12 places to find lucky Lunar New Year dishes in St. Louis
This Friday, February 12th, according to the Chinese zodiac, marks the start of the Lunar New Year calendar or the year of the ox. The New Year is celebrated in many countries in Asia: China, Vietnam, Korea, Taiwan, Malaysia, the Philippines, Tibet and Mongolia, to name a few. It’s often about family get-togethers and traditions to usher in the New Year like exchanging red envelopes, lion dancing, ancestral rites, and stunning fireworks. Although traditions may differ between cultures, the focus of the Lunar New Year is on family love and the hope for an auspicious future.
New Year celebrations are synonymous with family celebrations, because overeating is associated with prosperity and happiness. Lunar New Year Foods carry rich cultural associations and stories of origin. For example, it is common in Chinese and Taiwanese cultures to eat foods with desirable symbolic meanings such as wealth or longevity. In Vietnamese culture, a special rice cake is eaten on this occasion, symbolizing the rich fertility of the earth and maternal love. In Korean culture, it is common to ask about a person’s age, “How many tteokguk have you eaten?”
Nicole Phan, a Vietnamese student living in New York, remembers the great vacation with her large family. “When I was growing up, I used to do Bánh Chưng with my family,” she says. “Around New Year’s Eve, friends and family gathered around the fire, sang and danced together while they waited for the cake to cook.” Bánh chưng, another traditional Vietnamese rice cake, takes about eight to 12 hours to prepare. The long, laborious process means that people often earn more than their family can eat and the extras that neighbors and friends can give.
Whether you’re celebrating with family or friends, these St. Louis restaurant offerings can enhance your home-cooked goodness. (And remember to check restaurant hours before February 12th as they may be closed to watch the holidays.)
The Lunar New Year in Vietnam is called Tết, also called Tết Nguyên Đán (Festival of the First Morning) or Tết Ta (Our Festival). Every year during Tết, a bright yellow flower (hoa mai) blooms in the south of Vietnam, while a pink flower (hoa đào) blooms in the north. The different New Year plates in the region reflect this difference in seasonal blooms. In the south, Bánh Tét, a rice cake specialty wrapped in banana leaves, is a must for the first meal of the year. To get the cylindrical shape of the cake, you need to wrap the leaves tightly and secure them with strips of bamboo. On the inside there is a layer of slowly cooked glutinous rice, ground mung bean, and pork belly in the inner core. The cake’s intricate packaging is said to symbolize a mother’s protective hug, while the green of the leaves and the yellow of the mung bean symbolize the colors of a rice field and pay tribute to the agricultural history of the country. Other dishes on the South Vietnamese table for the occasion include the kho hịt vịt (caramelized braised pork belly with boiled eggs) and lạp xưởng, a sweet and savory red sausage commonly known in the US as Chinese sausage.
Here in St. Louis Small Saigon Cafe has been offering Bánh Tét for a limited time until February 13th. Bánh Tét can be served with pickled spring onions and dried prawns or as a stand-alone dish.
In North Vietnam, the New Year’s platter consists of Bánh Chưng, a square rice cake similar to Bánh Tét, and side dishes such as fried egg rolls (Nem Rán) and sweet sticky rice (Xôi Gấc). While egg roll fillings vary widely depending on individual tastes, most include meat, herbs, and mushrooms. There are egg rolls in almost every Vietnamese restaurant on site. Small Saigon Cafe offers a classic version with pork, shrimp and glass noodles, as well as a vegetarian option that is served with a sweet and sour dip sauce based on fish sauce. And consider getting crispy rolls Dao Tien BistroHere you can find a version of the Vietnamese sweet sticky rice and other delicious offerings.
The traditional way to serve egg rolls for Tết is as a side dish on a festive platter called “mâm cỗ”. However, egg rolls can be enjoyed in a number of ways, including as part of that sumptuous stew of fried prawns and vermicelli.
In Chinese culture, the New Year’s Eve dinner is also known as the reunion dinner (团 年饭 / tuán niánfàn), where family members gather to celebrate (at least during the pre-pandemic period). The most common foods for the occasion are dumplings and noodles, both of which have auspicious symbolic meanings. The Chinese words for dumplings are 饺子 (jiǎo zi) and sound like 交 子 (jiāo zi); jiāo means “exchange” and zi means “midnight hour”. Dumplings are said to be wrapped at midnight during the transition into the new year. The shape of the dumplings also resembles Chinese silver bars, meaning that eating dumplings brings prosperity.
While dumplings are ubiquitous in Chinese restaurants, Corner 17 has a lively selection of spinach-colored and beetroot-colored dumplings. Colors in Chinese culture also have symbolic associations – green stands for money and wealth, while red stands for success and happiness – so eating more colors can also bring additional blessings for the New Year.
Another must-have for a Chinese New Year: longevity noodles (面 面 / cháng miàn), which are traditionally prepared as an ultra-long strand of noodle. Nowadays, longevity noodles are often not a single strand, but a very long bundle. As the name suggests, this dish symbolizes the desire for good health and long life.
Longevity noodles are traditionally fried while stirring, but there are also soup variants with different fillings. In corner 17 you will find the special hand-pulled pasta and customizable toppings. ChiliSpot has one of the best flavorful beef noodle soups, along with other tasty noodle options. When it comes to pasta, the options are endless.
Nián gāo (年糕) or Chinese rice cake is another hallmark of Chinese New Year food. It can be prepared in a pan with Chinese cabbage, meat and other vegetables, or as a stand-alone dessert or snack. The dish is usually not served in restaurants, but you can easily find pre-made Nián Gāo in international or Asian supermarkets such as: United provisions or Olive supermarket.
The New Year festival, known as Seollal (설날) in Korean, is the most celebrated holiday in Korea. Tteokguk (떡국), or Korean rice cake soup, is a must for a proper Seollal meal. A bowl usually contains sliced rice cake, thinly sliced omelette, meat and vegetables in beef broth, garnished with plenty of spring onions and dried seaweed. A common variant is Duk Mandu-Guk (떡만두국), which contains dumplings in addition to the usual toppings. Try this iconic soup at Seoul Garden, which also offers Korean barbecue and a unique selection of richly marinated grill starters. Are you in the mood for festive fun? Joo Joo Restaurant offers karaoke so you can sing along to your favorite K-pop songs while you enjoy your rice cake soup.
Similar to the Vietnamese and Chinese New Year traditions, Seollal calls for a multi-course festival, and tteokguk alone is hardly enough. Typical Korean dishes such as Japchae (잡채 – glass noodle pan) and Jeon (전 – pancake) are also on the table for this festive occasion. Both are eaten year round and on special occasions. Enjoy the meal with a beer or a bottle of Soju, a popular Korean alcoholic drink sold in such bright flavors as green grape, grapefruit, and strawberry.
Some of the foods considered happy in Taiwanese culture include radish cake (菜 頭 粿), a homonym for the Cantonese word for “happiness” (彩 頭), and whole fish (魚), a homonym for the word “surplus “. (餘). It is a tradition to leave a little food behind so that there is a “surplus” of prosperity in the coming year. Radish cake can be found in the dim sum menu at Lu Lu Seafood & Dim Sum.
Hot pot is another special occasion meal in Taiwanese culture. There are tons of options when it comes to ingredients, but the most common are thinly sliced beef or pork belly, fresh seafood, tofu, enoki mushrooms, vegetables, and fish balls. Tai Ke Shabu Shabu offers some exciting options: lobster, beef, lamb, pork, seafood, or mushroom hot pot. Can’t you make up your mind With the combined hot pot, you can enjoy two flavors in one pot, half and half. Do you feel picky? Choose from Tai Ke Shabu Shabu’s ingredients and add-ons what goes in your hot pot and, luckily, remember to add some radishes.
The Cantonese word for pineapple (黃 棃) means “incoming fortune,” which makes it another must-have for the New Year celebration. A popular, delicious way to eat pineapple is with pineapple tarts and pineapple buns. Treat yourself The Foundry BakeryPineapple gemstones, all handcrafted with sun ripened pineapples. Not a pineapple fan? Try the Taiwanese bolo rolls, which have delicate pineapple patterns engraved on them, but they don’t contain pineapple.