Kau Kau Kitchen
by Leilehua Yuen

Chinese New Year

Table of Contents
Recipe Index
Hawaiian Foods
Local Foods
Special Occasions


Chinese New Year

  *Chinese Salt Lemon
  *Lo Han Tsai
  *Pineapple Chicken
  *Tofu in Chicken Broth
  *Watercress Salad
  *Golden Treasure Pudding

Chinese Astrology
Chart of Years


Reminiscing About Chinese New Year

Based on the lunisolar calendar, the date of Chinese New Year changes each Gregorian year. It occurs two new moons before the first day of spring. Chinese New Year is celebrated based on Beijing, China time. This year the new moon falls on Friday, February 15.

Chinese New Year traditions followed by many people in Hawaiʻi, even those not of Chinese ancestry, include wearing new clothing to assure a fresh clean start, being sure the house is clean before New Year's Eve nightfall so that good luck is not scrubbed away or swept out, and eating traditional foods such as jai for good luck.

One of the great things about Hawaiʻi is our cosmopolitan heritage. My own family is a blend of Hawaiian, Pake (Chinese), British Isles, and European stock. Thus, I was reared happily celebrating a whole slew of holidays. Prominent among them was Chinese New Year.

When I was a girl, my family celebrated the holiday by going out for a banquet at Sun Sun Lau, a Cantonese restaurant owned by the Low family, who were friends of us Yuens. At that time, it was probably the largest restaurant on Moku Hawaiʻi, and even had a gift shop with wonderful carved furniture from China, dishware, vases, and huge glass jars - taller than a toddler - of Chinese preserved seeds, AND - delight of delights - the dining area had an indoor pond full of arm-length white, red, and gold Chinese carp.

These carp and I became fast friends, as when I behaved well through dinner I was allowed to buy a little baggie of carp food and toss the floating pellets into the water. Such a huge decision! Should I toss the pellets one by one, and watch the largest, fastest fish give a powerful thrust of its tail, surge through the lesser fish and snatch the prize? Or should I pour the entire baggie into my hand, toss all the pellets into the pond, and watch the silent regal fish erupt into a maelstrom of frenzied feeding?

My solution was to toss in a few pellets, and then the entire handful.

Sun Sun Lau no longer serves its fabulous multi-course banquets, having closed in 1999, after 67 years as a Hilo institution. So, I now cook a more modest New Year's meal at home for family and close friends.

In addition to special foods, other traditions were observed. I still practice a few. If you would like to get into the New Year Spirit, you can: Wash your hair just before the New Year begins so that your head will be purified and all the negative thoughts you have had in the past year can go down the drain. Wear new clothing to assure prosperity in the New Year. Sweep your house on the last day of the old year, not on the first day of the new. You don't want to sweep out the new good luck. Give li-see to children. Li-see are those little red envelopes, sometimes with gold printing or pictures. They are filled with money. Giving away li-see to children brings good luck to the giver. Other customs include paying off debts, reconciling with people, cleaning and redecorating the home, carving and growing Narcissus bulbs, and giving food to friends and neighbors.

Fortune-telling is another popular activity for the new year. You can use fortune sticks, which are shaken from a jar. The answer is found written on the first stick to fall out. There are also fortune beans which are shaken and dropped. The positions in which they fall give the answer to one's questions. Of course, there is always the I-Ching, and there is Chinese astrology.

This astrological system was officially introduced to the Chinese calendar in 2637 BC by the Emperor Huang Ti. In it there are Twelve Earth Branches or Animal Signs: Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Sheep, Monkey, Rooster, Dog, and Boar. Each of these signs has five cycles: Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal, and Water.

It takes 60 years to go through a complete succession of cycles.

Long before the time of the Emporer Huang Ti, the Chinese New Year already was celebrated as a spring festival. There are many legends surrounding its origin. One speaks of a giant beast, Nian. Folk legends have many varients. Here is one of my favorites.

"Nian" is not only the name of a monster, but also the Chinese word for "year." Perhaps hidden in the story is a metaphor for time, which eventually will eat us all.

Guo NianWhy We Say "Guo Nian"

Long ago in the Chinese countryside lived a monster named Nian. Nian had a huge mouth, so huge he could swallow whole villages in one gulp! Just before the start of each spring, Nian would come out of his cave and rampage through the countryside, gulping down all the people he could find. Finally, one old man decided he would no longer tolerate this evil behavior of the monster.

"Nian!" he called. "Nian, do you hear me? This is really too bad that you go around eating humans where you roam. Do you know that humans are nutritionally very poor? If you keep this up you will lose your teeth, scales, and hair, your claws will grow dull, and you will go blind!"

Nian replied, "Oh, I don't believe that. I have been eating humans for thousands of years and humans taste so good! In fact, they taste so, SO good, I think I shall eat you the very next!"

"Well," the old man said, "I don't care if you eat me. I am very old and wonʻt live much longer anyway. But I am concerned for your parents."

"What have my parents to do with this?" Nian asked, puzzled.

"It must be a terrible shame for them to look down from the heavens and see you eating humans. Humans may have been ok for you to eat when you were a little baby monster, but now that you are grown and famous, humans are hardly worth of your great prowess!"

"How so?" Nian asked.

"Just look at us," the old man answered. "Weak and slow, we have no claws or fangs to defend ourselves, We have no fur to warm ourselves. We have only two legs with which to run. We have no wings to fly away. It is really not at all sporting for you to catch and eat us."

"But then, what should I eat?" Nian asked.

"Tigers! Wolves! Jackals! Foxes! Crocodiles! Wild Buffalo! Eagles! There are ever so many creatures far more worthy of your inestimable capabilities than we weak and flabby humans." The old man sat down. Nian looked at him and thought.

This was not as silly as it might sound today. Back then, there were thousands of these wild and dangerous beasts running about the countryside.

Nian was not the only creature which terrorized humans. Packs of wolves came in the wintertime and ran away with young children and farm animals. Packs of jackals hung on the outskirts of towns and attacked unwary travelers. Tigers pounced upon the foresters cutting bamboo for new homes. Foxes made off with chickens and rabbits. Crocodiles lay in wait for the boatmen and their families, and herds of wild buffalo rampaged through the fields, destroying everythign in their paths.

The more he thought about these ferocious beasts, the more he liked the idea of hte challenge. So, Nian bid the old man farewell and headed off to chase the other animals. Soon, the animals had been driven far into the wilderness and seldom troubled humans any more.

The old man went back to the village and taught the people to put up red paper decorations on their windows and doors each year to bring good luck and to frighten Nian if he should try to come back. Red is such a lucky color that monsters fear it. The old man then walked away into the forest.

As it turned out, the old man was one of the immortal gods. He called to Nian and made the monster carry him as if it were a horse, galloping back to heaven.

"Guo Nian" in English, is literally "survive Nian," or "pass Nian." "Guo" also means "to observe." So, the phrase is usually translated as "Celebrate the New Year."


Chinese New Year Recipes

Chinese salt lemon is a must-have in the Pāke kitchen. This wondrous condiment seems to be disappearing from the islands, but it is so easy to make, and so useful, I would love to see a resurgence of it. Gather some ripe lemons and make sure there are no bruises or bug stings. Wash the lemons and place them in a large glass jar. We used to use gallon mayonnaise jars. Pack them in well, but to not squish them. Cover the lemons with rock salt, shaking the jar to be sure all of the spaces between the lemons are filled. Cover the jar tightly. We used to stretch plastic wrap over the mouth and then rubberband it before putting the lid back on. Now, set the jar out on the roof in the sun. Turn it around about once a week. In about six months, the lemons will be dark amber and floating in a dark salty sour syrup.

Traditionally this is used in a number of ways. A little piece of the skin is torn off a lemon and sucked to relieve sore throat. Many children also like it as a treat. A teaspoon of the syrup can be put in a glass of hot water and drunk to relieve sore throat as well. In cooking, the syrup and the pulp are rubbed on game, fowl, and mutton before roasting. It removes the game taste and mellows the flavors of strong meats, and brings out the color when browning off a roast.

Chinese vegetable sellers, San Francisco, 1905. Image courtesy New York Public Library.

Lo Han Tsai (Monk's Food)
(4 servings)

Chinese New Year is actually celebrated for 15 days - from the New Moon to the Full Moon. This vegetarian dish is served for breakfast on the first day of the New Year. It was created by the 18 personal disciples of Buddha to avoid starting the New Year by taking a life. At other times of the year, it can be flavored with oysters and oyster sauce to become a rich, filling dish. It has a lot of ingredients, but is not really that much work. Each ingredient has a lucky meaning. We do not use fresh tofu in jai because the white color symbolizes death. But, other than that, there are as many versions of jai as there are cooks who enjoy serving it!

2 c. hot water
2 T. sesame oil

Soak the following in the water, saving the liquid after use. Squeeze excess water from the ingredients back into the pan. The water will be used in making the gravy.

½ c. chin ngee (tree fungus) 1,000 years longevity 
¼ c. lin gee (lotus seed) many children
¼ c. bak ko( ginko nuts) 100 grandchildren
½ cup fat choi (black moss seaweed) wealth (sounds like the New Year greeting)
6 gum choi (dry golden lily) gold and good luck
2 foo jook (dried tofu sticks) sounds like "rich enough"
1 bundle jun see (long rice) longevity, beauty, culture

Heat a wok and add the sesame oil. Stir-fry the soaked ingredients lightly, until just heated through. Add the fresh and canned ingredients and stir-fry until heated through.

½ c. sliced bamboo shoots longevity
½ c. sliced lotus root looks like Buddhist symbol - religious diligence
1 carrot, peeled, cut into "coins" red for luck, looks like money
1c. ho lan dow (Chinese peas) sounds like good luck, green color for new growth, peas are round like money
3 leaves bok choi (Chinese cabbage) green of spring

Thoroughly blend the following ingredients:

2 T. Chinese paste shoyu
1 T. cornstarch 
2 tsp. cold water

Add them to the wok and stir quickly until the mix thickens and becomes shiny. Slowly add the soaking water, stirring well. When the gravy is hot and glistening, serve accompanied by freshly cooked rice.

Over the past century and a half, many Chinese people have come to our islands, adding interesting traditions and foods to our local culture. Lo Han Tsai, or Monk’s Food, is an important part of New Year celebrations. But we also enjoy dishes which combine ingredients the way Hawai`i combines family traditions.

Golden Treasure Pudding
(Serves 4)

Round with a hole in the middle, pineapple rings are reminiscent of Chinese money. This local take-off on a Southern Chinese dessert blends flavors of Hawai`i, China, and South America.

1 cup cooked rice
1 cup coconut milk
1/2 cup pineapple juice
white sugar to taste
4 pineapple rings

Simmer rice with coconut milk and pineapple juice until the liquid is absorbed. Add sugar to taste. Spoon pudding into individual bowls. Garnish with pineapple rings. Serve chilled or warm. Other fruits may be added if desired.

Down-home Chinese cooking, as I learned it from my grandparents and parents, is more of a method than a recipe. So, feel free to add, alter, and play with the ingredients, and create your own family food traditions!

Gung Hee Fat Choy! Happy New Year!

Chart of Years

February 8, 2016 - Year of the Monkey

January 28, 2017 - Year of the Chicken

February 16, 2018 - Year of the Dog

February 5, 2019 - Year of the Hog

January 25, 2020 - Year of the Rat

February 12, 2021 - Year of the Ox

February 1, 2022 - Year of the Tiger

January 22, 2023 - Year of the Rabbit

February 10, 2024 - Year of the Dragon

January 29, 2025 - Year of the Snake

February 17, 2026 - Year of the Horse

February 6, 2027 - Year of the Goat