Lunar New Year, like the moon, shines across many different countries and cultures.
“It’s celebrated across the vastness of Asia, so it’s different depending on the province, the city, the town, the family or the individual,” said Eric Fung, vice president of United Noodles, the huge Asian grocery in Minneapolis’ Seward neighborhood. “To say there is one Lunar New Year would be a disservice to tradition.”
But, he added, “the celebration is always around food.”
Most often, food cooked at home with family. Lots of family. Fung said that holiday travel in China borders on the impossible, and yet everyone does it.
“It’s as if the population of America is traveling at least 100 miles,” he said, making the wish for good luck, at the heart of this holiday, both spiritual and practical. “We don’t have lots of holidays in China, so this is like our Christmas, Easter and Super Bowl.”
This year, the holiday period begins on Feb. 19 and continues for 15 days. And although Americans often call it Chinese New Year, the Asian world refers to it as Lunar New Year.
Dumplings for all occasions
While United Noodles’ “wall of dumplings” — its term for the coolers of ready-made heat-and-eat fare — is hugely popular throughout the year, especially with millennial customers from the nearby University of Minnesota, Lunar New Year is when carts fill the aisles of produce, noodle wrappers and meats.
“When I think of Lunar New Year, I think of making dumplings” Fung said. “Dumplings are the ultimate comfort food. You have a bad day? You say, ‘I think I’ll go make some dumplings.’ ”
But which dumplings? That decision often depends upon where your family roots lie. Southern China’s cuisine is rice-based, while northern China’s is wheat-based, which determines the sort of wrapper you prefer.
Fillings, however, are changing according to food trends, said Stephen Whitten, the store’s chief of operations. Green onions or scallions have been the traditional allium in fillings, but they’re making way for a growing love of leeks, which Fung said “become almost creamy.” Leeks are appearing in ready-made dumplings as well.
One marked shift is generational, with millennials seeking grass-based meats and pasture-raised pork. “That’s a big change,” Fung said. “That trend is real.”
As with most change, not everyone embraces the evolution, with generational upbringing a usual point of tension.
“It’s a fine line between honoring and insulting a culture,” he said. “We get two responses: either, ‘That’s cool and creative,’ or ‘You are messing with something here.’ We try to find a balance.”
He recalled someone once telling him that the year you emigrate from a country becomes the year in which your memories remain, “so you want those things and those foods in the stores. Never mind that if you went back, you’d find that things likely have changed. But who knows what dumplings tasted like 4,000 years ago?”
“Or,” Whitten said, “what they’ll taste like in 20 years?”
Yet one philosophy remains the same, Whitten added, quoting a Cantonese phrase: “Eating is greater than the sky.”
Seeking luck and prosperity
The colors of Lunar New Year are vivid: red for happiness and prosperity, gold for money and luck.
“Young or old, all agree that getting red envelopes is the best thing,” Fung said, explaining that they contain money. “It’s about one generation giving money to the next generation, and it’s good luck for the giver as well as for the recipient.”
The holiday has a superstitious note as well. In Fung’s family, everything has to be clean before the end of the year, “all the clothes, floors, everything,” he said. “You want to be perfect going into the new year. But then for 24 hours after, you can’t clean anything, can’t even take out the trash. You don’t want to clear away your luck.
“One year, I took a shower and my grandmother was livid,” Fung said.
Another symbol of luck and bounty is a steady stream of candies and fresh fruit such as oranges, mangos and pears. A popular treat starts with large disks called sticky rice cakes, in coconut, brown sugar or plain flavors (see recipe). Cut in pieces, dipped in beaten egg and pan-fried, “they are so good,” Fung said. “And eaten any time of day.”
Walking by the rice cakes, however, a newcomer could be mystified as to how to use them. Both Fung and Whitten encourage customers to ask questions of clerks, or even other customers.
“There is an intimidation factor to the store,” Fung said, explaining how it’s divided into four sections by culture, with sections for Chinese, Japanese, Indian and Malaysian. “You can find soy sauce in four different places.”
He encourages curious cooks to focus on a dish they’ve had in a restaurant or experienced in travels, “even better if it’s something out of your comfort zone,” he said, “Then bringing a couple of recipes and discuss it with us. We can start expanding your palate so you’ll have 10 recipes. It would be a failure on our part if you bought an ingredient and only used it for one thing.”
There is, however, one ingredient United Noodles does not carry: cream cheese, even if you crave those restaurant-style wontons for your Lunar New Year feast.
“We’re all about demystifying Asian food,” Whitten said, smiling. “And I don’t think cream cheese wontons need to be demystified at all.”