Chinese New Year: A lesson on how to eat a year’s worth of luck

Chinese New Year falls on Sunday, February 10 this year, when we kick off the year of the snake. Snake personalities are known to be acute, cunning, aware, proud, vain, and vicious at times. My mother was a snake, so besides the fact that my teenage years represented an era of nonstop nuclear warfare in our house, I appreciate this cycle of the Chinese Zodiac much more than most.

I’m ready to kick off this lunar year in DC right, then. There are certain foods one must eat during Chinese New Year to bring in luck for the home and the family, and to be frank, for oneself. And though the New Year is a one-day holiday, celebrations often extend for a week before and after – which means a lot of eating potential. While it seems like every single foodstuff has a corresponding symbolic meaning in the Chinese culture , I’ve selected a list of 8 the most symbolic foods to eat over the holiday, where to find some of their best iterations throughout the city, plus why exactly you’ll be eating them in the first place.

eel noodles


We here in DC look to cities like LA and NY with ramen envy. So instead of that brothy, porky, noodly combo, let’s stretch our imaginations and parla Italiano for a second. Legend has it that Marco Polo brought the concept of spaghetti to Italy via China, so we’ll play that card here. DC has no shortage of Italian gems, but this year’s standout has got to be Fabio Trabocchi’s Fiola.  If you haven’t heard of Fiola yet this year, you’ve got to be living in China or something.

Noodles are a symbol of longevity. The longer, the better. So order up some spaghetti, bucatini, or fettucine on Fiola’s menu, and leave that short stubby orecchiete stuff for another day.

market fish

Whole Fish

Thank you Chesapeake Bay, for your abundance of seafood. Thank you for your oysters,  your crabs, your whiting and your hake. Thank you for providing the folks here in DC with an orchestra of tasty delights from your waters. Finally, thank you, Farmers Fishers Bakers, for opening this past year and bringing us the most sustainable of your daily catch.

In Chinese, the word for fish is a homanym for abundance, and symbolizes just that.  Traditionally fish is served steamed, always whole – representing prosperity for the whole year, from head to tail. 



It’s winter. Where do you think you’re getting fresh peaches around here? Now’s the time to look for the little sugary fruits baked into pies! Dangerous Pies DC, with it’s rock star mentality and hand made pies, is serving up both sweet and savory desserts as a part of H Street’s growing food scene. If you can’t get out to H Street, don’t fret. – Dangerous Pies is now going mobile, bringing a bit more abundance of goodness to my stomach, and unfortunately, my thighs too.

Peaches are often brought as housewarming gifts, as ancestral offerings, or displayed in the home, symbolic of youth and eternal longevity. China is the number one producer of peaches in the world. 



Mmmmm… little packets of meats and veggies wrapped in a thick fluffy dough. Hey now, we may be stretching our imaginations for a bit, but isn’t the empanada, like, the dumpling of South America? Check out DC empanada’s new outpost at Union Market, with a rotating menu ready to please all senses. Favorites include the WMD- Weapon of Mass Deliciousness (Chili and cheese), the The Badass (Buffalo chicken and blue cheese), and the Tio Shawn (black beans, rice, cheese, chipotle). Yes, that last one’s vegetarian, but yes, it’s tasty and a personal favorite.

Traditional dumplings resemble the ancient golden nuggets used as currency in medieval China, and are symbolic for wealth and prosperity. Mo’ dumplings mo’ money (I think this expression just might catch on).

chinese candies


That Georgetown Cupcake line don’t lie, we Washingtonians need our sugar fix. Rather that a cupcake though, I’d rather indulge in the cupcake’s daintier little sister, the macaron. This French staple has officially arrived thanks to DC Patisserie. Indulgent enough to pass for a special-holiday treat, plus small enough to pop a few at a time, the macaron is the perfect sweet treat.

Sweet desserts for a sweet year. Though the Chinese don’t often have an abundance of sweets and desserts in their cuisine, the New Year is a time when they roll up their sleeves and pull a few tricks out from their sleeves. Tiny red-wrapper candies are passed out to kids, and cakes and tarts are baked for dinners and parties.


Tangerines and Oranges

To balance out your new diet of empanadas, pies, and macarons, maybe a little something fresh would be appropriate. Thankfully little clementines are the winter darling of the produce world. I’m always searching to get my hands on a little extra Vitamin C in the wintertime, and popping a few of these for an afternoon snack do just the trick. Korean grocer giant H-Mart carries these by the carton, and for cheap. That’s some good fortune for both you and your wallet.

In Chinese, the word tangerine sounds a lot like the word ‘luck’. Additionally, oranges represent abundance. So pairing a bowl of oranges along with tangerines, means you’ll have abundant luck. Even better, the more leaves that are on the tangerines the better – those symbolize life and longevity! You know, in case eating those noodles didn’t do the trick.

red beans and dates

Nien Gao

A dessert with dates and beans? Hey, I warned you earlier, the Chinese don’t really do sweets and desserts. But actually the floating red dates and sweet red beans suspended in glutinous rice flour is actually…well, quite good. You know who does glutinous rice and sweet red bean paste better than the Chinese, though? The Japanese, and their mochi (though, I might be starting WWIII with this statement). Tiny little Hana Market, tucked on a corner of U street adjacent to a fire station, is one of the only authentic Asian markets in the district, and a good one at that. Stocked from floor to ceiling with hundreds of varieties of Japanese goods, you can find mochi in their refrigerated cases.

Nien Gao is another homonym for good luck – actually meaning “sticky cake”, it can also mean ‘high year’. All over china and beyond, Chinese eat this dessert for the new year to bring a tall order of good fortune in the new year. I personally eat it with high hopes that in the future, I won’t find the Chinese language so damn confusing.

stir fry at home

Stir Fry with 10 Vegetables

Both my parents reminisce of their childhood New Year dinners, when there was always a big plate of 10-vegetable stir fry on the table. Every Year. My mom fondly recalls her father meticulously chopping vegetables the whole day into paper-thin slices, specifically for this dish. Traditionally made with ingredients such as pickled mustard greens, lotus root, fresh bamboo, bean sprouts, and shiitake mushrooms, it’s a light respite that is welcome during feasts of rich seafood and meat. For this one, I say visit a local DC farmers market to pick out the 10 best ingredients, and make your own seasonal, lucky stir fry. Onions, cabbage, parsnips, celery, tofu, bean sprouts, parsley, leeks, mushrooms, and carrots sounds like a great wintery combo to me. To the farmers market I go!

The number 10 represents completeness, and having 10 vegetables serves a purpose of being fulfilled in family and life. Plus this one hits close to home, which is good a reason as any to eat a dish.


So there you have it: Eight foods you should be eating these next few weeks, and where you’ll find their best versions in DC. And oh yeah, eight is very lucky in the Chinese culture, because it sounds like the Chinese word for “prosperity” or “wealth”. So yeah, it’s confirmed that we Chinese are pretty superstitious mofo’s looking for luck everywhere we can.

Pick Mee!!!

As I mentioned in a previous post, the selection of food in Malaysia, though vast and varied, is undeniably centered around two starches: Rice (nasi) and noodles (mee).

After exploring Fort Cornwallis, we very happily stumbled upon a huge outdoor hawker stand completely shaded by some sort massive scrap metal overhang. After cruising each small cart and their respective offerings, it was pretty obvious that we were going to go for what was the most popular and simultaneously the most visually appealing- a generous pile of piping hot noodles tossed in a blood red grav y.

Though it probably would have been best to find out what was in this juicy, savory looking blood red gravy, the smells and sights of the dish alone reeled us in. We went ahead and signaled three red saucy noodle dishes for our table- literally, signaled, as I frantically pointed to the dishes being served to other customers and held up three fingers and said, “mee” while enthusiastically nodding my head. Luckily there is more than one language that all foodies understand, and the man behind the stall understood the language I was using.

Waiting for our dish to arrive, I started to read the noticeably aged news clippings posted in the cart window, where I learned that we were about to eat a big pile of sweet-spicy-sour-savory cuttlefish noodles, made by a third generation Halal hawker.

Ahh, so that explained the odd phallic creature floating on the sign above the hawker stall.

We perched ourselves anxiously on a round formica table directly in front of the stall, and watched as streams of people filtered to and from the counter in a nonstop flow, requesting order after order of the same dish. The noodles were made in batches of 8 or 10 plates at a time, with one main chef at the helm of the open gas stove and two “sous” chefs garnishing plates, running orders, refilling the mise en place (if you will), and collecting money. There were no numbers given to customers, no names, no tickets- just a nod of acknowledgement after you placed your order and a quick shout to the head chef.

We watched as the chef vigorously chopped bunches of onions and greens for a quick saute in a huge wok that looked like had been used to make this dish for decades. He threw massive handfuls of noodles into the sizzling wok, cracked dozens of eggs taken from a tower of egg crates, and squirted and poured various sauces and oils like he was conducting a symphony. Chop, sizzle, Saute, saute, squirt, crack, saute, squirt, saute, squirt. Watching one…two….three batches of noodles go out to tables around us, I could not help but wonder how these men kept track of who ordered what. I must admit, I began to doubt that we kept our place in the noodle line, but I knew better than to approach these men who were endlessly making noodle dish after noodle dish.

But finally, we received our three orders of noodles piping hot- fresh out of the wok and delivered to us without any hesitation. Having waited for some time now, we too did not hesitate as we dug in to the steamy red pile of noodles in front of us. At first bite, I was a little taken aback by the fishiness of the squid that infiltrated the entire dish.

But after a couple more bites, the dish became better and better. Nuances of spiciness and sweetness and hints of sour and bites of cuttlefish seemed to become more and more distinct with each bite. Maybe we were hungry, maybe it really was great, maybe the anticipation took over or the cheap $1.30 price tag seemed to be true. But most likely, it was a combination of all of the above.


Things change.

No matter how much I like things to be the same, no matter how much I like things to be planned out, things change.

Take, for example, my sudden affinity for noodles. When the DiploMan was gone in Beijing last week, I made myself noodle soup every day for lunch, and sometimes for both lunch AND dinner.

There’s always a stand or two at the wet market selling all sorts of noodles- fresh if you’re cooking for that evening, and dried to replenish your pantry stock. There are more kinds of ramen than I even know what to do with, and I’m not quite sure how to distinguish this block of curly thin yellow dried noodles to that block of curly thin slightly less yellow dried noodles.

Good thing I like noodles now, because I’m sure I’ll have a chance to try them all out.

Sometimes, change is a good thing.

Tainan Eats: Eel Noodle Soup, a new experience

Looking over the itinerary for my trip around Taiwan, there were many things I was excited to try- and none as both eagerly and hesitantly as I was the eel noodle soup.

Piles of noodles. Piles of eels. Buckets of soy sauce, oil, cornstarch, vinegars, peppers, empty bowls laid on the “pass”. Walking up to the stand, one really can’t help but hover for a moment to inspect the the mise en place placed on display. Golden yellow noodles stacked next to a heap of red and black strips of raw eel- a beautiful contrast of textures and colors, and though I’m not sure if they do it on purpose, it’s a great visual precursor to the dinner that you’re about to consume.

In Taiwan, wild adult eels are difficult to catch, and this fact, combined with a surge in farming and domestication techniques over the past couple of decades, have resulted in a very prominent farm-raised eel industry. Eels are actually caught from the wild as babies, with fisherman setting up huge tent-like nets along the coast, catching hundreds of baby eels no more than several cm in length. From then on, the eels are farm-raised in fresh water until they are ready to be sold as food. I’ve heard it’s very rare, today, to find fresh salt-water wild caught eel.

Two brothers man this eel stand, and as they have been serving up the same eel soup for decades, it feels as if fishing and farming and the eel industry with its sustainable food battles make no difference to them. Which, of course they are directly influenced- but as you observe the two men create a dish of simple fried eel noodles, you wonder if they really care. As long as they can serve their eel, in short sleeve t-shirts and flip flops (which they are known to wear, no matter how cold or how hot the weather turns), the issue of farm raised eels seems a world away.

Two brothers: Brother #1 as chef, Brother #2 as host/expo/manager/cashier. As with most other stands in Tainan, to order food one must walk directly to the chef and and quickly verbalize your order- lest you commit the ultimate taboo, taking too much time and holding up both the chef and the line of people that has now gathered behind you. Brother #1, never saying more than a few words to acknowledge your order, takes just a nanosecond to queue up your order behind the others, puts down his head and gets to work. Brother #2, though he has been directing customers, collecting money, and wiping tables, has somehow also heard your order,  and starts shifting and gathering bowls on the pass.

First, noodles get a soak and a sautee with onions into the large, single wok on the burner. Once they receive their appropriate cooking time on the stove, they get transferred to a rusty metal pot, the lid covered, and left there to steam until the dish is ready to be served.

The eels are next. Chef takes the eel filets, which are only partially butchered, and gives them a last minute clean-up and slice up before adding them into his wok with additional spices and sauces. The eel meat is an unbelievably bright-red color, and as he guts and cuts up the eel filets it looks as if he is working with freshly roasted beets.

Once the eel hits the pan, however, the flaccid meat begins to gradually curl up, become noticeably more rigid, and turn a darker color more akin to the original appearance of the live eel. Into the pan gets added some salt, a generous amount of pepper, and depending on whether you order the eel soup or the stir fried eel, various amounts of sauces and oils are also added. There are no measurements, and I would also guess no exact recipe, so every bowl of noodles has the potential to taste different- more peppery, more vinegary, lighter or soupier, than the next.

Finally, when the eel sauce is done, it is poured over the noodles which have just a few seconds ago been portioned out by Brother #2. They work in silence and in complete unison, each in tune with the other, knowing exactly what to do next and when to wait for the other.

The bowls of noodles are served up- and taking a small nibble of eel meat, I ponder whether this flavor and texture in my mouth is what I had actually anticipated. Mind you, the eels in China and Taiwan resemble nothing of the sweet teriyaki-glazed, flaky and tender filets that we often see on top of rice at Japanese restaurants (although, most of those are in fact farm raised in Taiwan). These eels, particularly when raw, resemble more snake than any fish, making it for a more difficult seafood for us foreigners to swallow. I am still having a hard time pinpointing the taste and texture of this animal- the meat was soft, but there was a bit to it at the same time, almost as if I was eating the soft cartilage of beef or a very tender piece of squid. Taste-wise, I found the stir-fried eel to be more palatable than its soupy counterpart, but both had a fairly mild flavor that wasn’t totally overpowering. It was actually much better than I would have imagined, although I couldn’t quite get the imagery of writhing eels out of my head.

Though the generous amounts of eel in each bowl was slightly picked over by yours truly as well as the six year-old that was next to me, the noodles were slurped up by everyone. Wonderfully dense and chewy and long and the perfect width- it was by far the best noodles I’ve had in a long time. And the soup- a thick, sweet and sour soup flecked with chili peppers. It wrapped itself around the long noodles, the soup so thickened with cornstarch that a spoon was almost unnecessary. Almost, because when you finish the noodles, you must have a way to finish the stuff left on the bottom of the bowl.

National Road Fried Eel 民族路炒鱔魚


MingZu Lu and Hai An Lu intersection

Tainan, Taiwan

China is big.

Did you guys know that?

The CIA’s online world factbook has a bounty of interesting numbers on China. As I read the list of China’s bordering countries- Afghanistan, Bhutan, Burma, India, Kazakhstan, North Korea, Kyrgyzstan, Laos, Mongolia, Nepal, Pakistan, Russia (northeast), Russia (northwest), Tajikistan, Vietnam- I think about everything it’s done for the Chinese food culture.  Naturally the variety of cuisine varies in every country, but in a land as large as China, you’ll see the influences of these neighbors trickling in from every one of its fourteen borders.

Mexican food has such a large place in today’s American diet.  Tex-Mex, Baja California cuisine, and Southwest style flavors- I can only imagine what our diet in the States would be if we were not flanked by two countries, but rather, ten or twenty. And no offense Canada, but your contribution of Poutine isn’t quite on par with Mexico’s gift of Nachos (but it’s okay, because you gave us hockey).

Only when I moved here did I see evidence of the Western Chinese muslim population, looking more Arab than any Chinese person I had been accustomed to seeing. In Guangzhou they sell nuts and dried fruit from their wooden wagon carts next to the subway entrance, and keep the city’s muslim restaurant count high.

The DiploMan and I stopped in at one of these quick-eats joints a few weeks ago.  Pointing to a wall of a pictures lit under a fluorescent light tube, we selected a couple of hearty rice and noodle based dishes.  It was certainly different than any Chinese food I had eaten in the past, but still had a familiarity that I suppose any beef and noodle dish does in referencing my food memory bank. Maybe it was the satisfaction of an oily plate of noodles, but I could see how Western China survived centuries of turmoil and conquests off of this stuff.