When I was growing up in Paraguay, Korean Lunar New Year—called Seollal—served as a reminder of my heritage. Even though we were over 12,000 miles away from my parents’ home country, we remained connected to family through cultural traditions. We always ate tteokguk, a rice cake soup considered the required entry ticket into the new year. The white rice cakes in the soup are harbingers of prosperity and hopeful new beginnings.
If you’re meant to relax on a holiday, my family didn’t know anything about that. On Seollal, we converted our kitchen into an industrious mandu factory. We set up a hand-cranked pasta machine to roll out sheets of dough. The sheets were cut into dumpling wrappers using bright red Nestlé instant coffee jar lids we recycled to double as cutters.
We formed hundreds of dumplings—round ones for soup and half-moon shaped ones for steaming or frying. We celebrated Seollal by eating them for good luck. Dumplings filled with pork and cabbage were meant to make us wealthier in the new year.
The Lunar New Year is a holiday celebrated all over Asia and the Asian diaspora. It’s called Chūnjié in China, Tết in Vietnam, and Losar in Tibet, among many more. This year the Lunar New Year falls on February 1 (it typically wades between a day in January and February). The exact date is a moving target year to year because it follows the lunar calendar, matching the cycle of the moon. One thing remains constant: the auspicious foods and traditions that make their way into our kitchens.
Across the diverse regions of China, different foods are eaten during the Lunar New Year. Spring rolls look like bars of gold that bring wealth, longevity noodles are a wish for a long life, and fish, which sounds like the word for “surplus” in Chinese, is eaten for good fortune.
On Tết, banh chung are placed on shrines to revere ancestors. The sticky rice cakes are typically filled with pork, shallots, and mung beans, and wrapped in banana leaves. They represent earth and symbolize gratitude.
The Lunar New Year in the Kitchens of Three Cooks
Millions of people around the world celebrate the Lunar New Year, and every culture has their own unique flair for the holiday. That’s why we asked three of our writers to share their respective traditions, memories, and recipes.
Uyen Luu's Menu for Tết
It’s apparent in Uyen Luu’s essay that she inherited remarkably rich Tết traditions. I picture a full house, a home garnished with red, orange, and gold, and a generous sprinkle of laughter here and there.
A menu to celebrate Tết:
- Sticky Rice with Lạp Xưởng, Dried Shrimp, and Shiitake Mushrooms
- Lotus, Purple Sweet Potato, and Coconut Rice Pudding
- Thịt Kho Trứng (Braised Pork Belly and Eggs)
Vivian Jao's Menu for Chūnjié
Vivian Jao reflects on the sometimes weighty traditions and expectations that come with holidays. So, she made up her own rituals—they do not endanger the spirit of Chinese New Year, because what matters is staying connected with those we love.
A menu for Chūnjié:
- Fried Spring Rolls
- Whole Steamed Fish
- Wonton Soup
- Nian Gao (Baked Sticky Rice Cake with Red Bean Paste)
Cecilia Hae-Jin Lee's Menu for Seollal
I was charmed by Cecilia Hae-Jin Lee’s essay, where she draws vivid scenes of her earnest and joyful childhood. She reminds us that festive celebrations like Seollal can be over-organized and too formal for children who would rather play, receive gifts, and sneak a treat before dinner. I can relate.
A Seollal menu:
- Mandu (Korean Dumplings)
- Mandu Guk (Korean Dumpling Soup)
- Tteokguk (Korean Rice Cake Soup)
- Kalbi Jjim (Korean Braised Short Ribs)
Year of the Tiger: Connect with Your Pack
Each Lunar New Year marks the transition between zodiac signs. Last year was the Year of the Ox. Now we enter the Year of the Tiger.
For a superstitious family like mine, zodiac signs command your marriage, career, health, and even colors your wardrobe to maximize happiness. So as a matter of principle, I leave you with baseless, but encouraging words of wisdom just as my emos (it means maternal aunt in Korean and what I call my mother’s friends) have each year:
Tigers are strong and brave. With the new year comes new strength and opportunities for us to build a bedrock for connection, something we all desperately need. Even if you don’t observe the Lunar New Year, I hope you find ways to make and share meals with your pack to connect, find belonging, and build auspicious traditions of your own.