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Redefining the ‘New’ in Lunar New Year

Hands jostled around a large metal basin, plastic gloves crinkling as they massaged pounds of julienned radish, green onion and a spicy, fragrant paste of red pepper flakes, brined shrimp, ginger and garlic.

“This goes so much faster when everyone pitches in,” said Irene Yoo, bopping to K-pop tunes as she taste-tested the mixture and adjusted it with a bit more salt. She described the spirit of the evening as heung — a Korean word that captures the feeling of collective energy, joy and community.

Ms. Yoo, 36, a Korean American food writer and recipe developer, was hosting a Lunar New Year dinner party at her Brooklyn apartment. Between bowls of ddukguk (a soup of coin-shaped rice cakes in a delicate, slowly simmered broth made typically from kombu kelp and beef or dried anchovies), marinated beef and shots of soju and beer, she included a belated kimjang the Korean pastime of making and sharing kimchi among family and neighbors. It traditionally takes place in the late fall after the harvest, with the kimchi meant to be stored for the long winter ahead.

“What’s unique and, I realized, very necessary about kimjang is that it can’t just be a recipe,” she said, but rather a set of taste memories cultivated over time. “It truly has to be a communal, shareable activity, because that’s really the only way you can pass on and share that kind of knowledge.”

Produce can now be sourced year-round. Versions of kimchi and specialty pantry ingredients such as gochujang and chili crisp are available in many locations like Whole Foods, local shops and farmers’ markets (at least in cities), and they are found in dishes like fusion tacos and grilled cheese sandwiches. But across time and geography, and despite modern conveniences, Ms. Yoo is among a generation of young Asian Americans who are building community through shared cultural traditions established by their elders and finding ways to make them their own.

Guests and their host, Ms. Yoo, at the head of the table, toast for this year’s Lunar New Year, marking the start of the Year of the Rabbit.Credit…Mary Inhea Kang for The New York Times

Lunar New Year festivities vary across numerous cultures, regions and households in East Asian and Southeast Asian cultures and their diasporas. This year, Jan. 22 marks the first day of the first new moon in the lunisolar calendar, the imminent arrival of spring, and the start of the Year of the Rabbit — the fourth sign in the 12-year Chinese zodiac cycle, its characteristics are gentleness, alertness and skillfulness and also widely considered to be the luckiest. (In Vietnamese and Gurung zodiac, a cat takes the place of the rabbit; and in the Malay zodiac, a mouse deer.)

In the popular imagination of many Americans, the sight of red envelopes and dancing dragons might best evoke the holiday, though they are just a few signifiers from a wide array of diverse cultural traditions. Asian Americans are the fastest growing population in the country, according to the Pew Research Center, and representation is at a record high, with 21 Asian American and native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander elected members of Congress. New York City public schools made Lunar New Year an official holiday in 2015, and for the first time this year, California is recognizing it as a statewide holiday.

There are a variety of auspicious traditions to welcome good luck, health and fortune, with symbolic decorations such as daffodils in Vietnamese culture and kumquats in Singaporean culture. Many celebrants honor ancestors and elders, offering traditional foods and lighting incense at altars. Many gather in large groups to share a meal and play folk games, such as the Chinese tile game mahjong, while others don cultural dress. Celebrations continue around the world for several weeks, but core to all are family and food.

“For my family, Lunar New Year is bigger than Christmas,” said Andrew Bui, 30, a photographer and writer whose family owns the restaurant Pho 79. The business is a pillar of the neighborhood Little Saigon in Orange County, Calif., and it has been operating since 1982, shortly after Mr. Bui’s family arrived in the United States from Vietnam as refugees.

“Growing up, my parents worked Thanksgiving, they worked Christmas Day, they worked New Year’s Eve,” Mr. Bui said. “Like many hard-working immigrant parents, it was hard for them to take a vacation. Lunar New Year was the only holiday where they would take time off and close the restaurant for a week to celebrate.” He added that much of it was spent working even harder to prepare for epic 80-person banquets with his grandmother, aunts, uncles and many cousins.

“I have memories of my mom staying up for three nights straight, cleaning the entire house, carving daffodil bulbs to make them bloom in time, soaking sticky rice and rolling egg rolls,” he said.

“I have inherited those kinds of tendencies,” he said, “though, for me now, it’s also about learning how to celebrate it in my own way, too.” Now living in Brooklyn, Mr. Bui has welcomed the holiday in what he calls a “Tết fete dinner, a pared-down gathering with close friends, before flying home to celebrate with family.

Ms. Yoo’s party included beer and shots of soju.Credit…Mary Inhea Kang for The New York Times

Jiyoon Cha, 32, a graphic designer, fondly recalled her grandmother’s circle of friends, who would each cook large batches of different dishes to share with one another. She grew up in South Korea and Virginia, where her family had very few relatives, leaving her craving a similar sense of care and community.

“There’s something about living in a big city and the culture of extreme individualism in America that can feel lonely,” said Ms. Cha, who recently hosted her first kimjang party, an all-day, 20-person affair, on her Brooklyn rooftop last fall. “I felt I had fulfilled my dream of finding a communal cooking community.” Despite a busy work schedule this Lunar New Year, Ms. Cha said she would find time to celebrate the holiday by making homemade dumplings, using a cherished recipe passed down from a friend’s Chinese grandmother.

Ms. Yoo, who was raised in Detroit and Southern California by first-generation Korean American parents, keeps a yearly tradition of making her mother’s recipe for ddukguk. “Ddukguk is especially significant because Koreans turn one year older collectively at the New Year, so it’s this fresh start to the year, and sort of like everyone’s birthday soup,” said Ms. Yoo, who makes the dish at least twice each winter: on Jan. 1, alongside pizza to nurse a hangover with friends, and again on Lunar New Year, with her younger sister and friends.

Ms. Yoo, at bottom right, described the spirit of the evening as heung — a Korean word that captures the feeling of collective energy, joy and community.Credit…Mary Inhea Kang for The New York Times

For Sarah Catlow, a 31-year-old data analyst, who immigrated to the United States as a young child, fostering a passion for food has been a way to cherish her identity as a mixed-race Korean American and the time she spends learning to cook from her mother, who grew up in South Korea’s Jeolla province, a region known for its culinary reputation.

“It takes a lot of intention to hold on to culture, to celebrate it, to practice it,” Ms. Catlow said, “especially as an immigrant, especially in a society that doesn’t value that and makes it really difficult to access, and where there can be a lot of shame around it and pressure to assimilate. You have to be a really strong, proud person and someone that’s willing to invest that time and make it a priority.”

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Participants gather to make the celebratory Vietnamese dish bánh chưng for the Banh Chung Collective. In 2019, the chef Diep Tran started the inclusive series of public workshops for those who wanted to learn how to prepare it.Credit…Joyce Kim for The New York Times

This month, Cindy Trinh, 39, a Vietnamese American photographer whose work focuses on community and activism, is celebrating the Lunar New Year with a variety of plans, including a show of her photography work. She is also traveling to San Francisco, where her friend Rochelle Kwan, 29, a cultural organizer with the nonprofit Think!Chinatown, will be a D.J. for a few parties.

Ms. Kwan’s sets, which often include old Canto-pop vinyl records inherited from her family’s collection, are part of a project called Chinatown Records, which hosts intergenerational neighborhood block parties.

Combining her interests in music and work as an oral history educator, Chinatown Records “taps into music as a familiar entry point and bridge for opening up conversation, sparking and creating memories and building connections across generations, starting with my own family,” wrote Ms. Kwan, who was born and raised in the Bay Area by first-generation Hong Kong Americans.

“Lunar New Year is my favorite holiday of the year. It’s a time to see, catch up and hang out with relatives and friends and eat amazing food. It’s all about the food!” Ms. Trinh said. She looked forward to enjoying the Vietnamese Lunar New Yearstaple bánh chưng, a dish of sticky rice traditionally layered with pork, shallots and mung beans, then wrapped in banana leaves, tied into little gift-box-like packages with twine and steamed on a wood fire.

Because bánh chưng is a labor-intensive dish, it is generally reserved for special occasions like the Lunar New Year. The dish is typically placed on family altars to honor ancestors.

Diep Tran, 50, a chef in Los Angeles who immigrated to Southern California with her family as Vietnamese refugees in the 1970s, recalled helping her aunts assemble bánh chưng as a child.

“I don’t define my community as just my ethnic group. I’m also a queer, I’m a woman of color,” said Ms. Tran, at center serving rice porridge. The Banh Chung Collective, which she started, has been a way to reaffirm her connections with other women of color. “For me, it’s brought back the joy of the Lunar New Year, versus the stress and feeling that you have to be or act a certain way.”Credit…Joyce Kim for The New York Times

“When I came out as queer, family functions became kind of fraught,” Ms. Tran said. “Lunar New Year can feel very heteronormative, with traditions and customs centered around marriage, fertility and childbearing,” she added, and this can create dissonance between honoring tradition and wanting to move past certain aspects of it.

About a decade ago, Ms. Tran said, she began revisiting the tradition of making bánh chưng for the Lunar New Year with a group of close friends. She said: “Some of the Vietnamese folks I had invited were like, ‘I remember eating it, and I remember waking up and it was done.’ It’s the kind of labor-intensive dish that if you didn’t have to make it, you didn’t.”

With the help of YouTube videos, Ms. Tran and her friends learned how to make bánh chưng and added their own traditions and techniques. They steamed the giftlike packets in pressure cookers, tamale pots, whatever implements they could rustle up, and riffed on the traditional recipe with creative fillings, including at least one “Elvis sort of version” with banana, peanut butter and bacon cured in fish sauce.

For Ms. Tran bánh chưng is grounded in a living tradition, one that is “innovative and not always looking backwards, but informed by the past. It has a history, and something that can morph and change,” she said.

In 2019, Ms. Tran expanded the personal pastime with the Bánh Chưng Collective, an inclusive series of public workshops for gathering the ingredients of the celebratory dish and learning to prepare it.

Vernon Chaplin with his daughter June Chaplin were among the participants making bánh chưng, which is a dish of sticky rice traditionally layered with pork, shallots and mung beans, then wrapped in banana leaves, tied into little gift-box-like packages with twine and steamed on a wood fire.Credit…Joyce Kim for The New York Times

During pandemic lockdowns in 2020, the project expanded to virtual lessons and found a larger audience among participants who could not travel to see family.

“I don’t define my community as just my ethnic group. I’m also a queer, I’m a woman of color,” Ms. Tran said. The Banh Chung Collective, she added, has been a way to reaffirm her connections with other women of color. “For me, it’s brought back the joy of the Lunar New Year, versus the stress and feeling that you have to be or act a certain way.”

For those living outside of large Asian American enclaves in urban centers, where celebrations loom large, the Lunar New Year is also a time to forge new communities, said Yuna Kim, 45, a social worker who moved to North Carolina last summer from New Jersey, home to one of the country’s largest Korean American communities. Being far from her parents and relatives for the first time, she said, has led her to seek out many of the holiday traditions that she previously took for granted.

For her family’s first Lunar New Year in North Carolina, Ms. Kim organized a potluck dinner of traditional dishes with nine other Korean American families that they have met and befriended by word of mouth. Ms. Kim and her husband, an avid golfer, made friends with a Korean couple at the driving range one afternoon, which spawned additional connections to more Korean Americans in the area, which grew into informal meet-ups.

Ms. Tran believes that bánh chưng is grounded in a living tradition, one that is “innovative and not always looking backwards, but informed by the past. It has a history, and something that can morph and change,” she said.Credit…Joyce Kim for The New York Times

For the potluck, she signed up to make yaksik, a sweet, caramel-brown rice cake made with chestnuts, jujubes, pine nuts and sujeonggwa, a ginger and cinnamon tea served as dessert, from scratch.

“In that sense, we’re getting more actively in touch with aspects of Korean culture we had always grown up with, but never really thought much about because our parents’ generation always handled it,” she said. No longer in close proximity to parents and elders who would otherwise upkeep traditions, “we’re now getting more actively in touch with aspects of Korean culture we had always grown up with.”

Trying to make traditional foods that she has never made before “almost feels like we’re now taking it to the extreme,” Ms. Kim added, with a laugh. “I called my mom the other day to tell her what I was making, and she asked me, ‘Why? I’ll just mail you some from the store!’”

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