Focus in on the delights of the kitchen and the table with ...

tangerine stamp

Lunar New Year celebrations begin officially this coming Friday evening, when the new moon shows up in the wintry night sky. Unlikely as it may seem to those of us grew up associating the arrival of springtime with daffodils, tulips and the packing away of gloves, scarves and snow boots, this huge Asian cultural celebration welcomes spring. It’s a 15-day season of putting aside daily routines, cleaning up, clearing out, rebooting old ways, and setting the scene for a new year filled with health, wealth, success, harmonious relationships, and all of life’s good things. The year about to begin is the Year of the Horse. Preparations for this most meaningful and widely celebrated Chinese festival began weeks ago, and include settling debts, cleaning the house, planning celebration feasts and menus, decorating homes and businesses with auspicious items and colors, buying new clothes, and more. Rather than being a one-day holiday, this is a two-week observance filled with family gatherings, outings, and feasts, and ending with the Lantern Festival 15 days from New Year’s Eve.

I asked my friend, reknowned cookbook author and cooking teacher Grace Young for a little reminiscence about this annual celebration and what it meant to her, growing up in San Francisco.  I love Grace’s books, feature stories in food magazines like Saveur, and the series of short, delightful and enlightening videos she has been posting to her website. She just shared several new ones about Chinese New Year, some with recipes and some with details on traditions such as the Kitchen God, auspicious food, and what gifts to bring when paying a holiday visit to family and friends. Click HERE to enjoy Grace’s Lunar New Year videos.

I’m so pleased that Grace sent me this handsome photo of Lunar New Year preparations in New York’s Chinatown…

Grace Young chinatown photo

… and this remembrance:

“For the last weeks, New York City’s Chinatown has suddenly been the recipient of a few pop-up shops that sell all manner of special lunar New Year decorations and lucky money, known as lai see in Cantonese. These shops bring back fond memories of when I was a child, and accompanied my parents to San Francisco’s Chinatown, to find decorative images of the Money God, which Baba took great delight in hanging in the kitchen and his bedroom.  At the produce market, I loved to watch my mother carefully handpick oranges, pomelos, and tangerines, making sure every tangerine had leaves, which represent new life.  Back home, Mama would arrange a gorgeous centerpiece with the fruit and finish it with an envelope of lucky money tucked between the fruit.  I can still hear Mama telling me that the citrus represents the wish for good fortune in the New Year.”

Visiting Asian grocery stores and supermarkets is a year-round pleasure for me, whether I’m seeking out ingredients for our supper, or for researching a recipe or an ingredient, or whether I’m cooking up a dinner party. This week, with Lunar New Year celebrations about to begin, it’s especially delightful.

Lucky merch red gold shelves

Lucky colors of red and gold are all around, inviting wealth, health, prosperity and success to come in and make themselves at home for this coming year.

lai see enveolopes baskets

At the check out counter at Li Ming Supermarket in Durham, NC, red envelopes (lai see) and, greeting cards are displayed by the check out counter, and the God of Wealth was watching over everyone as we waited to pay for our purchases. If you want to invite him home, he’s ready to roll. Auspicious decorations can be found in abundance for shoppers to purchase along with sweets, citrus fruit and other Lunar New Year items.

Tangerines w leaves

Good fortune on display at my local Whole Foods: The green leaves and stems attached make these fruits an unintentionally auspicious expression of Lunar New Year prosperity. 
lai see envelopes closeup

Lai see at the checkout counter, and lots of them. Elders fill them with cash and present them to the younger generation throughout the Lunar New Year festival.

More from my Asian store adventures later this week. For now, consider a trip to an Asian market in your area, and let me know what you find there, in the comments to this post. Also, I highly recommend you visit Grace’s website HERE, for her recent blog post about Lunar New Year traditions. Click HERE for details on her books..  If you, like me, are hungry for more, get yourself a copy of her books from a bookstore, online source or library, so you can get cooking and learn about particular ways and dishes. For Chinese cultural traditions in general and the celebrations of the Lunar New Year in Chinese communities, Grace’s books provide eloquent and detailed information in a most delicious way. This one, her first, is particularly rich in history and traditions. Click the title for a link to the book on Indie Bound:

Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchen: Classic Family Recipes for Celebration and Healing

Wisdom GYoung


Multiple tangeerines stamp sheet

About the Author
Nancie McDermott is a food writer and cooking teacher, and the author of ten cookbooks. Her passion is researching and celebrating traditional food in its cultural context, and her beloved subjects are two seemingly different places with much in common: the cuisines of Asia and of the American South. Nancie gained her Southern kitchen wisdom as a Piedmont North Carolina native,and her Asian culinary research commenced soon after college, when she was sent to northeastern Thailand as a Peace Corps volunteer.
  1. Grace Young Reply

    Nancie, Wishing you and yours an auspicious Year of the Horse! Thank you for including me in your new years post! It’s a beautiful tribute to the lunar traditions!

    • Nancie McDermott Reply

      My pleasure and honor, Grace. I will be enjoying your delightful informative and fun website videos all through the New Year.

  2. Sally Reply

    Nancie, what a wonderful post! I didn’t realize this was coming up, but have been thinking about spring and renewal and starting over even as the deep freeze continues. I will definitely be looking for ways to celebrate, starting with putting together some citrus fruit with leaves–what a hopeful symbolism! Thanks for sharing this!

    • Nancie McDermott Reply

      So glad you enjoyed it, Sally! Your photo of that gorgeous chicken stew on your blog helps me endure the cold and see the spring renewal coming, and I haven’t even cooked it yet! To new beginnings….

  3. Connie Burwell Reply

    Nancie, thanks for sharing this, so interesting and a new direction to take, going out to find some citrus fruit with leaves, will be eager to learn other new traditions for the new year.

    • Nancie McDermott Reply

      Love it, Connie. So much wisdom in the Chinese tradition of choosing the way you want to feel and how you want things to go and setting the stage for it, visually and edibly and in actions. Raising my orange in your direction with a big New Year grin!

  4. Pingback: Happy Year of the Horse | Grace Young

  5. Elda Gray Reply

    Nancy, Enjoyed your article. Just signed up for your post,
    Bok Choy Blessings,

    • Nancie McDermott Reply

      So glad to know that, @Elda Gray! All the best to you too!

Leave a Reply