Lunar New Year Starts Sunday. Here's How To Celebrate The Year Of The Rabbit In LA
What Is Lunar New Year?
This Sunday, Jan. 22, marks the Lunar New Year, welcoming the Chinese zodiac Year of the Rabbit (or Year of the Cat for those celebrating Tết Nguyên Đán — or Tết for short).
This celebration is observed by millions around the world including China, Vietnam, Korea, and, of course, connected communities in Los Angeles.
The new year is based on the lunisolar calendar, which is different to the 365 days of the Gregorian calendar, so every year Lunar New Year falls on a different day.
(Side note: Japan used to celebrate its new year according to the lunisolar calendar as well, but as part of the Meiji Restoration in 1873 it adopted the Gregorian calendar.)
The Lunar New Year celebration is also sometimes called the Spring Festival, as it not only welcomes the new year, but the spring season as well.
The traditions of Lunar New Year vary between the different cultures that celebrate it, but at their core most revolve around ancestral worship, paying respects to the elders, and sharing a meal with family. Lunar New Year is very important to all these cultures that celebrate it — just as important as Thanksgiving or Christmas for Americans.
Chinese New Year
Chinese New Year activities typically start with some thorough house cleaning before the new year itself. Homes are decorated in red for good luck. On Chinese New Year’s Eve, families visit their ancestors’ graves and enjoy dinner together. On New Year’s day, people visit relatives to pay their respects. Older relatives will give the unmarried young members of the family money in a red packet, or hong bao.
The foods traditionally eaten for Chinese New Year are symbolic of longevity and prosperity in some way, usually because of the shape or because the names of the dishes are homophones for related words.
Here are some of the foods typically eaten on Chinese New Year:
The word for fish in Mandarin, yú, is a homophone for another word that means “abundance” or “surplus” — hence, eating fish on Chinese New Year is considered lucky and will bring abundance in the new year. The fish is usually served whole and reflects completion from the beginning to the end, but this is not always the case, especially for smaller households.
Some of the fish specials you can find around town this year include:
- Bistro Na’s, which is offering different sets of its Lunar New Year menu, and while some of them may not include a fish dish, there is a fish-shaped pudding for dessert.
- Steep in Chinatown is collaborating with Tiger and the Horse for a special Taiwanese Lunar New Year menu, with a fish soup on the menu.
- Paradise Dynasty is offering some special dishes like chicken poached in black truffles and stir fried lobster. There will also be a steamed cod filet as well as a steamed abalone and fish maw soup.
This traditional Cantonese meal translates to “basin vegetables” and is served in a large basin. It’s not all vegetables, though — the Lunar New Year poon choi usually also contains several luxurious ingredients like abalone, sea cucumber, BBQ and more.
Poon choi has become a popular Lunar New Year dish in Los Angeles over the past couple of years, with many restaurants offering it at this time of year.
Tray Of Togetherness
The tray of togetherness is a tray filled with sweets with symbolic meanings that are served to guests. The tray usually has six or eight compartments with various sweets including candied lotus roots, which symbolize abundance, candied coconut, which symbolizes togetherness, and candied lotus seeds for fertility.
This dense, glutinous rice cake is another traditional symbolic food. The name, nián gāo, sounds similar to words that mean “getting higher every year” and thus symbolizes growth and progress. While there is both a sweet and savory version, the sweet version is more popular, made with glutinous rice flour and sweetened with brown sugar (some versions may also use chestnuts or red beans). In L.A., you can get them at:
Kee Wah Bakery and Woon,which is serving Chinese New Year specials from Jan. 20 to 22, including savory, stir-fried nián gāo. It will also be serving tang yuan, a glutinous rice ball dessert filled with black sesame paste that symbolizes togetherness.
Lo Hei Or Yu Sheng
Even within Chinese New Year celebrations, there are quite a few regional variations. For example, the Cantonese lo hei — also called yusheng, or “prosperity toss” — is a raw fish salad that is “tossed” on Chinese New Year and symbolizes abundance. Yusheng is popular among the Chinese communities in Singapore and Malaysia.
Here in L.A., you can pre-order it at:
- Ipoh Kopitiam in Alhambra
- Malaysianfoodloversla, which sells them via Instagram
- Ms. Chi Cafe, in Culver City, which offers a special six-course Lunar New Year menu that includes a yusheng salad, followed by Singaporean chili crab noodles, tea smoked duck, and more
In Korean, Lunar New Year is called seollal and it’s typically celebrated over three days. Some traditions are similar to those of Chinese New Year, where people travel to their family homes, perform an ancestral ritual, and young ones bow to the elders to show respect and receive money in a red (or white) packet.
The main dish eaten for seollal is tteokguk, a rice cake soup traditionally made with beef bone broth. The dish is believed to grant good luck and it’s said that people don’t gain another year of age until they’ve had their bowl of tteokguk. The white of the rice cakes also symbolize purity and a bright new beginning.
- Find tteokguk at Hangari Kalguksu, Ma Dang Gook Soo, Sun Nong Danand other places in Koreatown.
- You can also get a special seollal package from Seoul Sausage Company, which is collaborating with MDK Noodles and Lucky Rice Cake. It comes with fresh rice cakes from Lucky Rice Cake, a dosirak with kimchi and dumplings from MDK Noodles, and bulgogi udon stir fry, skewers and a banchan medley from Seoul Sausage Company.
The savory pancakes, jeon, aren’t necessarily a seollal-specific dish, but they make an appearance at all celebrations in Korea, including seollal. Jeon can be made from various vegetables and sometimes also incorporate meat or seafood.
- HanEuem in Koreatown serves a platter of different varieties of jeon.
- Korean-American deli Yangban Society offers a twist on jeon with some Korean latkes for seollal made with squash, potato, onion, and matzoh meal topped with creme fraiche and caviar.
Tết Nguyên Đán
The Lunar New Year celebration in Vietnam is called Tết Nguyên Đán, or Tết for short, and it means “feast for the first morning” — so you know this new year celebration is all about the food. In the Vietnamese zodiac, the rabbit is replaced with a cat, so in 2023, the Vietnamese communities will be welcoming the Year of the Cat instead.
Bánh Tét Or Bánh Chưng
A must-have for a Vietnamese Lunar New Year celebration is bánh tét or bánh chưng. They are glutinous rice cakes wrapped in a banana leaf and typically filled with mung beans and marinated pork. While bánh tét is cylindrical in shape and popular in South Vietnam, bánh chưng is square in shape and eaten more in the northern parts of Vietnam.
The dish is time-consuming to make, and that’s part of its importance, as families spend time together and bond while making it. If you want to enjoy it without making it yourself, though, there are quite a few places to get them in the L.A. area, since bánh tét / bánh chưng are actually eaten year-round. You can find them at various Vietnamese bakeries and delis. Around Tết you can also get some at Sau Can Tho while supplies last.
Similar to the Chinese New Year tradition of the tray of togetherness, Vietnamese New Year also has a tray of sweets called mut tet that is used to serve guests during Lunar New Year. Some of the components are also the same, like candied coconut or lotus seeds, but you’d also typically find candied tamarind. You can buy these trays at Vietnamese grocery stores around San Gabriel Valley or Little Saigon.
Celebrations In Los Angeles
Aside from the food specials we mentioned above, there are also a number of larger community celebrations of Lunar New Year around the Los Angeles area. At these celebrations you’ll find dance performances, cultural showcases, and of course — more food.
Golden Dragon Lunar New Year Parade
The Chinese Chamber of Commerce of Los Angeles is hosting the 124th annual Golden Dragon Parade on Saturday, Jan. 28. The parade is one of the oldest cultural celebrations in Los Angeles, and certainly one of the oldest Lunar New Year celebrations in the city as well. There will be dance performances and marching bands. The parade will start at the corner of Hill and Ord streets in Chinatown.
UVSA Tết Festival
The UVSA Tết Festival is the largest Vietnamese Lunar New Year Festival in the country and this year it will be held at the OC Fair & Event Center from Jan. 27 to 29. It's hosted by the Southern California chapter of UVSA, or Union of Vietnamese Student Associations. During the three-day festival, there will be cultural activities, food vendors, firecracker shows and more. There will also be a replica of a traditional Vietnamese village complete with cultural exhibits and galleries for those who want to learn more about Vietnamese culture.
Lunar New Year At Pacific Asia Museum
The USC Pacific Asia Museum in Pasadena will be throwing a Lunar New Year celebration on Sunday, Jan. 22. There will be a traditional Chinese lion dance performance as well as a Korean dance performance, taiko drumming, calligraphy and more. Those attending the celebration will also get free admission to the museum.