February 8th marks this years Lunar New Year, the day East Asia recognizes as the first day of a secular and sacred calendar whose months are coordinated by the cycles of the moon. Here in America we are used to New Years being a 24-28 hour affair, but celebrating Lunar New Year (more commonly referred to as the Chinese New Year) is a much different kind of party. Cities stand still for multiple days, up to a week even, as people take this time to enjoy family, friends, and food.
Oh, do they enjoy some food.
While New Year's in America is best known for boozing, in East Asia it's more of a celebration of the taste buds. Here are a few of the best items to enjoy this week in honor if Lunar New Year and where you can find them locally.
Bánh tét, the ultimate Vietnamese new year dish, is a banana leaf wrapped rice cake made out of glutinous rice, mung beans, and pork. The ingredients — once tightly wrapped together — are then steamed or boiled to create an amazingly addictive traditional Vietnamese comfort food. Available mostly only around the Vietnamese Tet new year, bánh tét is to be unwrapped like a gift, and enjoyed family style.
Tteokguk is a hearty soup known as a staple of Korean New Year celebrations. This soup made of disc-shaped rice cakes in a clear beef broth comes topped with various assortments that fit your individual taste. “Tteok” meaning rice cake, and “guk” meaning soup, this bowl of goodness marks the official turning of the calendar, and the aging of a full year. The white oval rice cake shapes are meant to symbolize a bright and prosperous new year.
If you've ever been to a frozen yogurt place, chances are you've come across a form of mochi. Mochi is a Japanese rice cake made of mochigome, and is one of the most versatile foods found anywhere, in any countries cuisine. During the Lunar New Year mochi is used for everything from decorations, to ice cream, to soups and specialty items. Without mochi, numerous dishes just wouldn't be the same — it would be like trying to cook a pizza without cheese.
Who doesn't like dumplings? People you can't trust, that's who. Jiaozi dumplings aren't just any old dumpling though, they are good luck! Shaped to resemble old ingot-shaped coins or yuanbao, these balls of meaty-awesomeness are meant to bring eaters prosperity and wealth in the new year. Eaten in a soup, or dry like an egg roll with soy sauce, Jiaozi are the perfect finger food that can also double as a full-on meal if you indulge in three-or-twelve.
Gio Cha (Vietnam)
Where to find it: Saigon Cuisine
Gio Cha is a sausage meatball the Vietnamese are famous for adding to many dishes, including ones served during the new year celebrations. Numerous varieties exist — some tinkering with the basic recipe more than others — but the basis of a peppery sausage-like meatball normally wrapped in a banana leaf remains the core. Gio Cha is excellent in soup and noodle dishes, or sliced thin in a Bánh mì (sandwich).
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Ryan Yousefi is a freelance writer for Miami New Times, a lover of sports, and an expert consumer of craft beer and pho. Hanley Ramirez once stole a baseball from him and to this day still owes him $10.