cake

The English name for these savory cakes that
Photo Credit: iStock

The English name for these savory cakes that are steamed then pan-fried is misleading: they're actually made with radishes, not turnips. The Chinese word for radish is a homonym for fortune, which makes these dim sum favorites a good-luck charm for the new year. At Pinch, the chef is serving them with dried shrimp and Chinese sausage.

Rice balls

The spherical shape of this dish evokes the
Photo Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto / kaorinne

The spherical shape of this dish evokes the full moon, and its stickiness symbolizes family togetherness. In China, they're made from rice flour mixed with water, boiled and served in a soup. In Japan, the mochi equivalent is made with rice that's pounded into a paste and molded into a slightly flattened ball.

At Rice & Gold, dim sum chef Qiao Shun Zhu (or Sherry, as she's known) is making the same mochi she prepares for her kids on Chinese New Year, Talde says. It's filled with sesame seeds and sweetened coconut and the rice paste itself is flavored with green tea.

Pinch is offering a more traditional Chinese rice ball, black sesame tang yuan with rice wine.

Seeds

As the origin of plant life, all seeds
Photo Credit: iStock

As the origin of plant life, all seeds represent fertility at this time of year. "If you have a family member that's trying to have children, you serve them seeds on Chinese New Year," says Talde, whose menu incorporates both sesame and sunflower seeds, "and my wife and I are expecting, so we wanted to have that as a little plug from us."

Citrus fruits

Oranges and their cousins resemble gold, so they're
Photo Credit: iStock

Oranges and their cousins resemble gold, so they're believed to bring prosperity in the new year.

"At my wife's family's house, there's always a box of mandarins or pomelos," Talde said. "We're starting with [citrus]," he adds, referring to a citrus salad with mushrooms, sunflower seeds and chrysanthemum, "but typically you end with it" as a light dessert.

Rice & Gold (50 Bowery) will serve its Chinese New Year menu during lunch and dinner on Feb. 16 and 17, for $50 per person.

Pinch Chinese (177 Pinch St.) is offering its traditional New Year dishes from Feb. 16 through Feb. 23.

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