Chinglish, David Henry Hwang's smart comedy about an American businessman in China, mines much of its humor from mistranslation and cross-cultural blunders—something we've all experienced reading Chinatown menus promising dishes like "stir-fried vegetarian with tofu." To avoid getting similarly mixed up this Lunar New Year, we met the cast for a festive banquet at Tung Shing House, a longtime favorite of actor Johnny Wu, to get a crash course in the traditional foods of the season—what they mean, and where to eat them. The holiday is on Monday 23, with parades, parties and plenty of eating continuing for weeks to come in Chinese communities throughout NYC.
"The way Chinese people gather and eat is very communal, and often a huge fish will be the centerpiece of the table," says Wu. "[One common dish is] a whole sea bass, either steamed or 'red cooked' [sauted in soy sauce] in a wok." At Chinese New Year, fish takes on special significance because the word (yu) is a homonym for the Chinese word for abundance. Serving it whole represents unity and completeness. Often, the head and tail will be given to the oldest person at the table.
Try it here Find Cantonese fish platters, as well as top-notch dim sum, at Asian Jewels Seafood (133-30 39th Ave between College Point Blvd and Prince St, Flushing, Queens; 718-359-8600).
"The food [you eat during the holiday] represents your wishes for the New Year," says Lei Zhang. "You wish for your family to be still together and united, which is why [it's common to] have a whole pork butt—it needs to be whole, and [the meat] is barbecued so you can see the red skin." The color is a harbinger of good luck for the Chinese, and you'll see it on banners and costumes during New Year celebrations.
Try it here Get barbecued pork, as well as whole chickens and ducks, at Big Wong (67 Mott St between Bayard and Canal Sts, 212-964-0540); thanks to a brisk takeout trade, these items tend to be fresher here than at other spots that let them sit around.
"On an occasion like New Year's Day, noodles can be an alternative starch, instead of rice—because of their flowy length, they represent longevity and a prosperous future," says Wu. "Rice will never be unavailable at a big meal, even if you don't [present it]. But I've seen a transformation over the years in this country as conditions have gotten better for my folks...we've come to a place where we don't have to count on only rice to fill our stomachs."
Try it here Golden Unicorn (18 East Broadway at Catherine St, 212-941-0911) is good for Cantonese dishes like crispy stir-fried egg noodles and flat rice noodles. For thicker, Shanghai-style noodles, head to Nice Green Bo (66 Bayard St between Elizabeth and Mott Sts, 212-625-2359).
"[Raw] this fungus looks like bunches of dried hair, but when you cook it, it becomes soft and stringy," says Lim. "The word fa cai in Mandarin is symbolic of wealth [it sounds like 'to become rich']. It doesn't have any taste of its own, but it takes on the flavors of whatever you cook it with—usually mushrooms, dried oysters or other foods [associated with prosperity]."
Try it here At Tung Shing House, try fa cai with preserved oysters in a dish called hao shi fa cai, which translates roughly to "prosperity in a robust market."
Taro cakes, turnip cakes and rice cakes are often offered to guests who stop by over the holiday; the word cake (gao) sounds just like the word for height, so cakes are symbolic of improvement and growth. Nian gao, a sweet variety made from glutinous rice, "is something you really only get at Chinese New Year," says Lim. "It's not eaten as a dessert—you buy it at the supermarket, then slice it and panfry it so it's a little crispy on the outside. The consistency is similar to Japanese mochi."
Try it here Pick up sweet and savory cakes at Hong Kong Supermarket (157 Hester St between Bowery and Elizabeth St, 212-966-4943).
"When you visit Chinese homes, you'll find a basin with eight segments that each hold traditional sweets and snacks—candied lotus seeds and melon seeds, as well as jellies and peanuts," says Lim. "All of them have their own significance. [Seeds, for example, are associated with plenty.] You snack on them while you sit and drink tea."
Try it here Buy melon seeds and seasonal sweets at Hong Kong Supermarket.
Ba bao fan
Wu has fond memories from his childhood in Shanghai of this colorful sticky rice dessert. "The name means 'rice with eight treasures,'" he says. "It's made with glutinous rice and syrup, and the rice is [decorated] with the eight sweet items—dates, raisins, lotus seeds... Very sticky, and very delicious."
Try it here Since moving to Queens 20 years ago, Wu and his family have gotten their fill of ba bao fan at Tung Shing House (it's available on the la carte menu).
While lobster is not as common as crab in Asia, it is a delicacy that holds special significance on celebratory menus. The Chinese word for lobster literally means "dragon shrimp," making it particularly apropos for the Year of the Dragon. When served with roasted chicken, the poultry evokes the image of a phoenix—the feminine counterpart of the dragon in marital mythology.
Try it here Tung Shing House serves two lobsters stir-fried in a ginger-scallion sauce as part of its New Year's feast (the dish, shuang long he sui, translates as, "double dragons greet the New Year"). In Manhattan, take your pick of live lobsters at Three Oceans Restaurant (53 Bayard St between Bowery and Elizabeth St, 212-385-9988).
"In the south, we don't usually eat dumplings, but during the last ten days of the year every single family is making [them]," says Lei Zhang. "They're sweet dumplings, with [fillings like] sugar, peanuts and sesame." Sweet, round balls made from glutinous rice are also found in a dessert soup called tang yuan; when said aloud, it sounds like the words for "[family] reunion."
Try it here The sweet dumpling soup is one of the highlights of the Tung Shing spread—delicate, silken rice balls filled with liquefied black sesame and floating in a fragrant syrup flecked with osmanthus flowers.
"You'll always find bowls of oranges sitting around at this time of year," says Jennifer Lim. "When you visit people, it's considered very [polite] to bring your hosts mandarins or tangerines, because those words in Chinese sound exactly like [the words for 'wealth'] and 'luck.'" The orange color also connotes gold and affluence.
Try it here You'll find the best array of fresh fruit at the stalls lining Grand Street between Bowery and Chrystie Street.
Eat this feast
"You'll find that almost all of the food at Chinese New Year is symbolic, and it's almost always a play on words. Yeah...there are a lot of puns."—Jennifer Lim
"If you're eating a whole fish and there's not enough meat left on the top side, dig underneath instead of flipping it over. Flipping the fish is somewhat frowned upon—the fish is like a boat, so [it's as if you're] capsizing the fortune and luck."—Johnny Wu
For groups of ten, Tung Shing House offers a generous New Year's spread, featuring Peking duck and a dozen other holiday dishes. 97-45 Queens Blvd between 64th Ave and 64th Rd, Rego Park, Queens (718-275-0038). Ten people $388. Available through Jan 29; call in advance.
"In China, we have an old saying: 'Food is so important, it's like heaven.' You can skip the doctor, and you can skip other things—if you don't go to theater, there's nothing wrong with your life. If you don't have a good job, it doesn't matter. But if you don't have food, you [can't experience heaven]."—Larry Lei Zhang
Special thanks to Joanna C Lee for her help with translation and food history.