Our First Multicultural Home Lunar New Year Celebration

dinner_table_webLast year, after celebrating Lunar New Year (Tet actually) at Eden Center in Falls Church, VA, Danny asked what we were going to have (at home) for Lunar New Year Dinner.  I guess at age 4 and after having read “Bringing In the New Year” for a couple years he expected us to have dinner just like the books, with family and dumplings.  We actually had not celebrated at home at that point. We went to Lunar New Year’s festivals, celebrations with our adoption group, celebrations with our adoption agency, Lion Dances, the Parade in Chinatown,  and presentations in preschool, but we had not celebrated at home. On the way home on Lunar New Year 2012, we stopped at Trader Joes and bought frozen dumplings at Danny’s request.  Before Tet last year, we had served dumplings at home, but Danny had never tasted them.  So even though he requested them, I bought mac & cheese as our main dish and I had some ham frozen in the basement.  So our Lunar New Year menu 2012 was dumplings, mac & cheese, ham and a vegetable.  We had cake for dessert because Danny’s giving and receiving date (adoption day) coincided with Lunar New Year and we were celebrating Family Day with a cake.   After making the special request, Danny ended up eating many dumplings, even though he had never tried them before.

But this year, I prepared for Lunar New Year.  I cleaned the house.  I think I have found some 5 year old dust balls behind the couch and on top of the corner cupboard.  I even found stuff in our coat closet that I have been looking for, for about 6 months.  I haven’t gotten the whole house clean, but the public areas will have to suffice. I even took the padding off our marble coffee table that I put on when Danny was just a baby.  I have been hesitant to remove this because I gashed my eyebrow on this same coffee table when I was in second grade, playing “Pop goes the weasel”.

lanterns_webI hung the Chinese Lanterns and will one day buy Vietnamese Lanterns, when I feel like I want to spend more than $50 on the real thing.  Maybe by that time, we will have returned to Vietnam and I can buy them cheap in Saigon. I even made 24 little lanterns that I had bought at Oriental Trading Company and had deemed too small to make much impact at school.  Well a couple dozen of them hanging up in our basement looks very festive.  We put out a bowl of oranges and put fresh flowers around.

friends_bigger_webNormally the tradition is to invite family for a Lunar New Year celebration.  My parents are deceased, and Ron’s parents live in Florida.  His sister and her husband would have been on my invite list, but they both work weekends and don’t eat “ethnic” food.  Including anyone in Ron’s family is a problem if we want to include Asian food on our menu.  Danny really wanted to invite a family with other children over, so I settled on an invitation list of our family, another family in our neighborhood who has two 5 year olds; Sam is adopted from China and his sister Annabelle was born into the family.  Then I had three more seats left at my table, and I decided to invite my old friend Bert and his girlfriend, Dahlia, over.  I guess I could have invited one more single friend, but for my first Lunar New Year, that was enough.  Maybe next year I will have a children’s table and then I can invite more people.

Our neighborhood family are vegetarian, so my menu was (mostly) vegetarian.  I used to be vegetarian a lifetime ago in college and I have mostly vegetarian cookbooks because that is when I started collecting cookbooks, plus I never really got very good at cooking meat, having learned to cook during my vegetarian phase. I actually specialize in Indian vegetarian cooking, but this is not an Indian holiday, so no Indian food was on the menu.

It appears some of my favorite vegetarian cookbooks are out of print, but still available used on Amazon. It was a multicultural menu.  Of course we were having dumplings (Chinese/Thai) from Trader Joes (both vegetarian and pork to accommodate Danny and Ron who like those).  We had long noodles (long life) with my Cold Sesame Noodle (Chinese) from Madjur Jaffrey’s World of the East Vegetarian Cooking and Greens and Tofu in Peanut sauce (Thai) from Sunset International Vegetarian Cookbook.  And a side dish of plain green beans. I thought if I didn’t offer a plain vegetable, my kid wouldn’t eat any vegetables. Of course we had mac and cheese, now a Lunar New Year tradition started last year.

snakes_round_webOur guests, Peter and Elizabeth volunteered to make mac and cheese and also volunteered to make snake shaped cookies.  When we were pinning down what each family was going to contribute, I asked Elizabeth if she could make one fish shaped cookie, in addition to the snake shaped cookies (for Year of the Snake).  All of the books have pictures of whole fish served for Lunar New Year dinner.   A whole fish is served at the end of the meal and it signifies prosperity.   Even if I were eating meat for Lunar New Year, I am too squeamish to welcome a whole fish at our table.   So a dessert “fish” would be better than the real thing.

fish_editBut Elizabeth read what I sent her about the symbolism of a whole fish at dinner and decided that a fish cookie wasn’t big or festive enough.  So she and her children made a bunch of snake sugar cookies and then she made a fish cake (chocolate) with orange icing, red licorice decoration and a googly eye.  That googly eye was so funny.

So as not to have too much dessert, Bert volunteered to bring flowers instead of an additional dessert. So our house is full of flowers, maybe not peach or cherry blossoms, but I think any fresh flowers help welcome in the spring.

I guess if we were following tradition, we would have had our hair cut and worn new clothes.  We didn’t get around to the haircut this year.  But many of us were wearing red in honor of the Lunar New Year.  Danny was not interested in wearing his ao dai and that was OK.  He wore it for International Night at school and will wear it again when we celebrate Lunar New Year with his Kindergarten class.

We didn’t have any Vietnamese food on the menu. I have a couple of Vietnamese cookbooks on my cookbook shelf, but the only dish I have mastered is a Vietnamese Chicken salad, which is neither vegetarian nor kid friendly.  I was looking in one of my cookbooks recently to see if there was a Vietnamese dish I could incorporate into dinner.  But even the dishes listed as Vegetarian have fish sauce as an ingredient.  Obviously, the author didn’t think that would be a problem for vegetarians, but I think it is a problem and wouldn’t serve a dish with fish sauce and call it vegetarian.  I will try to work harder to find an appropriate Vietnamese dish to serve for Lunar New Year next year.

Here is the menu in a list:

  • Vegetable Dumplings and Pork Dumplings (Thai/Chinese)
  • Cold Sesame Noodles (Chinese)
  • Greens and Tofu in Peanut Sauce  with rice (Thai)
  • Green beans – plain
  • Macaroni and Cheese (American)
  • appetizer: cut up veggies and dip + goldfish crackers
  • dessert: Snake sugar cookies, and fish shaped cake

I know it says to cook the dumplings right before serving, but I didn’t want to be frying three things right before dinner, so I cooked them ahead of time and warmed them up before serving. I’ve only cooked dumplings 3 or 4 times and I don’t feel confident with them yet. The package said fry in oil for 1-2 minutes then add a couple of tablespoons of water and steam for 2-3 minutes. Well they were still frozen given that time frame.  Each time I cook them, I have had to cook them for about 3-4 times longer than the package says.  I was thinking where is my Chinese mother to help me learn the proper way to cook dumplings.  And I didn’t even think about making them from scratch.  And before when I drained them on paper towels, the paper towels stuck to the dumplings. I wasn’t going to make that mistake again, but what is the procedure to drain dumplings?

I just received  Emma’s American Chinese New Year, which is a picture book about a girl adopted from China and how she celebrates Chinese New Year.  In the story her family goes to the same Chinese restaurant each year with family to celebrate.  Now why didn’t I think of that?  It actually never occurred to me because Danny has been specifically asking to celebrate Lunar New Year at home.

It wasn’t until after dinner did I remember I never had a chance to take pictures of the main dishes.  So we will have to remember them in our minds.  But at least I got pictures of the snakes and fish cake.

We really had a feast and a great time. It is always nice to invite people over that you don’t know too well and get a chance to get to know them better.  The adults had a nice time talking upstairs while the kids played well together in the basement.   I had asked both Elizabeth and Bert to bring three $1 bills and lucky red envelopes for the kids.  And just like in the books we read, the kids went around to the adults and got lucky red envelopes.

lion_dancerA Lunar New Year dinner is not complete until there is a Lion Dance.  Danny really wanted to perform his lion dance again and Annabelle stepped in to be the back of the Lion.  They paraded around the living room to Lion Dance music; Ron played the joker Buddha with the mask and fan I made last year.   They all  got a big applause.  Unfortunately when there are five year olds concerned, the evening ended early so our little ones could go to bed at a decent hour.

And now our family has started the tradition which we should have started when he was just back from Vietnam, age 8 months.  The funny thing, it has been Danny leading us to do this.  Danny is teaching us about how to incorporate Asian holidays into our life.

How did you celebrate Lunar New Year? What was on your menu?

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