Dragon dances. Red envelopes stuffed with money. A sparkling clean house.
Chinese New Year kicks off on Saturday, Jan. 25, and with it, a slew of traditions that are meant to bring good luck, wealth, and abundance into the new year. It’s also an incredibly hectic time for Boston’s Chinese restaurants — both in Chinatown and elsewhere — with many places adding auspicious items like whole fish or holiday pastries to their menu.
These four local chefs and restaurant owners grew up celebrating Chinese New Year, and have incorporated special dishes and traditions into their own restaurants in honor of the new year. From whole fish platters to pastries meant to bring prosperity, here’s how some of your favorite Chinese restaurants — and the chefs and owners behind them — are participating in the Year of the Rat.
Gloria Chin, co-owner of Bao Bao Bakery and Double Chin
Chinese New Year is one of the busiest times of year for Bao Bao Bakery and Double Chin. Owned by Gloria Chin and her sister, Emily Chin, the eateries are in the path of Chinatown’s annual Chinese New Year parade, which draw in hungry revelers in search of baked goods and Double Chin’s famous cube toast.
Gloria, who grew up Brookline and Chinatown, remembers fervently cleaning her house on Chinese New Year’s Eve to bid farewell to the old year and usher in the new one with a clean slate. She also remembers cleaning with citrus.
“I think they were pomelos,” she recalled. “They were twice the size of grapefruits, and it had a really thick [rind]. We would shower like we normally do, and then we would use that peel to rub on our body.”
Citrus plays an integral role during the holiday, promising luck, wealth, and prosperity; along with red envelopes, they’re often given as gifts when visiting family and friends.
“And Ferrero Rocher,” Gloria added. “I don’t know if this is an American-adapted tradition, but Ferrero Rocher is a part of Chinese New Year. Maybe because of the golden wrapper?”
While Double Chin won’t be offering any specials this year, Bao Bao Bakery will sell a handful of pastries throughout the holiday, including Fa Gao, a cupcake-like pastry who’s name plays on the sound of ‘fa,’ which can mean both “to rise” and “be prosperous.” Nian gao — a gluten-free pastry that is also known as Chinese New Year cake — will also be available, in addition to more decorative cakes boasting bold red and gold accents.
While Gloria said that she’s lost touch with some of the traditions she followed as a child, she still leaves at least one light on overnight in her restaurants when heading into the new year, a practice that she said goes hand in hand with settling your debts as the year comes to a close.
Irene Li, chef/co-founder of Mei Mei
At Mei Mei, Li’s Chinese-American restaurant in the Fenway/Kenmore neighborhood, you’ll often find locals gathered around tables on the weekends, pinching together dough during the eatery’s dumpling classes. So when asked about her own Chinese New Year traditions while growing up in Brookline, it makes sense that Li focuses on dumplings.
“In our family, we definitely did a lot of cooking together and convening people,” she recalled of the holiday. “Of course, dumplings were a huge part of that — getting everyone together at the house, putting a big bowl of dumpling filling in the middle of the table. Everyone folded dumplings, and then we cooked some of them and we froze some of them — so at the end of the party you’ve got a bunch of dumplings in your belly, and then you could take home frozen ones for later. That’s kind of like the best party concept ever.”
Though Li’s parents met in Boston’s Chinatown while working at a community health center, the chef said her family didn’t have much of a connection to the neighborhood. Instead, her parents would take a day off during Chinese New Year and come to Li’s school, making dumplings with her classmates or teaching everyone calligraphy.
“I’ve always appreciated the holiday as an opportunity [to learn] something educational about Chinese culture,” she said.
This year, Mei Mei will host a couple Chinese New Year-themed dumpling classes, and plans to offer whole steamed fish — a sign of abundance — from Red’s Best.
Can’t make it to one of the dumpling classes? Stop by one of Mei Mei’s dumpling pop-ups at Lamplighter Brewing on Feb. 2 and 12 and March 26 and 27, when Li says they’ll be “exploring what doing more dumpling-centric production looks like.”
Brian Moy, owner of Ruckus, Shōjō, and Shōjō at Boston Logan International Airport
Ham hocks with black moss. A whole fish. Fried sesame balls with lotus cakes.
These are some of the dishes Moy remembers from his childhood Chinese New Year celebrations, a time when his family would gather at his grandmother’s house where she had prepared a feast inspired by dishes from her hometown in Guangzhou, China.
“Towards the last couple years of her life, we started to realize that the dishes she makes, you can’t find anywhere,” Moy said. “It’s only grandmothers and people like that that make them.”
Moy started spending more time with her in an effort to learn her signature dishes: A soft, pudding-esque daikon cake covered in diced Chinese sausage, Chinese bacon, mixed vegetables, and turnips; and sesame dumplings made with tapioca flour.
Today, Moy continues some of the traditions from his childhood — including the preparation of both a Buddhist altar and an altar devoted to his ancestors — but he has also adopted traditions from his wife, who is Vietnamese.
“It’s funny how two different cultures that share so many similarities also have some separate things [when it comes to] food,” he said. “For instance, my mother-in-law makes a certain dish [for Tết, Vietnamese New Year]. It’s a sticky rice and it’s coated with mung bean and Vietnamese ham, and the key is that every single grain of sticky rice needs to be coated with the mung bean.”
For the next two weeks, Shōjō will offer a handful of special dishes, including Shanghai-style braised pork belly with XO congee, crispy leeks, and mustard greens; and spicy rice cakes with lobster, Chinese bacon, and bok choy. The pork belly is a riff on a Vietnamese dish that Moy was introduced to, while the spicy rice cakes are an homage to a brown sugar sticky rice cake dish that his mother, who is from Taiwan, made for Chinese New Year.
Both are intended to provide good luck and prosperity for the new year — which bodes well for Moy, who plans on opening a new concept underneath Ruckus in the spring. Details are still being sorted out, but Moy shared that his vision is to create an Asian-stye diner for breakfast and lunch during the day and a cocktail bar at night, one that works as an incubator for local talent who are hoping to open their own bar in the future.
Ivan Yuen, chef at Red 8
One of the 15 restaurants and bars to open at Encore Boston Harbor last year, Red 8 blends traditional Chinese cuisine with Western techniques — a melding of cultures that Yuen developed during his previous role as chef de cuisine at Shanghai Terrace, a fine-dining Chinese restaurant at Chicago’s The Peninsula hotel.
Growing up in Guangzhou, China, Yuen’s cooking was largely informed by his grandmother, who cooked dishes native to the south. She was also in charge of the majority of the cooking over Chinese New Year, serving abalone, whole chickens, pork feet, and fried oysters.
“She cooked a lot of dumplings,” he said, explaining how the table would fill with dozens of small dishes to snack on before dinner. “Everybody would talk together, share bites, and small snacks. I would [help with the] prep and then I’d watch on the side.”
In addition to a ceremonial dragon dance performance on Jan. 26, Red 8 is currently offering a special Chinese New Year menu until the end of January, with à la carte items that touch on Yuen’s childhood, like braised pork feet with sea moss and abalone with oyster sauce. A double boiled fish maw soup is cooked almost like a consommé, featuring a clear broth filled with mushrooms, Chinese herbs, and cognac. In the spirit of the family-centric holiday, Yuen has also come up with a Yu Sheng salad, made with raw seafood, peanuts, sesame, and plum vinaigrette and designed to be assembled as a group at the table.
“It’s a good idea to get people together,” he said.