January 25 kicks off the Lunar New Year, a 15-day-long celebration of the beginning of the new year in the traditional Chinese calendar. For those who celebrate, the very light takes on a bright red hue. For these 15 days in China and all other countries that celebrate the Lunar New Year, the cheery glow of red lanterns illuminate the roads, with red paper pasted over windowpanes and doorways for good measure. At night, fireworks shout across the horizon in rapid succession and burst in dazzling, rhythmic fashion—an unsurpassed spectacle considering the Chinese invented fireworks. At the close, thousands of lanterns are lit and sent to the sky, with hopes and dreams scrolled on the paper that will soon be consumed by the growing internal flame.
But perhaps the quietest tradition is the most important: the reunion dinner, held on Lunar New Year’s Eve. The entire extended family gathers around the dinner table to dine on an multicourse meal made up of dumplings, rice cakes, and more. Food plays an integral part in welcoming the new year, and there is much to feast on. Start this new year, the Year of the Rat, in sweet fashion with our five home baker-friendly recipes featured in our January/February 2020 issue. We’re sharing two of our favorites here, but pick up a copy of the issue for the rest!
Walnut Cookies (hup toh soh)
A common treat found in pastry shops in China year-round, during Chinese New Year, home bakers often make hup toh soh as a crunchy treat to welcome visitors and family to their home. Supposedly, the original walnut cookies contained no walnuts in the dough. The “walnut” in the name might have been used to refer to the cookie’s crunchy texture, or its wrinkly, golden appearance.
Pineapple Buns (bolo bao)
Instantly recognizable with its crosshatch design on top, pineapple buns are a treasure to have come out of Hong Kong bakeries in the 20th century. Contrary to what its name would have you think, no pineapple is used in making these buns. Instead, the title refers to its similarity in appearance between the crispy top and a pineapple’s bumpy exterior. The base bun is made of a milk bread dough—sweet and fantastically fluffy.
Coconut Almond Rice Cake (nian gao)
For Chinese New Year, a number of rituals ensure luck and fortune: wearing red, not cleaning, burning fake money and coins, and, most deliciously, eating nian gao. This traditionally steamed sticky rice cake is almost 2,000 years old, first coming to prominence around AD 200. The cake’s potential luck is due to being a homonym, with nian gao sounding similar to the Chinese characters for “higher year,” meaning you’ll have a bountiful year by eating a slice of this iconic rice cake. Of course, consuming cake is always lucky in our book. Click here for our recipe!
Sweet Egg Tarts (dan tan)
Hailing from the city of Guangzhou in the 1920s, the Chinese variation of the egg tart features a crisp, crumbly shortcrust made with lard and a luminous, egg-rich custard. Once the dish came to Hong Kong, it transformed again, getting a tender cookie-like pâte sucrée crust but keeping the reflective custard. Though a relatively new addition to the Lunar New Year feasting, the egg tart is one more sweet way to celebrate the new year.
Barbecue Pork Buns (char siu bao)
A Cantonese and dim sum classic, this bao is special because it is steamed rather than baked, making it both fluffy and sturdy. Once steamed, the dough will form a chewy skin while staying snowy white and gently heating a tender filling of barbecue-style pork (or char siu). Pork is symbolic during the Chinese New Year, standing for strength, wealth, and blessings. Click here for our version of this dum sum classic.