For Chinese New Year, Vivian Jao Celebrates with a Small-Scale Dinner

With many cuts of pork belly, lamb, and slices of Japanese sweet potato, Vivian's family of three has embraced the tradition she once rejected.

Illustration of fried fish for Chinese New Year

Simply Recipes / Hennie Haworth

When I was growing up, my family didn’t follow many of the practices connected to Chinese New Year. There was no altar with offerings for family members who had passed away; no Kitchen God, although we did have a wooden big-bellied smiley Buddha standing on the top of the TV; no paper red banners hung on the walls. Maybe my parents and relatives mentioned things in passing and it went over my head or in one ear and out the other. 

Or perhaps it’s because while our bloodline is Chinese, my mother was born and raised in Vietnam, and my father in Indonesia. The actual sharing of food with the family was more important than any of the other practices. 

As a child, Chinese New Year meant large family gatherings with my mother’s side of the family, where there would be several dishes including dumplings, noodles, whole steamed fish, and spring rolls if we were lucky. But as we got older, the family decided it was easier for everyone to share in the much less strenuous hot pot.

The actual sharing of food with the family was more important than any of the other practices.  

Hot pot is a communal meal where a wok full of broth simmers away on a portable burner in the center of the table. Surrounding our wok were plates of raw, thinly sliced beef and pork, bouncy fish balls and beef balls, and tofu puffs. Platters of vegetables included heaps of napa and other leafy greens, daikon, and rehydrated dried shiitake mushrooms. One of my favorite root vegetables included were rounds of lotus root with their spoke-like patterns of holes and spider web-like strands of fibers. 

Everyone had their own small wire basket to dip their selection of food into the broth to cook, then mix their own small bowl of dipping sauce, which often was a peanut butter-based sauce that could be mixed with soy sauce, vinegar, sesame oil, chili-garlic sauce, fresh chiles, garlic, scallions, and raw eggs. 

I was not a fan of those meals, mostly because of the raw egg. (I had major issues with runny yolks.) But I eventually turned the corner on hot pot, and nowadays, my little family of three celebrates Chinese New Year with an intimate and very relaxed hot pot dinner — sometimes, with the addition of my husband’s mother.

What’s great about having a small group is that we can splurge on the pricier, higher quality meats we would normally consider too extravagant and certainly too expensive to shell out for a large group of meat eaters with healthy appetites. We go to the Japanese market and pore over the large selection of thinly sliced fresh meat. The Japanese market has a larger selection of meat and higher quality to boot.

Is it worth it to get the Wagyu beef? No, it was just ok last time, not worth the price. 

Which cheaper cut was surprisingly really good last year? Was it the Angus brisket? 

Damn, did I take a picture of the label so I could remember? This package looks better — look at that marbling! Oh, that one looks old, it’s a little grey. Which package of pork belly looks better? That one’s too fatty. But it’s good fat! Should we get the Silky Pork or Berkshire pork — maybe we should get one of each. Wait, was it the super-thin slices or just regular thin slices that we liked?

We spend way too much time selecting, but we have fun with it. We total up the cost of our feast and reluctantly put one or two packs back.

Now our Chinese New Year hot pot meals are relaxed with very little prep work. (In fact, my son loves hot pot so much that one year he requested an electric wok for his Christmas gift. It was a proud moment for me.) We include ingredients we didn’t use in my childhood hot pot meals: pork belly, lamb, slices of Japanese sweet potatoes and taro, watercress, enoki and shimeji mushrooms, fish balls stuffed with meat, small dumplings, and glass noodles to finish the meal. We eat happily, sometimes greedily, commenting on which cut of meat is worth the cost, slowing down as our bellies fill up. We leave just enough room for Asian pears, persimmons, or better yet, Sumo oranges if we can find them. 

If my son hasn’t already wished us a happy New Year, we prompt him with a wave of the red envelope of cash. And then we laugh at him as he tries to come up with something new to wish his aunt’s family as we wait for my sister’s Facetime call.

Vivian Jao's 4 Recipes for Chinese New Year