Philly Experts Tell Us What to Eat for Lunar New Year

Here's what Nydia Han, Rick Cao, Kiki Aranita, and more of Philly's Asian American tastemakers are eating as we welcome the Year of the Dragon.

From left: Nydia Han, Rick Cao, Kiki Aranita / Photographs courtesy of 6ABC, Rick Cao, and Claudia Gavin

Depending on the lunisolar calendar, Lunar New Year can fall anywhere between January 21st and February 20th. This year on February 10th, the year of the rabbit comes to a close and we enter the Year of the Dragon, which is arguably the most exciting (and only mythical) creature in the Chinese zodiac.

Regardless of what animal ushers in the Lunar New Year, traditions remain the same. It is a time for family reunions, paying respect to ancestors, and wishing good fortune and prosperity in the coming year. People celebrate by cleaning and decorating their homes, exchanging gifts, and most importantly, preparing those special dishes that have been handed down through the generations.

Though Lunar New Year is one of the most important holidays in China, it is shared with many cultures across Asia and is celebrated all over the globe. That is why there are so many different dishes that are shared for the holiday. And just like any culturally significant dish, each household has their own take on the traditional recipe.

I’m of Vietnamese descent, so in my family, we celebrate with my mom’s double fried chicken wings with her secret ingredient: Normandy salted butter. Stateside, it’s a specialty that comes at a premium price, but I was born and raised in Belgium, so growing up, this French style of butter was easily accessible and affordable.

Since I only see my mom once or twice a year, I always ask her to make her signature chicken wings. Lucky for us, she’s coming to visit and will be here to celebrate Lunar New Year with us. Our other go-to’s for the holiday are prepped foods from Ba Le Bakery such as Banh Tet, a sticky rice rolled in a log and filled with mung bean and pork; Nem Chua, bite-sized fermented cured pork with garlic and chiles; and some of their bottled specialty Nuoc Mam fish sauce for dipping.

I reached out to others in my extended community to see what dishes kick off their Lunar New Year. Here are their favorites and where to find them.

Happy Lunar New Year! Gong Xi Fa Cai! Chúc Mừng Năm Mới! 새해 복 많이 받으세요! Whatever dishes you choose to eat to celebrate the Year of the Dragon, I hope they bring you good health, lots of luck, and abundant prosperity!

Nydia Han: Mandu (or Mandoo)

For Lunar New Year, 6 ABC’s Nydia Han says her favorite dish is mandu, the general term for Korean dumplings that can be filled with a variety of savory meats and vegetables. She tells Philly Mag that though her parents grew up in South Korea and she grew up in southern California, they now call Philadelphia their home. One of her favorite family traditions is getting together to make dumplings. “Home is wherever you make it,” says Han, “and life is a moveable feast.”

Where to get mandu: You can find mandu at DuBu in Elkins Park or at any H Mart (fresh and/or frozen).

Rick Cao: Pickled Mustard Greens

Rick Cao, co-owner of P’s & Q’s, the lifestyle clothing store on South Street, looks forward to his mom’s pickled mustard greens every Lunar New Year. The fermented greens are often pickled with vinegar but some can use an old-fashioned brine pickle. When LNY preparations are underway, Cao’s mom will have her tables fully covered by chopped mustard greens ready to be pickled according to a recipe she brought with her from Vietnam. He says the best way to enjoy it is with some fish sauce on the side for dipping. “The tangy, yet sweet taste will hit your tastebuds pretty aggressively,” says Cao. It’s a simple and humble dish passed down through the generations that, according to Cao, helps him appreciate the long journey his family took to come here.

Where to get pickled mustard greens: If you’re not pickling your own mustard greens like Rick’s mom, you can find it in jars at Hung Vuong Supermarket at 11th and Washington.

comfort food

Peking duck at Sang Kee / Photograph by Michael Persico

Jay Ho: Steamed Whole Duck

Jay Ho, chef-owner of Mei Mei, is a first generation Taiwanese-American whose family has been in the restaurant business for over 30 years (his father still runs Hunan Springs in the Allentown area). Ho says that he looks forward to his dad’s steamed whole duck for Lunar New Year. In Chinese and Taiwanese cultures duck is considered one of the luckiest dishes to eat and you want to start the new year with as much luck on your side as possible.

Where to get duck: A whole steamed duck is a little harder to come by, but you can find whole roasted ducks at Chinatown staples like M Kee and Ting Wong, and of course, Peking duck at Sang Kee Peking Duck House.

Chris Cho: Tteokguk

Growing up in Korea, content creator and chef-owner of Seorabol Center City, Chris Cho says there was an adage that he firmly believes: “You become a year older when you eat a bowl of rice cake soup (tteokguk)”. That’s because the dish symbolizes a fresh start to the new year while the round rice cakes are meant to evoke coins and are considered a wish for prosperity and blessings.

Where to get tteokguk: You can find tteokguk served at So Korean Grill and Jjong Ka Jib in North Philly, or at Seorabol in North Philly and Midtown Village.

Kiki Aranita: Spring Rolls

Back in Hong Kong, multi-hyphenate chef-writer-artist Kiki Aranita and her family make spring rolls together. Aranita’s spring rolls are stuffed with ground pork along with thinly sliced carrots, onions, and cabbage. But unlike most Hong Kong recipes, her family’s spring rolls also come stuffed with vermicelli. Symbolism is very important as you usher in the new year. According to Aranita’s family traditions, spring rolls look like gold bars which symbolizes the wealth that will come your way, which is why they’re enjoyed in the new year.

Where to get spring rolls: Variations of the spring rolls vary from one country, region, and even family to another. Vietnamese fried spring rolls are also stuffed with vermicelli and a mixture of minced shrimp and ground pork. At Cafe Nhan in East Passyunk, they are rolled in rice paper, deep-fried and served with a side of nuoc cham, a citrusy sweet fish sauce. Another delicious take on the spring roll is the Filipino lumpia. The more-densely wrapped fried rolls filled with pork are a favorite at Tabachoy in Bella Vista.