Celebrating Chinese New Year

Yesterday our family celebrated Chinese New Year in the one way we knew how. We had a feast, gluten free and vegan of course.

This meant I spent the better part of the day in the kitchen, as all celebratory days require. I had plenty of company though as Damien was home from work for a snow day and was busy cooking food for our backpacking trip this weekend. The kids joined us at various points in the day to make dumplings and help with the mountains of dishes. 

No doubt this was not an authentic Chinese meal and there was a lot of improvisation (lacking a bamboo steamer I used my pasta pot with nested colander for the steaming dumplings and Nian-Gao) but we enjoyed the spirit of the holiday anyway - starting fresh, celebrating family, and eating good food.

Much of what we eat on a day to day basis uses similar ingredients to the more traditional plant-based diet of rural China. Lots of veggies, rice, a bit of soy and limited animal products. For a fascinating read on the link between nutrition and disease as studied in the Chinese population I highly recommend the book The China Study: The Most Comprehensive Study of Nutrition Ever Conducted and the Startling Implications for Diet, Weight Loss and Long-term Health.

I digress.  

Celebrating Chinese New Year this way, with a big feast, was actually part of a homeschool study the kids and I have been doing this winter. I was hoping to inspire my children's curiosity about something other than medieval Europe. Besides, the food they ate back then was atrocious. Cockatrice anyone? What about Larks Tongues, Boars Head, or Cock Comb and Hen's Feet Salad? I imagine though that food in China during that time wasn't much better. Please correct me if I'm wrong, I'm no scholar.

Enough history, let's get on to the meal.

A Meal to Celebrate

The hands-down favorite dish and the one most complicated to make were the dumplings. I’m not aware of any gluten, corn and egg free wonton wrappers you can purchase. So... I made my own (see recipe below). 

Here's the complete menu:

  • Mushroom and (tofu) egg drop noodle soup, my own made-up recipe 
  • Szechuan Noodles (with significantly less oil) and veggies
  • Dumplings, completely from scratch, vegan and gluten free
  • Steamed Nian Gao, recipe from The Runaway Rice Cake

For the noodles I used the "Mama" brand brown rice vermicelli noodles, available through my buying club and local health food store. These are similar to ramen-type egg noodles but much healthier and g-free. They were best in the soup but too fragile in the noodle dish.

The most surprising part of the meal was the success with Nian-Gao, the traditional sticky rice cake served at Chinese New Year. I have never steamed any dessert food before and it turned out really well. Even without the glutinous rice flour (I used sweet rice flour) and date sugar instead of white sugar. 

Books To Read

red and gold, traditional Chinese colors

Although studying Chinese New Year just seemed like an excuse to take a few days off school so I could plan and cook this meal we actually did some study to go along with our feast. Last month we read the following books specifically about the signficance of this holiday.

These are some other books we've read together through the years about Chinese culture, language, history and geography. 

sparkly red ribboned golden beeswax lanterns
A Christmas gift from family, perfect for Chinese New Year

Facts about Chinese New Year

These were sent to me by a Chinese friend of mine (who lives in Canada). I don't know her sources, if she used any.

China’s most popular traditional holiday, Chinese New Year (CNY) is a time for feasting, family reunions, fun and celebration! Every year, Asians throughout the world spend weeks preparing for the 15 day celebration, officially called the Spring Festival. This is the lunar year 4709, the year of Rabbit, according to the Chinese lunar calendar.

Here are some of the ways you can celebrate CNY:

  • Clean House - Before the New Year arrives, the Chinese consider it very important to give the house a thorough cleaning, sweeping away any bad luck that may have accumulated over the past year. (We didn't do this)
  • Decorate! - Doors and window panes are also often painted red, considered to be a lucky color. In addition, people like to hang paper-cuts and Chinese Calligraphy on doors and windows. Paper cutting is an ancient Chinese art form. (Ironically enough the kids made paper snowflakes - paper cutting)
  • Wear brand new clothes – it will bring you a better New Year and prospect.
  • Don't clean for the first few days of the New Year - if you do any sweeping during this time, you may risk sweeping away your good luck. (Got that covered)
  • Offer a Sacrifice to the Kitchen God - Many families have a poster or statue of the Kitchen God in their kitchen. The custom is to offer a ceremonial sacrifice to the Kitchen God, to make sure that he gives a good report on the family's behavior when he returns to heaven. Rice sticky cake (Nian Gao) is popular, or children may rub honey on him.
  • An important tradition on New Year's Eve is for families to gather together and spend the evening preparing Chinese dumplings (Jiaozi – wheat flour or Yuanzi – rice flour). According to Chinese culture, it is common to hide a coin in one of the dumplings. Whoever gets the dumpling with the coin will supposedly have good luck in the coming year.
  • Give out money packets - On New Years day, children receive the “Spring Festival Money Gift (or yashuiqian), a red packet decorated with gold symbols and filled with "lucky money".
  • Like Thanksgiving and Christmas in the US, Chinese serve festive foods throughout the CNY season. Certain foods are served because they symbolize abundance and good fortune. Besides preparing special dishes, tangerines and oranges are often passed out to children and guests, as they symbolize wealth and good luck.

Chinese New Year is today but we celebrated yesterday because today I am packing for our winter backpacking trip tomorrow. In keeping with Chinese tradition for complete grooming and a new look I even managed to get Damien to cut my hair before we ate supper. Bring on the New Year! 

Does your family celebrate any cultural holidays or festivals (other than from your own heritage) to broaden your horizons?

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  • Hillary

    Hillary on Feb. 3, 2011, 6:50 p.m.

    Wow, you give the most thorough posts! Thank you so much. This is great b/c I'm obsessed with dumplings and usually maintaining a gf diet. I'm going to have to make myself some of those.

    thanks again for all the resources and I bet that hair cut feels so good. February is such a better time to celebrate the new year. Then you're ready for it...not so rushed into it like after the holidays.


    • renee

      renee on Feb. 3, 2011, 7:25 p.m.

      I worked a little bit longer on this one than I normally do, took advantage of daddy being home & available for the day!


  • Anonymous

    Anonymous on Feb. 4, 2011, 2:40 a.m.

    i want your soup recipe! please share it


    • renee

      renee on Feb. 4, 2011, 2:47 a.m.

      Sorry, made it up as I went. Which, in truth, is why I don't share many recipes here. I just make things up as I go. But I can say this much, it started with rehydrating dried porcini mushrooms and using that flavorful broth as a base.


  • Naomi Kilbreth

    Naomi Kilbreth on Feb. 4, 2011, 3:54 a.m.

    I had to chuckle about the not sweeping the floor note! There is always something more important than sweeping, isn't there? But seriously, what a huge undertaking this must have been! Congrats on accomplishing the project and enjoying it together. By the way, the beeswax lanters look really cool. Would they be an appropriate project for a four year old (with assistance)?


    • renee

      renee on Feb. 8, 2011, 2:35 p.m.

      I can't say for sure about the lantern project. Those were Christmas gifts from my sis-in-law. She made them with her children, ages 4, 5 & 6, but not sure to what extent they participated. She found the directions on some waldorfy-site, maybe even at Rhythm of the Home?


  • Debbie

    Debbie on Feb. 4, 2011, 5:18 a.m.

    Thanks for all this lovely info. My sister lives in Taiwan and had given my boys Chinese traditional clothes and a book about Chinese New Year. So I also decided to focus on the celebration for the day yesterday - 3 and 5 year old-friendly crafts of egg-box dragons, rabbit colouring-in and paper lanterns.

    Only wish I'd tried some home-made food. The supper we had at a local Chinese restaurant has left us with rather unhappy tummies. I will have to remember to look at this post of yours before preparing for next year!


  • Kika

    Kika on Feb. 5, 2011, 1:23 a.m.

    Curious about "The China Study" - I read onine reviews and ordered a copy from the library. Since you already follow a (mostly) vegan diet, did this book cause you and Damien to make any changes in your life? What stood out most to you in it?


    • renee

      renee on Feb. 6, 2011, 10:24 p.m.

      I read this book about 4 years ago. What most stood out for me was the solid science behind a plant based diet. The China Study was no wimpy undertaking. This is a book based on longitudinal studies that spanned many years by renowned scientists. I don't recall it causing us to make any changes, other than what we had already, at the time.

      What I found especially compelling were the links between dairy consumption and disease. When I am tempted to eat more dairy than I should (I'm not 100% vegan) I try to remind myself of these.


  • Mary @ A Simple Twist of Faith

    Mary @ A Simple Twist of Faith on Feb. 5, 2011, 2:23 p.m.

    Thank you for this wonderful post on CNY. Today, we are going to celebrate at our godchild's house. A feast awaits us, including dumplings, red envelopes, crafts, and a dragon. My girls are very excited and are looking forward to wearing their new Chinese oufits. Another great resource to explain CNY tradition to little ones is a beautiful picture book by Demi entitled Happy New Year.


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