While I always enjoy any Chinatown visit in any city anywhere in the world, I always enjoy visiting Manhattan or Flushing Chinatown during the Lunar New Year period because it makes me happy and reminds me of home. I love seeing all the Lunar New Year flowers, tassels, red envelopes and decorations everywhere (even when I’ve never bought these things, the sheer sight of them gets me excited). I love seeing the different zodiac sign and its caricatures everywhere; this year, it’s the dragon, and there are so many beautiful pictures, signs, paintings, and red envelope designs with the dragon sign on them that you can purchase. It’s also fun to see all the seasonal specialties being sold at bakeries, whether it’s deep-fried sesame balls filled with red bean paste or black sesame paste, fa gao (these cupcake-sized mini sponge cakes that split on the top and are symbolic of good luck and prosperity), nian gao (sweet sticky rice cake usually topped with red dates and white sesame seeds), and all the “trays of togetherness,” — big, round trays filled with various Chinese candies, meant to bring in “sweetness” for the new year. Okay, I’ll be honest: those trays of togetherness are fun to see and are fun to present as gifts because they do appear quite grand. But ugh, I always was so sad when I was little, hoping one of the candy varieties would be something delicious; instead, they were mostly overly sweet, chalky, weirdly chewy things that I never understood anyone could actually enjoy eating. Instead, now I am seeing “updated” or “modern” trays of togetherness that are no longer plastic trays, but wooden trays, filled with homemade, handmade candies… and cost a small fortune. But hey, if you want high quality food and gifts (trays) that last, why not spend the money on these because it will help pave the way to good luck and prosperity for the new year!
This is the first year since… I can’t even remember, when I’ll be hosting a Lunar New Year meal once again, and I’m pretty excited. I’ve already outlined my menu, and I bought a good chunk of the ingredients I’d need for it tonight. That also meant it was like carrying bricks home on my back and shoulders this evening. And it’s not the last Chinatown haul needed, as I’ll need to make at least one more trip closer to the date for fresh produce closer to the date (February 17). But when you think of all the labor and time that goes into devising menus, outlining what ingredients you need to buy and from where, going out to actually get all the ingredients, then organizing everything and cooking, it is no wonder most people today forgo the entire home cooking effort and just outsource everything, whether it’s ordering all this food as takeaway and eating it at home, or just going out for a good new year meal. The sad part about all that, though, is that this means no one would be able to fully comprehend the love, effort, and skill that goes into making these very special dishes. And what is the fun in that?