Lunar New Year: Culinary Traditions, Recipes and Celebrations from Lancaster | Life & Culture


Lunar year 4718 is fast approaching, timed with the new moon on Saturday, January 25. Unlike the Solar/Gregorian New Year on January 1, the Lunar New Year is a multi-day celebration that involves a week of preparation before New Year’s Day.

Observed in China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Vietnam (where it is known as Tet), the Lunar New Year is an auspicious time, but also a time to reflect on the past year.

“Chinese New Year is like a cross between Easter and Thanksgiving,” says Grace Young, award-winning author of three cookbooks who has been dubbed the “Wok Poet Laureate.” “Because it’s about new beginnings – it’s called the ‘Spring Festival’, after all – and it’s also a time for giving thanks. No matter where you are, you have to go home for the Chinese New Year.

Here in Lancaster, preparation and celebrations are already underway. Last weekend, the Vietnam Mutual Assistance Association of Central Pennsylvania hosted a party at the Farm & Home Center to celebrate the Year of the Rat. About 250 people attended the free, public event, which included traditional dances and other rituals such as offering red envelopes for good luck.

For Vietnamese and Chinese communities here and abroad, food plays a central role in the festivities of the coming year. At the family home in Thanh Quach, East Lampeter Township, New Year’s Eve is a time for family and friends, when they feast on thit kho trung, also known as Vietnamese braised pork with hard-boiled eggs. Eggs, says Quach, are deliberately left whole in their shells — “everything should be whole, not half” to start the new year off right.

Also on the table are bahn tet, sticky rice cakes filled with yellow beans and braised pork, wrapped in banana leaves and then steamed.

“The family bakes the rice cakes together a few days before New Year’s Eve,” says Quach, who came to the United States in 2001 when she was 8 years old. “We prepare and work together like an assembly line, and this is an important bonding moment for the family.”

But, if New Year’s Eve goes past midnight, the family leaves the dishes unwashed until after New Year’s Day.

“There’s no cleaning or washing on New Year’s Day,” Quach says, “because it’s thought you’re washing away the fortune for the year.”

Cookbook author Grace Young.

Grace Young says the same superstition applies to Chinese culture.

“There’s a psychology behind it all that makes sense,” says Young, the daughter of Chinese immigrants. “You pay off your debts, you cut your hair, you clean the kitchen before New Year’s Day. This is an opportunity to put an end to the past and make a symbolic new start. Who doesn’t want that?

Sticky rice cakes also feature in Chinese New Year celebrations, as do cooked greens, like bok choy or even iceberg lettuce, to usher in prosperity. Noodles are traditional culinary symbols for longevity, and sweets, from tangerines to candy, to encourage a year of joy and happiness.

You’ll likely find sticky rice cakes offered during the Chinese New Year celebration on Sunday evenings at the Chinese Bible Church in Mannheim Township. Pastor Daniel Kuo says he expects up to 600 people for the free event, which is in its third year. In addition to traditional dances, a choir concert and Chinese martial arts, there will be a potluck dinner. The event is free, but you must register online:


My version of Grace Young’s stir-fry lettuce that appears in her book, “Stir-Frying to the Sky’s Edge”. The Cantonese word for lettuce, she writes, saang choi, is a homonym for “growing money.” That’s why it’s a perfect dish to eat for New Year’s Eve parties. Note: Lettuce should be as dry as possible or it will turn out soggy and stew-like. You’re looking for a light burn.

Makes 6 salad-sized servings.


  • 3 tablespoons neutral oil (such as safflower, sunflower or grapeseed)
  • 2 whole garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons peeled and chopped fresh ginger
  • 1 1/2 bunches of romaine lettuce, thoroughly washed, dried and cut into 2-inch pieces (7 to 9 cups)
  • A generous pinch of granulated sugar
  • 15 to 18 cherry tomatoes, halved
  • 1 tablespoon soy sauce or wheat-free tamari


Heat a 14-inch wok (preferably carbon steel, non-stick) over high heat until, as Grace says, “a bead of water vaporizes within 1-2 seconds of contact.”

Stir in the oil so that it is evenly distributed and add the garlic and ginger. Using a metal Chinese spatula or metal pancake spatula, stir-fry – picking up and mixing quickly and continuously – until fragrant, about 20 seconds.

Add lettuce, sprinkle with sugar and sauté until softened and bright green, 2 to 3 minutes. Add tomatoes and soy sauce and continue to sauté, stirring vigorously, until tomatoes are hot and slightly softened, about 30 seconds.

– Source: “The Meat Lover’s Meatless Celebrations” by Kim O’Donnel

State of the Candy: How Farmers in Pennsylvania are Coping with Changes to Maple Syrup and Honey


Excerpt from “The Wisdom of Chinese Cooking” by Grace Young.

Makes an 8 inch cake, about 72 slices.


3 Chinese dried red dates (also called jujubes)

5 slices brown candy (peen tong), about 11 ounces

3 teaspoons vegetable oil

7 cups glutinous rice flour

1 tablespoon of white sesame seeds

1 large egg

Vegetable oil, for the pan


In a small bowl, soak red dates in 1/4 cup cold water for 30 minutes or until softened. Once softened, remove and discard the pits.

Cut each slab of brown candy into 8 pieces. Place the sugar in a heatproof bowl, pour 2 cups boiling water over the sugar and set aside until dissolved and completely cooked.

Grease an 8-inch round heatproof, straight-sided bowl 3 to 4 inches deep, such as a souffle dish, with 2 teaspoons of vegetable oil.

In a large bowl, add the rice flour. Make a well and add the cold sugar water. Knead dough in bowl, adding an additional 1/3 cup cold water, until dough is smooth, slightly moist and shiny, 5 to 10 minutes.

Place the batter in the prepared dish and pat until it evenly fills the dish.

Cut the red dates in half and place the cut side down in a ring around the outside of the dough, leaving a few to decorate the center.

Sprinkle the top with sesame seeds. Coat with the remaining teaspoon of oil, using your fingers and lightly pressing down on the dates and sesame seeds.

Bring water to a boil over high heat in a covered steamer large enough to hold the dish without touching the sides of the steamer. Carefully place the dish in the steamer, cover and steam for 35-40 minutes over high heat. Check the water level and top up, if necessary, with boiling water. The cake is done when it begins to pull away from the sides of the pan.

Carefully remove the dish from the steamer and pour out any excess liquid on the surface. Place on a wire rack to cool. Cover loosely and set at room temperature in a cool room until the next day when it’s ready to eat.

Run a knife along the edge of the cake to loosen the sides. Place a cake rack over the bowl and invert to unmold. Flip the cake right side up on a cutting board. Wrap cake in plastic and refrigerate until ready to use.

When ready to serve, cut the cake into quarters. Cut each quarter crosswise, not into wedges, but into two 2-inch-wide strips. Cut each strip crosswise into ¼-inch-thick slices. This is the typical Chinese way of slicing a cake. Beat an egg in a small bowl, until frothy. Dip the slices in the egg.

Heat a 14-inch flat-bottomed wok or skillet over medium heat until hot but not smoking. Add just enough vegetable oil to barely coat the wok, add the egg-dipped slices in batches, and cook, 2-3 minutes per side, until golden brown. Serve immediately.

The cake will keep well in the fridge for 10 days if wrapped in plastic wrap.


Comments are closed.