Lunar New Year Specials. Courtesy, Lady Wong
If you’re already feeling like you need a New Year’s do-over, there’s another chance to celebrate and reset. Lunar New Year, observed in numerous Asian countries including China, Korea and Vietnam (as well as other places worldwide), kicks off February 10, ushering in the Year of the Dragon. New York City’s diverse AAPI communities herald the holiday with their own lively traditions and joyful feasts, rich in symbolism and superstitions.
“It’s really the Super Bowl of Asian holidays,” says Joanne Kwong, president of Pearl River Mart, the famed retailer that has been a vital source of community and culture for Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in New York for more than 50 years. Kwong looks forward to intergenerational gatherings around the City and says there’s always something new.
“Lunar New Year is not just an inward-facing holiday; there’s so much discovery and opportunities to explore other cultures and interact with other communities—and definitely eat!” she says.
Be sure to check out Pearl River Mart’s lunar lineup, which includes traditional lion dancing in their Soho location (February 10), bites from vendors like Kimbap Lab at their Chelsea Market outpost's Lunar New Year Extravaganza on February 17 and a new exhibit, Reunion: Food as Culture, Community and Coming Home (through April 21), in the gallery at the back of the Soho store, featuring nostalgic images of comfort foods and family meals from AAPI photographers.
To get more ideas of how to celebrate across the City, we spoke with three chefs about their Lunar New Year offerings. Read on to learn how they honor tradition while innovating on the classics, and discover where to ring in the new year.
Legendary Cheeseburger, Nowon. Photo: Young Skeletons
Chef Jae Lee, who owns Nowon, is firing up a new dish to celebrate his Korean American heritage: tteokguk pizza. Tteokguk, or rice cake soup, is a traditional dish served on Seollal, the Korean Lunar New Year.
“Tteokguk represents a new year to me,” Lee says. “The color of the rice cakes represents purity and a clean slate, adding another year of life. It’s also comforting because of the unctuous bone broth, which warms your soul.”
Lee is known for playful and bold Korean American mash-ups such as “chopped cheese” rice cakes and honey butter garlic tater tots. His “legendary cheeseburger” and tteokguk pizza—topped with chewy rice cakes, julienned egg and brisket—will headline the menu for Nowon’s Lunar New Year party in their Bushwick location (436 Jefferson St.) on February 16. The event will also feature specialty cocktails, a photo booth and goodie bag, with 10 percent of the sales donated to Heart of Dinner, a local charity serving the elderly Asian community dealing with food insecurity. The pizza will be available at the restaurant from the start of Lunar New Year through February 17.
Lunar New Year Specials. Courtesy, Lady Wong
Manhattan’s Lady Wong Patisserie (332 E. 9th St. and 135 W. 50th St.) is offering a wealth of lucky South Asian treats. Chef Seleste Tan and her husband and co-owner, Mogan Anthony, grew up in Malaysia, exchanging gifts of cakes and oranges amongst family and friends to bring happiness and good fortune.
One of Lady Wong’s specialties is their nian gao, a rice cake that symbolizes achieving new heights for the new year, along with prosperity and longevity. Lady Wong’s nian gao is baked, a departure on tradition, which creates a caramelized crust and an extra-velvety chewy texture.
“We tweaked the cake to make it more modernized. People in New York really love and appreciate texture, so we bake it instead of steaming it, which is the more traditional way,” Anthony says.
A slice of their signature nian gao, which comes in pandan (a tropical plant that has a floral, vanilla flavor) or ube (purple yam), is offered year-round, though whole cakes can be preordered during Lunar New Year. Lady Wong is also selling Auspicious Mandarin Cake, a bright, airy almond and citrus roll cake that’s intended to bring an abundance of riches to the recipient’s life. The limited-edition Year of the Dragon gift box is bursting with luxe confections, including their gold-wrapped pineapple shortcakes, with the pineapple filling simmered for 72 hours for maximum jammy sweetness.
Bánh Tét Chiên. Courtesy, Saigon Social
Many Lunar New Year feasts are prepared days in advance. This year, chef Helen Nguyen of Saigon Social (172 Orchard St.) is making it super easy and stress-free for family and friends to enjoy her favorite dishes for Tết, Vietnam’s Lunar New Year. “This is a time for resetting and reflecting, with lots of prayers for health and prosperity,” Nguyen says.
For busy celebrants, Nguyen is offering a Lunar New Year Tết Home Kit full of Vietnamese holiday faves like thịt kho trứng (silky pork belly and egg braised in coconut and fish sauce) and a bright-green pandan cake.
The to-go feast also includes bánh tét chiên, a sticky rice roll steamed in banana leaves. Nguyen says every family has their own version of bánh tét chiên, which is traditionally prepared and enjoyed during Tết, when there are extra hands to stuff and steam the rice rolls. Hers is filled with peppered pork belly and mung bean, and deep-fried for a satisfying crunch.
Nguyen, whose family is on the West Coast, knows the restorative power of a shared meal. She cooks weekly meals for her adopted family of elderly residents in the neighborhood. Amidst the flurry of Lunar New Year parties and feasts, Nguyen hopes others will be able to take a moment to slow down. “This year, I hope to sleep more and rest, which is something I tend to overlook, something we all overlook,” she says.