The Lunar New Year is fast approaching—this year, it falls on February 12. While big family gatherings and community celebrations might be off the table this year, the food certainly isn’t. Whether you’re a seasoned Lunar New Year reveler or new to the tradition, get ready to ring in the Year of the Ox with these Vietnamese, Chinese, and Korean dishes. Don't see your favorite New Year's dish on this list? Tell us what you eat for the Lunar New Year by leaving a comment or emailing [email protected]
Mama Dút Foods
‘Crab, crab, fish, fish, gourd, chicken, chicken!’
These aren’t foods that Thuy Pham of Mama Dút ate for Tết, the Vietnamese Lunar New Year. It’s how her family would fervently bet on bầu cua cá, a dice game that translates to “gourd-crab-fish,” a favorite during the month-long parade of family visits for Tết.
“You have a board with pictures of a gourd, a deer, a crab—six different animals,” Pham explains. “And then you have two dice with the animals on them. And then people place their bets on whichever animal comes up on the dice.... It’s a bunch of Asian people holding dollar bills and screaming names of animals like their life depended on it. I miss it.”
New Year’s meals centered around two foods—bánh tét, glutinous rice dumplings typically stuffed with pork belly and mung bean and wrapped in banana leaves, and bánh xèo, rice crepes often filled with pork belly, shrimp, bean sprouts, and fresh herbs.
“I don't remember ever having a New Year’s without having bánh tét around,” Pham says. “Growing up, we would always order bánh tét or have it made by my Aunties [and] my great aunties.... And a few years ago, when I decided to go vegan, I couldn't get banh tết anymore. And it was something that really made me sad, especially when New Year's came around. You'd be hard pressed to find any Vietnamese family who celebrates like New Year's without bánh tét.… It's like a turkey at Thanksgiving—you have to have it.”
“When I became vegan and I couldn't eat it anymore, I actually had asked my auntie, ‘Hey, can we do a family cooking session where we can get together and make bánh tét?... Once I learned, I just started making it every year, because my biggest fear is losing my cultural foods. Because if these recipes die with our aunties and grandmas and mothers, where are we going to learn to cook it? How are we going to gain access to this? And I feel like as an immigrant, staying close to my cultural foods feels like the only way that I can stay Vietnamese.”
Meanwhile, her mother churned out bánh xèo—crisp, turmeric-laden rice flour coconut milk crepes—by the dozens whenever guests came over for the New Year. For best results, Pham says, they have to be eaten straight from the pan while they’re still hot and crunchy, so her mother often missed out on getting to eat bánh xèo with the rest of the family.
“When my mom makes bánh xèo, she never sits and eats with us. It’s always, she makes bánh xèo for everybody and we're sitting and eating bánh xèo, and she's over there on the stove just flipping and making more fresh ones,” Pham says.
At Mama Dút, Pham is serving vegan versions of both of these dishes—bánh tết with jackfruit and mung bean, and bánh xèo made in a waffle iron and stuffed with fried chanterelle mushrooms—from February 13 through the end of the month. The Lunar New Year menu will also include less traditional items, including Vietnamese coffee boba popsicles and jackfruit popsicles made in collaboration with Kulfi PDX. There’ll also be a chik’n fried mushroom pandan croissant, made in collaboration with Jewan Manuel of Plant Based Papi for brunch on Sunday, February 14 only. 1414 SE Morrison St, pre-order online at mamadut.com
The Bakery at Berlu
Vince Nguyen of Berlu fondly remembers the childhood excitement of going to his aunt’s house for Tết, or Chinese New Year as they often called it, for red envelopes. “She’d have a stack of red envelopes that we’d get to pick from. Most had $2 bills (the $2 bill represents lucky money), while one had a $100 bill.”
Inspired by his aunt’s New Year’s tradition, Nguyen will include a lucky red envelope with each pre-ordered “One of Everything” box this Friday, February 12. Most envelopes will include a lucky $2 bill, but one lucky winner will receive a gift card for an additional “One of Everything” box. Can’t get much luckier than that!
The menu for the weekend will also include bánh in, a mung bean cookie that’s frequently served around Tết. Like many things on Berlu’s bakery menu, Nguyen plans to add his own twist. 605 SE Belmont St, pre-order online at berlupdx.com
At Chin’s Kitchen in Hollywood, Wendy Li serves up her Chinese New Year childhood favorite year-round: handmade dumplings stuffed with fillings like, pork, shrimp, leek, egg, and Chinese sauerkraut. But Portlanders might not realize how lucky they are to be able to order these dumplings six days a week.
Growing up in a family of eight on a farm near Harbin, China, dumplings were reserved for special occasions like Chinese New Year only, since her mother had to make them entirely by hand—no machines or mixers. But they’re a must-have on Chinese New Year’s eve for many Chinese families: the dumplings are said to be lucky since they resemble ancient Chinese gold ingots. As soon as Li and her sisters were old enough, they helped her mother fold the dumplings, stuffing them with fillings like pork with leeks or cabbage.
At Chin’s Kitchen, Li has a machine to help mix the dough, but she still kneads the dough, rolls out each dumpling wrapper by hand, chops the pork butt filling with a cleaver, and folds and boils each dumpling. Guy Fieri even got a hands-on taste of the dumpling-making process himself in an October 2020 episode of Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives, chopping the pork butt at lightning speed and rolling out a slightly lopsided dumpling skin. “This is how it’s going to end, folks,” Fieri says, popping a juicy, pillowy pork, shrimp, and leek dumpling into his mouth. “Me and an all-you-can eat dumpling bar.” Side them with veggies like garlic A-choy or green beans for a full meal. 4126 NE Broadway, call 503-281-1203 to order, chinskitchenpdx.com
Ocean City Seafood
This will be the first Chinese New Year I’ve spent in Portland, and I’m planning to head to Ocean City Seafood for the Cantonese-style dishes I grew up eating for Chinese New Year. A steamed whole fish with julienned ginger and green onion is a must, along with plenty of white rice to soak up the gingery, lightly soy-flavored sauce. Take your pick of live fish including rockfish and sea bass. For New Year’s Day, February 13, a vegetarian noodle dish called jai (often listed on menus as Buddha’s Delight or Monk's Food) is essential. Everyone seems to make this dish a little bit differently; my grandma’s recipe included black moss, gingko nuts, and tofu puffs. Be sure to plan ahead, though, because Ocean City will be closed on Thursday, February 11 for Chinese New Year’s Eve. 3016 SE 82nd Ave, call 503-771-2299 to order
Li Min Bakery
For me, an essential Chinese New Year treat (along with lots of oranges with the leaves still attached) is nian gao, a steamed cake made of glutinous rice flour that’s often adorned with sesame seeds or dried red dates. Eat slices of the chewy, caramel-like golden brown cake as is, or do like my family does: cut into slices and pan-fry in a little peanut oil until the edges are crisp. Li Min is open daily for your last-minute nian gao needs. 8615 SE Division St, 503-954-2883
Bao, dumpling, and noodle hotspot Bao Bao is offering a Lunar New Year’s special that includes twelve beef dumplings, eight assorted steamed bao (including two taro-stuffed ones), zha jiang noodles, and cucumber salad. It’ll be available for a week starting Tuesday, February 9 for $45, and feeds 3-4. 545 NE Couch St, order online at baobaopdx.com
Sokongdong Tofu & BBQ
Rice cake soup, or dduk guk, is delicious any time of year, but it’s a must-have for many Korean families for the new year. The version at Sokongdong Tofu & BBQ is made with oval-shaped, chewy white rice cakes accompanied by mandu (because adding dumplings is always a good idea), with ribbons of egg floating throughout the broth and a garnish of roasted seaweed on top. 2850 SE 82nd Ave, (503) 808-9990, sokongdong.net