For several years when her children were young, one of my good friends hosted an annual Chinese New Year’s party. Her youngest child was adopted from China, and the yearly festivities were a way to celebrate and honor her heritage.
At that point, I knew little more than what animal year was being ushered in. (More on that soon.) But those celebrations put the holiday on my radar and provided a fun excuse to serve my own Chinese-inspired meal for my family in subsequent years.
The holiday, celebrated in China and beyond, marks the first day of the lunar New Year with decorations, parades, fireworks, and big family meals. The event is steeped in centuries-old traditions and myths, and I thought it would be fun to share a few of them as we usher in the year of the Rooster.
According to the Chinese zodiac’s 12-year cycle of animals, the year of the Monkey will transition to the year of the Rooster on January 28. For those who may be wondering, the 12 animals in order of occurrence are Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Goat, Monkey, Rooster, Dog, and Pig. It’s believed that people born in a certain animal year share traits typical of that animal. Similar to our zodiac signs, the thought is that these attributes can help or hinder a relationship, romantic or otherwise. (For a little fun, go to chinahighlights.com to determine your Chinese zodiac sign, complete with corresponding characteristics, lucky numbers, days, colors and more.)
As with Christmas and Hanukkah, people often exchange gifts over the Chinese New Year celebration. The most traditional gift, typically given to children and retired adults, is a red envelope containing money. Beyond the obvious monetary gift, the hope is that the envelope will bring good luck to the recipient.
There are countless legends and superstitions surrounding the holiday; the following list offers an abbreviated list of New Year’s Day taboos:
- No porridge for breakfast: it brings poverty
- No hair or clothing washing: it washes away good luck
- No taking medicine: it could mean a year of poor health
- No unlucky words: saying “death” could bring death, for example
- No needlework should be done: it depletes wealth (this includes the use of knives and scissors)
- No sweeping or taking out trash: it sweeps away wealth and symbolizes dumping out good fortune from the house
Though fish and dumplings are considered traditional Chinese New Year fare, the following twist on an eggroll is a dinner that my family enjoys in the spirit of the holiday and throughout the year. The flavorful meal includes both protein and veggies and cooks quickly in a single pan. It tastes a lot like an eggroll—just without the roll!
Yield: 4 servings
- 3 tablespoons (45 ml) soy sauce (I use low-sodium; use a gluten-free option if needed)
- 2 teaspoons (10 ml) sriracha sauce
- 1 teaspoon (5 grams) lightly packed brown sugar
- 1 teaspoon (5 ml) toasted sesame oil (see notes for options with this and other ingredients)
- 1/2 a medium head green cabbage (16 ounces or 5-6 cups once shredded)
- 1 large or 2 medium carrots
- 3 green onions
- 2 teaspoons peanut, olive, or oil of choice
- 1 pound ground pork (I often use ground beef as an option)
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 2 teaspoons minced fresh ginger
- Optional for serving: toasted sesame seeds, chopped peanuts, or toasted sliced almonds; chopped cilantro; additional sriracha sauce
In a small bowl, stir together the soy sauce, sriracha, brown sugar, and sesame oil. Set aside.
Next, prepare the veggies so they are ready when needed: Cut the whole cabbage in half and save one half for another recipe. Slice the remaining half in half again, remove the core, and then thinly slice. Peel the carrots, and then use a cheese grater to shred them. Slice the green onions. The garlic and ginger should be minced but placed in a separate pile from the other vegetables.
Heat the oil in a large (12- to 14-inch) skillet over medium heat. Add the ground pork and cook until no longer pink, breaking it up as you go. Add the garlic and ginger, and cook another 30 to 60 seconds or until fragrant.
Add the cabbage, carrots, and green onions to the skillet, and continue to stir and cook until the cabbage is slightly wilted. (I like to keep a little structure to the cabbage, so I cook just long enough to heat it through. You may cook longer to soften further if preferred.) Drizzle in the prepared sauce and stir to thoroughly incorporate.
Sprinkle with nuts or seeds of choice and fresh cilantro, if desired, and pass sriracha at the table for those who like a little extra kick.
- One teaspoon (7 grams) of honey may be used instead of the brown sugar.
- If you don’t have sesame oil or someone in your family has a sesame allergy, simply omit this ingredient. The dish will still taste great without it.
- For extra easy preparation, you may replace the fresh garlic and ginger with a level 1/2 teaspoon each of garlic powder and dried ginger. Simply stir them in with the sauce ingredients.
- A 16-ounce bag of pre-shredded cabbage mix may be used, however, I think the texture is a bit better when you slice the cabbage yourself. Red cabbage provides similar taste, but green cabbage offers more visual appeal once cooked.