Celebrating Chinese New Year: Dumplings for wealth and noodles for a long life

This week, families and friends across the city and region will gather to celebrate Chinese New Year, the day marking the turn of the lunar calendar. Originally meant to honor deities as well as ancestors, the centuries-old festival has become for many a reason to reconnect with family and loved ones and a time to share a traditional feast meant to bring prosperity and health for the year ahead.

“It’s like American Thanksgiving, plus July Fourth,” said Eric Li, chef at Nom Wah Tea Parlor in Chinatown, the local outpost of the Nom Wah dim sum restaurant that has been operating in New York for almost a century. “In China, you go home, you have a vacation. The kids love it. They get lucky money in the red envelopes. You have a parade, you have dancing, you have fireworks.”

The Year of the Dog, which starts Friday, will be celebrated in Philadelphia’s Chinatown with a weekend of dancing, performances, fireworks, a parade, and food demonstrations in Reading Terminal Market. But family celebrations often start on the night before with a feast  of particular dishes that are said to sweep away any lingering bad luck from the year gone by.

Camera icon ALLISON STEELE
Dumplings ready to be cooked at Nom Wah Tea Parlor in Philadelphia.

Dumplings are a cornerstone of many Lunar New Year meals because their purselike shapes are said to symbolize wealth. In northern China, where dumplings are a staple, families might spend a few hours together making the dough, then stuffing the dumpling wrappers with ground meat or vegetables.

“Nom Wah,” translates roughly to “southern China,” but nonetheless Li and his team serve many varieties of steamed and pan-fried dumplings, from delicate shrimp shumai to Shanghainese soup dumplings to ground pork with chives. Home chefs who want to try their hand at dumplings can always take a short cut by buying ready-made wrappers.

Camera icon JESSICA GRIFFIN / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER
Chef Eric Li prepares dumplings at Nom Wah.

Lunar New Year celebrations always include noodles, which are representative of a long life, said Wilson Tang, owner of Nom Wah.  Those noodles are served as long as possible, he said, to signify longevity. Break the noodle, shorten the life. That’s why noodles are also served at birthdays, baby celebrations, and weddings.

At Nom Wah, Li and his team made the dish using a package of thick yi mein noodles, though Li said lo mein or other kinds of noodles would also work. Coated with a thick glaze of soy sauce, oyster sauce, sesame oil, and other seasonings and served with chives and fragrant mushrooms, the noodles are comforting and savory.

Desserts are extremely important, Tang said, because they sweeten up any prospects for the new year. Glutinous rice balls are among the most popular dishes, and Nom Wah’s are crunchy and coated with seeds on the outside, chewy and sweet inside.

Camera icon JESSICA GRIFFIN / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER
Sesame balls, long life noodles, and dumplings, all traditional Chinese New Year foods prepared at Nom Wah Tea Parlor.

A Lunar New Year dinner might also include turnip cakes, fish, chicken, spring rolls and fruit.

“You always want something colorful, you know?” Li said. “You put it all together and it looks colorful. You want it to be colorful and happy to look at.”


Long Life Noodles

Serves 3-4

Long life noodles, a traditional Chinese New Year food, at Nom Wah Tea Parlor.

INGREDIENTS

12 ounces dry yi mein noodles (substitute flat egg noodles or lo mein)

⅛ teaspoon sugar

¼ teaspoon salt

2 teaspoons regular soy sauce

2 teaspoons dark soy sauce

2 tablespoons oyster sauce (or vegetarian oyster sauce)

½ teaspoon sesame oil

Freshly ground white pepper, to taste

3 to 4 tablespoons canola or vegetable oil

3 to 5 shiitake mushrooms, thinly sliced

8 ounces Chinese chives (or scallions), cut into 2-inch pieces, with the light and dark green parts separated

DIRECTIONS

  1. Boil 3 quarts of water in a large wok or pot. Once boiling, add the noodles. The directions on the box may say to boil the noodles for 5 minutes, but Li recommends no more than 3 to 4 minutes to keep them firm and chewy. Sample a noodle while cooking, and when it tastes closer to the uncooked side of al dente pasta, it’s ready. When the noodles are done, immediately drain and set aside.
  2. In a bowl, dissolve the sugar and salt in 1 tablespoon of hot water. Add the regular soy sauce, dark soy sauce, oyster sauce, sesame oil, and white pepper. Stir until combined.
  3. Heat a wok until just smoking, and spread 2 tablespoons of oil around the perimeter.
  4. Add the mushrooms and the light-green parts of the chives, and stir-fry for 30 seconds. The mushrooms will soak up the oil, so add another tablespoon of oil if they look too dry.
  5. Add the noodles to the wok. They should still be warm but with no water dripping. Stir-fry everything for another 20 seconds.
  6. Spread the prepared sauce mixture evenly over the noodles and stir-fry everything together for one minute, or until the soy sauce mixture is distributed evenly. Spread another tablespoon of oil around the perimeter of the wok to prevent sticking if necessary. If the noodles stick together, drizzle a bit of oil directly over them, or add a splash of hot water if the noodles are too dry after adding the sauce.
  7. Add in the remaining green parts of the chives and mix until they turn bright green and the noodles are heated through. Serve immediately.

-- From chef Eric Li of Nom Wah Philadelphia

284 calories, 5 g protein, 37 g carbohydrates, 13 g fat, 3 g saturated fat, 23 mg cholesterol, 1010 mg sodium, 2 g dietary fiber, 7 g sugar


Pork Chive Dumplings

Serves 3 to 4

Dumplings at Nom Wah Tea Parlor.

INGREDIENTS

2 cups all-purpose flour

¼ cup vegetable oil

1¼ pounds ground pork

1 egg

2 cups Chinese chives, chopped fine

3 tablespoons sesame oil

¼ cup soy sauce

Salt, to taste

DIRECTIONS

  1. Put flour in a large mixing bowl. Gradually add ¾ cup water and knead into smooth dough. This process should take about 10 minutes. Cover with a damp cloth and let the dough rest for an hour.
  2. While the dough is resting, prepare the filling. Add the oil to a small pot over medium-high heat. Heat the oil for about 7 minutes and allow it to cool. This "cooking" of the oil will bring out a nuttier flavor.
  3. In a large bowl, mix the ground pork, egg, chives, sesame oil, soy sauce, and cooked, cooled oil.
  4. Divide the dough into manageable pieces and roll each piece into a rope. Cut into small pieces, about the size of the top part of your thumb. Roll the pieces out into circles with a rolling pin.
  5. Add about 1½ teaspoons of filling to the center of each piece of dough. Fold the circle in half and press the sides together at the top, making two folds on either side. Place the dumplings about a centimeter apart on a parchment-lined baking sheet until you're ready to cook them.
  6. Bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil. Carefully drop the dumplings into the water and keep them moving so they don't stick to the bottom of the pot. Bring back to a slow boil, and cook until they float to the top and the filling is cooked through, about 5 minutes. Serve with vinegar and/or chili sauce.

-- From Eric Li of Nom Wah Philadelphia

670 calories, 46 g protein, 50 g carbohydrates, 31 g fat, 6 g saturated fat, 144 mg cholesterol, 504 mg sodium, 2 g dietary fiber, 1 g sugar


Fried Sesame Balls

Serves 3-4

Sesame balls, a traditional Chinese New Year food at Nom Wah Tea Parlor.

INGREDIENTS

¾ cup brown sugar
3 cups rice flour
1 cup sweet red bean paste
6 cups vegetable oil
½ cup sesame seeds

DIRECTIONS

  1. In a small bowl, dissolve the brown sugar into 1 cup of  boiling water.
  2. Place the rice flour in a separate large bowl, making a well in the center, and add the sugar and water mixture. Stir until dough turns sticky and caramel-colored.
  3. Take a piece of dough about 2 inches wide and make a deep indent in the middle to form a small cup. Take one teaspoon of red bean paste and roll it into a ball, placing it into the dough and folding dough over the top to seal it. Then roll the dough into a ball. Continue  until dough is used up.
  4. In a large saucepan or deep fryer, heat oil to 350 degrees. Spread sesame seeds over waxed paper and place a small bowl of water next to the waxed paper.
  5. Dip the formed balls into the bowl of water and roll them over sesame seeds.
  6. Place sesame balls into oil, a few at a time, until the seeds turn light brown. Use a spatula to press the balls against the sides of the saucepan until they expand to about three times their original size and are golden brown. Drain and serve.

-- From chef Eric Li of Nom Wah Philadelphia

613 calories, 11 g protein, 111 g carbohydrates, 15 g fat, 3 g saturated fat, 42 mg sodium, 8 g dietary fiber, 61 g sugar