The New Year, or Spring Festival, is the biggest holiday celebrated in Chinese culture. The celebration begins with the first full moon and lasts 15 days, and involves family meals, fireworks and gifts. Many of the traditional foods eaten at this time of year symbolize good fortune: eating uncut noodles means a long life, and dumplings resembling the shape of ancient Chinese coins suggest prosperity. We explore how the Chinese New Year is celebrated in communities around the world.


  • Scott Drewno Executive Chef, The Source
  • Corinna Shen Co-owner of Seven Seas restaurant in Rockville, Md.
  • Tobie Meyer-Fong Associate Professor of History at Johns Hopkins University

Sights And Sounds Of Chinese New Year

Thousands of people welcomed the Lunar New Year at the Chinese New Year parade in Washington’s Chinatown on Sunday, Feb. 2. According to the Chinese zodiac, 2014 is the Year of the Horse, symbolizing a capacity for work, independence, intelligence and friendliness. Chinese New Year celebrations traditionally include firecrackers, live musical performances with lion and dragon dancers, and feasts with foods like a whole fish and dumplings.

Filmed, edited and produced by WAMU 88.5 intern Yi Chen.


  • 13:23:32

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIWelcome back. It's Food Wednesday. You can start calling now. Does your family celebrate the Lunar New Year? Have you ever enjoyed a Chinese New Year meal? 800-433-8850 is the number to call. In China and in Chinese communities around the world, including right here in Washington, the most important holiday is the Lunar New Year, also known as the Spring Festival.

  • 13:23:53

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIAnd while you might be more familiar with the Chinese New Year parade, you might be missing out on one of the more important and tasty aspects of the 15 days of celebration. Many of the traditional foods eaten at this time of year are thought to bring good fortune for the coming year. This is a great time to visit a Chinese restaurant to explore some of those food traditions. Joining us to talk about what you might find on a Chinese menu this time of year is Corinna Shen. She is co-owner of the Seven Seas restaurant in Rockville, Md. Corinna Shen, thank you so much for joining us.

  • 13:24:28

    MS. CORINNA SHENThank you for inviting me back.

  • 13:24:30

    NNAMDIGood to see you again. Also with us in studio is Scott Drewno. He is the executive chef at The Source restaurant here in Washington. Scott, good to see you again.

  • 13:24:38

    MR. SCOTT DREWNOGreat to see you. Thank you for having me.

  • 13:24:39

    NNAMDIAlso in studio with us is Tobie Meyer-Fong. She is a professor of East Asian history at Johns Hopkins University. Tobie Meyer-Fong, thank you for joining us.

  • 13:24:49

    DR. TOBIE MEYER-FONGThank you for including me.

  • 13:24:50

    NNAMDI800-433-8850. Corinna, tell us a little bit about Chinese New Year. It's also known as the Spring Festival. When does this holiday fall?

  • 13:25:00

    SHENWell, every year it falls on a different date because it's not following the western calendar. And it's followed by the lunar moon cycle. So every year it falls on a different date.

  • 13:25:14

    NNAMDIAnd this year?

  • 13:25:15

    SHENThis year is January the 31.

  • 13:25:19

    NNAMDIAnd we have 15 days of celebration?

  • 13:25:21

    SHENWe have the 15 days of celebration. Today is the sixth day. Actually yesterday was the fifth day. And on the lunar calendar shows that yesterday was the first day of spring. And we celebrate a Spring -- we call it Spring Festival because in the old days we worshiped the -- ancestor wished for the better year and give out the celebration.

  • 13:25:46

    NNAMDINew Year's Eve is when the biggest holiday meal is served. That was last Friday, January 31. What's the tradition -- and this question for you too, Tobie -- what's the tradition in most Chinese families, starting with you Corinna?

  • 13:25:57

    SHENOkay. My family, we must have a dumpling. The history of dumpling is very -- it's quite extensive. But I just want to share the common reason why dumpling are eaten in New Year. The dumpling resembles the shape of a gold nugget. And you're holding the nugget...

  • 13:26:20

    NNAMDIWhich is what I'm holding in my hand.

  • 13:26:21

    SHENYes. And eating dumpling symbolize gaining prosperity. So that's a must dish. And then my family tradition, we have to have lions head meatball. Just try to imagine to see the lion's head. It is round.

  • 13:26:44


  • 13:26:44

    SHENAnd my mother always tell me that you have to have the meatball so you can gain strength, have power because lion symbolize power. So...

  • 13:26:55

    NNAMDIYour family traditions, Tobie Meyer-Fong.

  • 13:26:58

    MEYER-FONGWell, my mother-in-law is from the coastal part of eastern China. And so she doesn't particularly like to eat dumplings. To her she thinks that's a northern tradition. So she likes to eat wontons when she wasn't vegetarian or to have -- the idea is you want to do something where the family participates together. And dumplings are something that a whole group...

  • 13:27:22

    DREWNO...makes, yes.

  • 13:27:22

    MEYER-FONG...a family make together. You've got a big pot of filling, whether it's vegetarian or meat filling. And you have someone rolling out the dumpling skins.

  • 13:27:29

    SHEN...the dough.

  • 13:27:30

    MEYER-FONGAnd everybody's working together...

  • 13:27:32


  • 13:27:32 make it. And in places like Shanghai or Guangzhou, they might eat (word?) wontons instead of dumplings. But the idea is the same, making it together as an expression of family togetherness.

  • 13:27:45 a whole. And the fish is another item that the family must have. You serve the whole fish.

  • 13:27:52

    MEYER-FONGAnd that's because like many New Year customs or many customary foods eaten on New Year, it's got an auspicious sound to it.

  • 13:27:59


  • 13:28:00

    MEYER-FONGRight. Every year you have fish (speaks foreign language).

  • 13:28:03


  • 13:28:03

    MEYER-FONGYou want to have every year. Fish sounds like every year having extra, having abundance.

  • 13:28:09

    SHENYes. Because the pronunciation has double meaning. One meaning is fish and another is abundance.

  • 13:28:17

    NNAMDIThere are four basic elements to a festival meal, Corinna. What are they?

  • 13:28:22

    SHENChicken, dog, fish, meat, (speaks foreign language).

  • 13:28:28

    NNAMDIThose are the four elements on this Food Wednesday. Scott Drewno, you're the executive chef at the Asian-themed restaurant The Source. How did you mark Chinese New Year's Eve at your restaurant last Friday?

  • 13:28:39

    DREWNOLast Friday we hosted a communal menu, a Chinese banquet-style menu for togetherness for family. So we invited groups of eight or larger to enjoy a banquet feast that had all the four elements involved in it. And was really meant to be family-style sharing and promote togetherness.

  • 13:29:02

    NNAMDIYou came up with new dishes -- well, you come up with new dishes every year for Chinese New Year, but it's my understanding that you came up with a special new dish this year, lettuce cups. What's the symbolism around those and are those what I'm looking at here?

  • 13:29:15

    DREWNOThose are what you're looking at there. And for me every year Chinese New Year is an exploration into tradition. And, you know, three are so many great symbolic foods for the New Year. We try to -- for me I've been cooking a Chinese New Year dinner for about 17 years and really try to keep digging deeper and exploring. And this dish, the lettuce cup, you know, symbolizes fortune. And there's also pine nuts in there, which Dr. Fong could explain a little bit better than me. But we try to use symbolic foods for the New Year.

  • 13:29:47

    NNAMDITell us about all the ingredients of the lettuce cup.

  • 13:29:49

    DREWNOSo this lettuce cup has lamb...

  • 13:29:51

    NNAMDII would tell you but they didn't bring me a fork because they don't want me to eat on the air.

  • 13:29:55

    DREWNOIt's ground lamb that we've marinated in orange zest soy sauce, a little brown sugar. It's stir-fried in a wok with toasted pine nuts, crispy rice noodles and then a little salad with spinach on top.

  • 13:30:12

    NNAMDITobie, the symbolism around the food served at New Years is important. And a lot of it apparently has to do with what food looks like or what the food names sound like. Can you talk a little bit about that?

  • 13:30:23

    MEYER-FONGSure. Chinese is a language with a lot of punning potential because a lot of words sound similar. And so the word for pine nut sounds like the word for to send sons or to send children. So (speaks foreign language). And lettuce sounds like the word meaning to get wealthy. And so a lot of the items that you find on the Chinese New Year table like the fish, like the lettuce, or in Cantonese communities you find a kind of desert moss called (speaks foreign language) which sounds -- which literally means hair vegetable. But it sounds like the second half of the New Year greeting (speaks foreign language) which means congratulations...

  • 13:31:05

    SHEN...wishing you good fortune.

  • 13:31:06

    MEYER-FONG...wishing you good fortune and get rich.

  • 13:31:09

    NNAMDIThe puns are never ending. 800-433--8850, give us a call. Does your family celebrate Lunar New Year? Do you have a favorite Chinese dish or local Chinese restaurant where you celebrated Lunar New Year? Give us a call, 800-433-8850. Corinna, what are you serving at your restaurant for New Years?

  • 13:31:29

    SHENWell, we have this one signature dish. It's called braised pork butt. So (speaks foreign language) . That falls in one of the elements, pork. Every family have to have a pork. And the character (speaks foreign language) is roof with animal underneath. And that's another reason we have to have pork for the New Year. Come and try the braised pork butt in Seven Seas.

  • 13:31:59

    NNAMDIHow about the lions head meatball that you described earlier?

  • 13:32:02

    SHENWell, we do have that dish also. So order that and...

  • 13:32:05

    NNAMDIIt has a mane of lettuce, right?

  • 13:32:06

    SHENYeah, the cabbage resembles the lion's mane.

  • 13:32:13

    NNAMDIAnd you have herbal chicken soup?

  • 13:32:15

    SHENYes. And that's a chicken dish. It's very healthy. It's good for wintertime. And we have ginseng wolfberry -- yeah, wolfberry. And (speaks foreign language), dates.

  • 13:32:33 dates, Chinese dates.

  • 13:32:34

    SHENYes, dates. All this good ingredients that will make you healthy, strong. So come and try that.

  • 13:32:42

    NNAMDIGetting back to the puns with the chicken. Chicken -- the word for chicken sounds like luck in Chinese is my understanding?

  • 13:32:48

    SHENYes. (speaks foreign language).

  • 13:32:54

    NNAMDITobie, you and your family prepare a Chinese New Year meal that involves dumplings. Tell us about that.

  • 13:33:00

    MEYER-FONGWe make dumplings and one of the -- we don't eat pork and that poses problems for Chinese New Year because it's customary to eat pork. But we have a new world variation. We use turkey. And we do a turkey and pumpkin dumpling that we steam. It's very tasty.

  • 13:33:20

    NNAMDIIt's my understanding that you celebrate two traditions in your family, Jewish and Chinese. And so you have adapted some of the Chinese traditions. Can you talk about that?

  • 13:33:30

    MEYER-FONGWell, that's one of them. We don't eat pork and so we substitute turkey for pork. And we celebrate Rosh Hashanah and Chinese New Year and the New Year.

  • 13:33:40

    NNAMDIScott, you serve meals family style at The Source for this holiday. What makes a meal family style in Chinese culture?

  • 13:33:48

    DREWNOWell, generally it's large platters at the table meant for sharing. So instead of an individual course like we do a traditional tasting menu, it's large platters meant to -- known to be shared.

  • 13:33:59

    NNAMDIOnto the telephones. Here is Victoria in Washington D.C. Victoria, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:34:06

    VICTORIAHi. So I was born in Singapore. And the ethnically Chinese there in that region in Malaysia are similar for Chinese New Year. They have I think two traditions, at least my family does. One is steamboat. which is the same as hot pot or in Mandarin, it would be (speaks foreign language) . And it's when everyone comes over it's basically like Chinese fondue. But it's funny. It's only called steamboat, like, in that region.

  • 13:34:32

    VICTORIAAnd then the other food tradition we have is a tradition that is specific that was created in that region called (speaks foreign language) which is of Cantonese origin but it's basically what we call prosperity salad. And we -- there are, like, different ingredients like carrot, radish, you know, pomelo, ginger, cucumber, pickles, yam, all these different things that represent -- it's also a very colorful salad. And in the middle it's fish. Obviously fish has a significance -- you know, auspicious significance of the Chinese New Year.

  • 13:35:05

    VICTORIASo what you do is you get together around the table. It's like a circular plate and everyone digs their chopsticks in and tosses the salad together and say (speaks foreign language) which basically, you know, means to rise, as you're tossing all these ingredients that each have a significance. And that is basically a really fun way that we celebrate New Year's together.

  • 13:35:28

    NNAMDIVictoria, thank you so much for sharing that tradition with us. I couldn't help noticing that she also brings up the theme of togetherness in that situation. The family gathered around the table. Can you talk a little bit more about that?

  • 13:35:41

    MEYER-FONGSure. I mean, obviously families are really important value. And that's expressed both through the shared eating of food in the form of (speaks foreign language) making dumplings together. And actually there's a food that you eat on the New Year whose name is a homophone for family togetherness. You eat (speaks foreign language) which are a kind of gluttonous rice ball often stuffed with sesame paste or with peanuts. But the name sounds like the idea of family togetherness, which is an essential part of the New Year.

  • 13:36:11

    MEYER-FONGAnd in fact, if you've been following Chinese New Year in the newspaper, it occasions the most massive run on the Chinese transportation system as Chinese people who are living in cities or living away from home try to get home for the holidays.

  • 13:36:27

    NNAMDITobie Meyer-Fong. She's a professor of East Asian history at Johns Hopkins University. She joins us to discuss Chinese New Year food traditions here on Food Wednesday along with Scott Drewno. He is the executive chef at The Source restaurant here in Washington. And Corinna Shen, co-owner of the Seven Seas restaurant in Rockville, Md. You're invited to join the conversation by calling 800-433-8850. Are you interested in the symbolism of different foods, speaking of which, Corinna, uncut noodles. What do they represent?

  • 13:37:01

    SHENWell, they're long. When we celebrate birthdays -- you know, elderly person celebrate birthday and we always pick the longest noodle from our own ball to give it to the elderly to -- this represents longevity, long life. So we give the elderly person a long noodle meaning bring her or him good luck, longevity.

  • 13:37:29

    NNAMDIWhy is it important to serve a whole fish?

  • 13:37:32

    SHENThe whole fish from head to tail represents the beginning of the year to the end of year. By serving the whole fish from head to tail meaning that you have leftover because earlier we said that the pronunciation of fish (speaks foreign language) that there's a double meaning. One meaning is fish and the other meaning is abundance. So serving fish to have leftover in fortune, leftover in...

  • 13:38:03

    MEYER-FONGBut also you should have good -- you should have leftovers the whole year through.

  • 13:38:08

    SHENYes, The leftover...

  • 13:38:09

    MEYER-FONGSo from the head of the year to the tail of the year you want to have abundance.

  • 13:38:13


  • 13:38:14

    NNAMDIBlack moss, which looks a lot like hair. Why is that served at this time of year?

  • 13:38:20

    SHENWell, the black moss, there's another name of the black moss. It's called hair vegetable. And the Chinese pronouncing of hair vegetable is (foreign language). And the pronunciation of (foreign language) is so similar to (foreign language). So we take that two sound. You know (foreign language) is gaining prosperity and (foreign language). are the same sound. And you have to eat (foreign language) to be (foreign language) to gain prosperity.

  • 13:38:54

    NNAMDIDo families usually eat out on this holiday? Because it's my understanding the Chinese New Year is something like Thanksgiving. Typically it's a meal that's prepared and served at home.

  • 13:39:04

    SHENWell, when I was growing up, the New Year time, there's no store or anything were open. And modern days people going out to have meal, like earlier you mention the Thanksgiving. Yes. We -- modern Chinese, they -- younger generation, they like to go out and not cooking because it takes a long time to prepare.

  • 13:39:31


  • 13:39:32

    SHENTwo weeks.

  • 13:39:33 prepare this.

  • 13:39:35

    SHENTo prepare the festival meal.

  • 13:39:37

    NNAMDIIndeed, Scott, a lot more American families have been eating out on Thanksgiving. So who comes to your restaurant for Chinese New Year's dinner?

  • 13:39:46

    DREWNOIt's a diverse crowd. There's so many people that come that, you know, I think a lot of people like me that just are so interested in the exploration of new cuisines and new cultures. And, once again, you know, like you said, so many restaurants are so busy on Thanksgiving nowadays whereas probably as little as 15 years ago that wasn't the case. But now it's some of that -- you know, some people just get tired of cooking. So that's why you come to The Source.

  • 13:40:12

    MEYER-FONGThey're busy working.

  • 13:40:12

    NNAMDICorinna, do some people come for Chinese New Year's who are not Chinese but who just may want to celebrate or learn about Chinese food traditions?

  • 13:40:19

    SHENOur restaurant is located in Rockville, so we do get a lot of the Jewish community people. Yes. On New Year's period we serve half -- 50 percent are not -- non-Chinese. And with Chinese they're mostly, like, family gathering celebration time.

  • 13:40:39

    MEYER-FONGAnd as Corinna said, historically businesses all shut down for the period of the New Year. But, you know, there have been Chinese restaurants in China that we know the names of from contemporary accounts back to the Sung Dynasty, 960 to 1279.

  • 13:40:54

    NNAMDIOn to Nam in Rockville, Md. Nam, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:41:00

    NAMHi. I wanted to call in because I am Vietnamese. And we celebrate Lunar New Year. And of course like, you know, the other caller that called in and all your experiences, it's all centered around family and lots and lots of eating. And what we do is we have a -- you can't call it a pastry because it's not sweet, although it does come in three versions. But it's called (speaks foreign language) and it is a -- it's in a log form. It's sticky rice wrapped around mung beans and a piece of fatty pork belly.

  • 13:41:40

    NAMAnd it is wrapped in banana leaves and steamed for a very long time. And it also comes in, like, a square brick form called (speaks foreign language) .

  • 13:41:51

    NNAMDIAnd that is a part of your family tradition?

  • 13:41:55

    NAMYeah, it's not just my family. I know a lot of people, you know, do it. And it's, you know, a big deal because it takes a really long time to make. And you can eat it with, like, (word?) vegetables or my family put a little bit of sugar on it. I don't know if that's a Vietnamese thing or just my family does that.

  • 13:42:16

    NNAMDIDo you know if that's available in Vietnamese restaurants here for the Lunar New Year?

  • 13:42:20

    NAMNo. It's actually found more in, like, you know, grocery stores. You know, people make it at home, specialty shops. Like, you can find it all over in the Eden Center.

  • 13:42:31

    NNAMDIThank you very much for sharing that with us, Nam. We've got to take a short break. When we come back we'll be continuing this Food Wednesday conversation on Chinese New Year food traditions. But you can still call us right now, 800-433-8850. Or you can send email to Does your family celebrate the Lunar New Year? Tell us how. You can also shoot us a Tweet @kojoshow. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 13:44:41

    NNAMDIIt's a Food Wednesday conversation about Chinese New Year food traditions with Scott Drewno. He is the executive chef at The Source restaurant in Washington. Tobie Meyer-Fong is a professor of East Asian history at Johns Hopkins University. And Corinna Shen is co-owner of the Seven Seas restaurant in Rockville, Md. And hearing that the host of this broadcast is easily bribable, Corinna just gave me a bright red envelope with a fresh crisp new dollar bill in it. Tell me about this tradition.

  • 13:45:12

    SHENWell, the red envelope, it's called (speaks foreign language) . Chen (sp?) is money so (speaks foreign language) meaning awarding the old age. So you don't get older. Isn't that correct, Dr….

  • 13:45:31

    NNAMDIThat's why the money is new and crisp.

  • 13:45:33


  • 13:45:34

    NNAMDIAs she says Dr. Meyer-Fong. Tell us about this.

  • 13:45:37

    MEYER-FONGIt just should be fresh new money that's not been used for other purposes. And actually in Chinese communities, for example in New York City, if you put your ATM card in you can request new hundred dollar bills come out so that you can put them in the red envelope and give them to people new and fresh.

  • 13:45:52

    NNAMDIYou can get new one dollar bills also?

  • 13:45:54

    MEYER-FONGI don't know about dollar bills from the ATM but certainly you can go into the bank and request fresh new bills for the purpose of giving as gifts.

  • 13:46:01

    SHENYeah, yesterday I went to Asia Bank and my best friend Rita exchanged $20 brand new one-dollar bill for me.

  • 13:46:09

    NNAMDIWell, I am the happy recipient of one such. And I expect this is going to give me good fortune in the year ahead. Scott, you are well known as a chef in Asian cooking but you are not only not Chinese, you grew up in upstate New York. You originally pursued a career in criminal justice. So tell us how this happened. You got interested in Chinese cooking working in a restaurant in Vegas?

  • 13:46:32

    DREWNOYeah, so I originally -- you know, when I graduated high school my parents had sort of picked out a career path for me. And they wanted me to go into criminal justice, and so I'd gone to school for criminal justice. And I was always working in restaurants at the time. And I really wanted to cook. I wanted to be a chef but at that time it was about 20 years ago, and being a chef then wasn't what is -- it's not what it was -- it's not what it is now what it was then. And my parents were like, this is not a good career and you can't make any money.

  • 13:47:02

    DREWNOAnd so after two years of criminal justice I decided I would just with all my heart and I had a good friend move to Las Vegas. So I dropped out of school to -- sort of my parents' dismay and I moved to Las Vegas. And fortunately Wolfgang Puck had just opened his French Asian restaurant Chinois which is -- you know, Wolfgang was really one of the first chefs to do, you know, sort of fusion cooking taking traditional Chinese ingredients and using a French technique to cook them.

  • 13:47:29

    DREWNOWell, I walked in that kitchen and I saw roasted ducks, a wok that had a million degree burner and (word?) and ginger and all these things that I -- just blew my mind because I was from a very small town -- a village in upstate New York called Penn Yan, which is a beautiful area in the Finger Lakes. But as far as diversity of food, there's not much. So when I walked in that kitchen I just fell in love and I've devoted the last, you know, 18 years of my life to trying to learn and, you know...

  • 13:47:57

    NNAMDIThere may not have been a lot of diversity of cuisine in that village but there was certainly a lot of cooking that seemed to be going on in your house, because your mother and grandmother, it's my understanding, were probably also responsible for your love of food and cooking in general.

  • 13:48:10

    DREWNOOh, true. And, you know, I think that's another reason sort of the Chinese New Year means something to me, is that we always had big family celebrations with food. And my father's side is Polish and we would go and have family banquet meals where there's five of us in my family and my two grandparents, there would be seven of us. But there'd be enough food for 25 people, you know, pierogis and, you know, polish dumplings and golumpkis and kapusta and all these foods that were just -- you know, food is I think a kind of language that really feels good to celebrate with family and be together.

  • 13:48:43

    MEYER-FONG(unintelligible) ...

  • 13:48:43

    NNAMDIWe got an email -- oh, please go ahead, Tobie.

  • 13:48:45

    MEYER-FONGOh, I was going to say in Chinese they say (speaks foreign language). It's the people take food as Heaven.

  • 13:48:51


  • 13:48:51

    DREWNOYeah, that's great.

  • 13:48:52

    NNAMDIWe got an email from Cade in Hyattsville who said, "I got a little intimidated in -- I get a little intimidated in Chinese restaurants. I understand a lot of the food we get here are Americanized and not really Chinese. Is that true? What would you recommend I try if I want to be more adventurous," Corinna?

  • 13:49:10

    SHENWell, that's why when I first met Scott today I told him that, Scott, I am so proud of you. Your creation brought the Chinese cuisine to -- and at the level because the traditional Chinese food, we are facing a difficulty to find a good chef now in the traditional restaurant. Well, to this friend who has this question, traditional Chinese food, there's -- you know, in Rockville -- last time we talked about Rockville it's almost like a little Taipei. It's a little Chinatown. There's a lot of Chinese restaurants. Seven Seas, my restaurant, we service pretty much traditional Chinese too and cover all regions.

  • 13:49:55

    NNAMDII was about to say at Seven Seas you serve food from the four major Chinese regions.

  • 13:50:01


  • 13:50:02

    NNAMDIBut it seems like many of these food traditions now cross regional boundaries. Has Chinese food, like many other cuisines, Tobie, become more universal?

  • 13:50:13

    MEYER-FONGWell, I think the idea of Chinese food as a unitary thing is a product of Chinese people being outside of China. I mean, if you're in China, you eat in a restaurant that serves food or you eat in a restaurant that serves regional cuisines. Like if you're in Beijing a lot of people like to go out for Citron food or (word?) food or Shanghai-style food or Cantonese food. And so maintaining those regional distinctions becomes a kind of branding for the restaurants.

  • 13:50:43

    MEYER-FONGBut on the other hand, I would say that New Year's traditions have probably become a bit more internationalized and also more universal.

  • 13:50:51

    NNAMDIWe've got a video on our website from the Chinese New Year parade right here in Washington, D.C.'s Chinatown, including interviews with spectators about the meaning of this New Year, the year of the horse. So you can find that at our website On to Pat in Herndon, Va. Pat, your turn.

  • 13:51:10

    PATHi, Kojo. A pleasure to join you today. I'm sorry I missed your open house on Saturday but (unintelligible) ...

  • 13:51:15

    NNAMDIWell, about a thousand other people did not but you were missed, yes. Go ahead.

  • 13:51:21

    PATI was curious how far across the Asian community is the New Year or when the New Year practiced. For instance, I understand the previous caller talked about Vietnamese do celebrate. How about, like, Japan or Korea or some of the other...

  • 13:51:38


  • 13:51:39

    MEYER-FONGWell, I was going to say, Japan has shifted pretty firmly to western New Year. And many of the traditional Japanese New Year observances moved from the Lunar Year to the western New Year with Japan's modernization in the early 20th century. China and Vietnam pretty strongly retain...

  • 13:51:59


  • 13:51:59

    MEYER-FONG...and Korea retain the Lunar New Year.

  • 13:52:02

    NNAMDIHey Pat, thank you very much for your call. You know, you mentioned earlier, Corinna, that today is the sixth day of celebration. Do people still take time off as it gets into the sixth and seventh days of the celebration? Is it still a holiday for some people?

  • 13:52:19

    SHENI believe so. In China commonly known that business will take at least a week off. And some place, like earlier we said, about 15 days at celebration from full moon to the next full moon. Usually the 30th of the Lunar calendar is the full moon. And the moon lasts for 15 days. So to the next full moon day is the last day of celebration, which is the lanterns day, the 15th day.

  • 13:52:48

    NNAMDIIt seems to make so much sense. Some of our people seem to take a week to recover from the New Year's Eve celebration. (laugh) We often see mandarin oranges associated with Chinese New Year. What's the symbolism of those?

  • 13:53:00

    SHENYes. The mandarin orange again is -- we resemble the pronunciation of orange to (speaks foreign language). (Speaks foreign language) means blessing and prosperity. That's why in Chinese New Year all families always serve (speaks foreign language) orange on the table.

  • 13:53:23

    MEYER-FONGAnd actually 19th century western observers commented that that was an important part of the Chinese New Year festivities.

  • 13:53:29

    MEYER-FONG... (unintelligible) tradition.

  • 13:53:30

    NAMSo it's been around for a while.

  • 13:53:32

    NNAMDIDessert is something we often note that seems to be absent from Chinese menus. What's the story of sweets in China and what other kinds of sweets are common at this time of year?

  • 13:53:42

    MEYER-FONGWell, of course as part of the general package of wanting auspicious things, sweetness is obviously something auspicious across cultures. And so things like eight treasures sticky rice would be...

  • 13:53:55

    SHEN...rice cakes.

  • 13:53:55

    MEYER-FONG...a sweet dish or rice cakes, which is another thing that you see regional variation across regions. Everyplace in China has something like what your opening there, Kojo, called (speaks foreign language) ...

  • 13:54:06

    SHEN...(speaks foreign language).

  • 13:54:07

    MEYER-FONG...which means...

  • 13:54:08

    NNAMDIThanks, Corinna.

  • 13:54:09

    MEYER-FONG...year cake. And it also, again, is a homophone for (speaks foreign language) getting higher every year. So it expressed the wish that, Kojo, you may have already reached the pinnacle but you can keep rising even higher in your profession. And that's something that would be sweet. In different regions of China they have something called (speaks foreign language) that looks completely different...

  • 13:54:31


  • 13:54:32

    NNAMDIKeep talking about the part about me rising higher in my profession.

  • 13:54:36

    MEYER-FONGSo you have to eat (speaks foreign language) year.

  • 13:54:38

    MEYER-FONGYou have to eat it every year.

  • 13:54:40

    SHENYeah, (speaks foreign language) is higher and...

  • 13:54:43

    MEYER-FONGAnd the one that Corinna brought you is a Cantonese (speaks foreign language) .

  • 13:54:46


  • 13:54:47

    MEYER-FONGWhereas at my mother-in-law's house you would eat something that's shaped like small earlobes also made out of (word?) pounded rice cake. And she stir fries it with a kind of flour called (speaks foreign language) which has a kind of citrusy flavor to it. And she stir fries the rice cake, adds a kind of sugar syrup with the flours in it and so it's sweet and fragrant and very delicious. And she would say that the one from her hometown is the best.

  • 13:55:10

    SHENMy goodness. I haven't heard (speaks foreign language) .

  • 13:55:13

    MEYER-FONGYou've never -- it's...

  • 13:55:14

    SHENWell, I've heard of (speaks foreign language) but, you know, I haven't had it for years.

  • 13:55:17

    MEYER-FONGWell, come to my house for New Years sometime, Corinna.

  • 13:55:19

    SHENOh yes, definitely.

  • 13:55:20

    NNAMDIYou mentioned that your mother-in-law is vegetarian. Is that because of tradition or just for health reasons?

  • 13:55:26

    MEYER-FONGWell, in fact she's vegetarian because she's a Buddhist. But actually in many Chinese communities, the lunch of New Year's day is an occasion to eat vegetarian food. And then you would revert to eating the leftovers and meat for dinner on New Year's day.

  • 13:55:40

    NNAMDIScott Drewno, if someone comes to The Source who's vegetarian and wants to celebrate the Lunar New Year, can you help them out?

  • 13:55:45

    DREWNOAbsolutely. We always -- you know, Chinese food lends itself very well to vegetarian food. So we always offer -- you know, we have a seven-course tasting menu for vegetarians. We have a lot of menu items and we can always accommodate.

  • 13:55:57

    NNAMDICorinna, Tobie, it's my understanding that in Chinese tradition the New Year is when you turn one year old. And this is the year of the horse. What are the characteristics of people born under this symbol?

  • 13:56:10

    MEYER-FONGThe horse year?

  • 13:56:11


  • 13:56:11

    MEYER-FONGI particularly love the people who was born a horse because when I was growing up all my playmate, my friends are horse year. And horse itself, the character of the horse resembles an actual horse. It has four legs in the character.

  • 13:56:31

    NNAMDIShe's showing me on the calendar.

  • 13:56:32

    SHENYes. And can you see the horse?

  • 13:56:35

    NNAMDII can see the horse.

  • 13:56:36

    SHENAnd can you see the four legs?

  • 13:56:37

    NNAMDII see the four legs indeed, yeah.

  • 13:56:39

    SHENSo this is the symbol of horse.

  • 13:56:41

    NNAMDIThis is a calendar put out by Citi Bank for 2014 but it does celebrate the year of the horse. Tobie.

  • 13:56:47

    MEYER-FONGYeah, and I was going to say actually the very idea of businesses producing calendars on the New Year and giving them to their clients, like banks or Chinese supermarkets is very much part of the package of Chinese New Year customs.

  • 13:56:59

    NNAMDIAnd I'm afraid that's about all the time we have. Tobie Meyer-Fong is a professor of East Asian history at Johns Hopkins University. Thank you so much for joining us.

  • 13:57:08

    MEYER-FONGThank you.

  • 13:57:09

    NNAMDIHappy New Year.

  • 13:57:09

    MEYER-FONGHappy New Year to you too.

  • 13:57:11

    NNAMDIScott Drewno is the executive chef at The Source restaurant here in Washington. Scott, thank you for joining us.

  • 13:57:16

    DREWNOThank you. Happy New Year.

  • 13:57:17

    NNAMDIHappy New Year to you. And Corinna Shen is co-owner of the Seven Seas restaurant in Rockville, Md. Corinna, I hope I was born under the horse. Thank you so much for joining us.

  • 13:57:27

    SHEN(Speaks foreign language).

Topics + Tags


comments powered by Disqus
Most Recent Shows

Redressing Segregation In Maryland’s Public Higher Education

Thursday, Nov 16 2017The federal court judge who ruled that Maryland's public universities were unlawfully segregated rejected solutions proposed by the state's Higher Education Commission and a group representing a coalition of Maryland Historically Black Colleges and Universities for redressing that segregation. We get an update on the case.