More than 1.5 billion people celebrate Lunar New Year across the globe. Families in Hanoi sit down to bánh tét, couples in Busan pile plates with mandu, and children in Chongqing peek inside red envelopes full of money. In Portland, the same is true: Asian American families throughout the city bake cookies, fold dumplings, and braise pork belly in the days leading up to the holiday. Eater Portland talked to Portland chefs and restaurant owners about their Lunar New Year traditions, including the dishes they make, snacks they buy, and how they celebrate when family is far from here. Interview responses have been edited and condensed for clarity.
“When I was a kid growing up in New York City, our extended family would gather at the iconic Port Arthur restaurant in New York Chinatown for an elaborate banquet. It was a chance to catch up with cousins, aunts, and uncles. We feasted on roast squab, Cantonese fried chicken, long-life noodles, bird’s nest soup, Peking duck, whole steamed fish, fried rice, and lots of seafood. Without a doubt, it was the best meal of the year and a great way to kick off the new year. My home-cooked Chinese New Year meal is not nearly so extravagant, and the number of dishes depends on how much time I have to prepare. Most years, I might cook a whole poached or soy sauce chicken (symbolizes completeness or togetherness), braised pork belly, noodles (longevity), a steamed fish (abundance), sticky rice, known as nor mai fan, and winter melon soup. Some sort of dumpling or wonton is always present. These symbolize happiness, wealth, and family unity. It’s fun to have guests sitting around the kitchen table chatting and folding dumplings.” —Steven Chin, YaYa
“I’m Chinese, and the Lunar New Year has been the most important festival to me. We call it Chun Jie, which means Spring Festival in Chinese. Since I moved to Portland, I try to cook a Lunar New Year feast for my family including dumplings, braised pork belly (hong shao rou), and other stir-fried veggies. For snacks, we go to Fubonn or Asian Family Market to get some Chinese candies and snacks, like sunflower seeds, roasted peanuts, hawthorn candy.” —Jacky Ren, Bing Mi
“My family eats tteokguk every year. It’s a Korean rice cake soup. It’s sooo good!” —Andy Kim, Taste Tickler
“Every year we buy or make bánh tét, sticky rice with pork belly and mung bean that’s steamed. Once they’re steamed, then you can cut them — I love to pan fry them and you can eat them with pickled veggies. We also make a sweet version with bananas!” —Lisa Nguyen, HeyDay
“I have fond memories of Tết, but less of the food, and more of our traditions. My mother’s side is quite large, so we’d always have a gathering at her older sister’s house. There would be her 12 brothers and sisters, along with their families. Many members of my family married into Western households, so the food was often catered to them. I do, however, have memories of Mut being out, which is a little sample tray of different dried fruits, seeds, and nuts. My favorite was the watermelon seeds, eaten similarly to sunflower seeds. It’s not traditional, but my Aunt would always make asparagus crab soup. The older men would gather in the basement and play cards. My favorite part, of course, was receiving li xi, red envelopes with money. Each aunt and uncle would give the kids a red envelope full of “lucky money.” Sometimes there’d be a $2 bill, other times a $10, $20, or more. My aunt that hosted would have a table where all the red envelopes were laid out. When it came time to, she’d have the kids pick out one envelope each. One or two had a $100 bill, most had $10 or $20.” —Vince Nguyen, Berlu
“For Lunar New Year, my mom actually makes bánh tét and bánh chưng every year. She sells them around town and you can actually find them at House of Banh Mi now. Since it’s an extremely time-consuming process, my mom only makes them around this time of the year so we look forward to it every year. We fry them, sprinkle some sugar onto them, and enjoy the sweet and savory dish. I grew up with five older brothers, so the easiest and most efficient way to feed us all is by doing a DIY salad roll night — my mom would cut up thinly sliced beef, shrimp, and squid, and we would cook them on a tabletop pan. We would throw an entire stick of butter into the pan and cook up the meats and roll ourselves several salad rolls.” —Kim Dam, Portland Cà Phê
“Imlek is definitely the biggest holiday celebration in my family. The preparation starts weeks before the Lunar New Year. My family, especially my mom, loves to keep the tradition that has been passed down in our family for generations and make sure we all understand and preserve it. Days before imlek, we will start baking different kinds of cookies, including our favorites, kue nastar (pineapple jam cookies), kue salju (snow almond cookies), kue bangkit (sago starch cookies), lidah kucing (cat’s tongue), kastengel (Dutch cheese cookies), and many more. We usually received some cookies from friends and relatives as well. The biggest feast is definitely on Lunar New Year’s Eve, where all my family members gather and have a huge dinner party that my mom has been cooking all day. Our yearly imlek dinner celebration meal involves certain kinds of food, where each dish has its own meaning that usually represents good luck, prosperity, longevity, etc. Our usual imlek meal has Chinese influences from both my mother and father’s sides of the family, blended with Indonesian traditions. I always try to go back home during this time of year to celebrate Lunar New Year with my family in Indonesia, but since the pandemic, I wasn’t able to do it. I tried my best to recreate and do all my family tradition and celebrate it with Ross and friends in town.” —Feny, Wajan
Where to Celebrate in Portland
Lan Su Chinese Gardens: Daily events and celebrations, including lantern viewings and lion dance
When: 10 a.m. through 5 p.m. February 1 through 15, lantern viewings 6 p.m. to 8 p.m., February 3-6 and February 10-13
Address: 239 Northwest Everett Street
Bing Mi Dumpling and Noodle Bar: Grand opening party and Lunar New Year celebration
When: Tuesday, February 1, noon to 8 p.m.
Address: 2572 NW Vaughn Street
YaYa: White Lotus dragon and lion dance outside the restaurant
When: Saturday, Feb. 5 at 4 p.m.
Address: 1451 NE Alberta Street
Lunar New Year begins on February 1.