I was born in Taipei, but I grew up in small-town Missouri, where my name and culture triggered many conversations among my classmates. That experience may, in part, be at the root of my pathological instinct to help non-Asians who look lost or overwhelmed while shopping at an Asian grocery—especially around Chinese New Year. For 2016, the eve of Year of the Monkey falls on February 7, and that’s when Asian families will gather for what’s called the reunion feast. But over the past few years, I’ve noticed that many non-Asians are shopping at my usual haunts for their own celebrations. This feast, anchored by traditions and symbolism, somehow has inspired new cooks to step into the world of 100 soy sauces and a tofu tapestry more complex than one might imagine.
I’ve also noticed that non-Asian groceries have started marketing Chinese New Year to their shoppers, too, offering themed flower arrangements or decorations. Greeting card companies now sell red zodiac or “double happiness” cards with gold accents. Even Estée Lauder cosmetics offers a $150 “Year of the Monkey” gold compact, encrusted with crystals.
What has caused this shift in awareness? According to the 2010 Census, from 2000 to 2010, the Asian population was the fastest-growing racial and ethnic group in Seattle at 14 percent (after whites, at 69 percent). More Asians mean more people are celebrating Chinese New Year. There also has been an influx of Chinese tech workers, as well as investors from China snatching up real estate. I work in South Lake Union and I often see clusters of Chinese software engineers standing in line at food trucks or at On the Fly—formerly the Flying Fish seafood eatery, now a Chinese buffet. According to the Washington State Department of Commerce, our state exports more products to China than any other state in the country. This is likely one reason why China’s President Xi Jinping’s visit to Seattle last September generated such interest from the business sector.
When I was the food editor at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, one of the most meaningful ways I found to convey a culture and cuisine was to write about holidays. I believe Chinese New Year has become a “gateway holiday” that bridges the uninitiated with the myriad traditions and rituals that bind not only billions of Chinese around the world, but also the many other Asian cultures that observe the holiday. Participating in the New Year’s Eve feast is a sumptuous immersion course in food and symbolism:
Dumplings represent wealth; long noodles represent longevity; whole fish symbolizes continued good fortune; tangerines and pomelos are for wealth and luck; glutinous rice cakes represent success. Serving a selection of meats, poultry and seafood stir-fried, steamed or braised demonstrates abundance.
If you’re attending a Chinese New Year dinner as a guest, consider bringing a bowl of mandarin oranges, especially if the stem and leaves are still attached, because they represent a long life. Or bring a traditional candy platter, which often includes eight types of candied fruit or seeds and is symbolic of good fortune. Chinese markets, such as Asian Food Center in North Seattle, typically stock them during the holiday season. Orchids are appropriate, too, because they convey wealth and good fortune. Do beware of flower arrangements you might find at a non-Asian shop. I once saw potted chrysanthemums from a local high-end market that included a red envelope as decoration and a pair of chopsticks standing vertically in the soil. Red envelopes can be used as decorations, but typically are used to give money (new bills) to children to wish them longevity. However, chopsticks standing straight up in a bowl of rice—or a pot of soil—symbolize death. Did I mention the “pot” was a Chinese takeout box?
Insert grimace emoji here. Stick with an orchid.
Another revealing indicator of interest in Chinese cooking is the rate at which my classes sell out at Hot Stove Society (hotstovesociety.com). People are eager to learn how to stir-fry or make dumplings from scratch, and, importantly, how to shop.
Technically, your nearest chain grocery store offers many of the basics you need to make a Chinese meal. But the choices for
Asian produce, specialty cuts of meats, condiments and other pantry items will be quite limited or nonexistent—and you’ll pay more. A hundred soy sauce choices may appear to be overkill, but consider how many countries there are across Asia. Each cuisine has its own take on soy sauce. (I offer a soy sauce tasting bar in my cooking classes, and people are always amazed by the range of flavor profiles.) Likewise, each market in the Seattle area has its respective cultural origin. The key to navigating them is knowing what language each speaks. Literally.
All of the Asian markets overlap on core staples, such as fresh produce, live seafood, fresh meats, noodles and rice, soy sauce and condiments. But each has a cultural perspective. For example, Asian Food Center and 99 Ranch Market are Chinese. Uwajimaya is Japanese. H Mart is Korean. Viet Wah is Vietnamese, and Seafood City is Filipino. You have to set your compass according to the cuisine.
Making sushi or shabu-shabu? Head to Uwajimaya for the most complete selection of ingredients. Uwajimaya is also where I go for Kurobuta ground pork, which has good flavor and marbling, to use in the filling for dumplings, a staple at the holiday table. Uwajimaya also offers wagyu beef, which I splurge on for special occasions.
Serving kalbi or making kimchi? H Mart offers a mind-boggling selection of thinly sliced short ribs for tabletop grilling and kimchi components.
Want to make a Chinese New Year feast and get holiday accoutrements? I usually shop at Asian Food Center or 99 Ranch in addition to Uwajimaya. At Asian Food Center, I can find, for example, my favorite Asian vegetables in small, medium or large sizes. Small baby bok choy is ideal for serving whole; wholeness is an important sentiment to acknowledge at Chinese New Year.
I also can find chile bean sauce from Pixian in the Sichuan province, which is essential for making ma po tofu—a favorite at my family’s gatherings. 99 Ranch stocks my favorite Kimbo brand of dried tofu. “Kim” and “bo” also happen to represent the characters for gold ingot, another auspicious symbol for Chinese New Year. A plus of the one-stop shop: The selections of decorations and red envelopes for giving “longevity” money to my kids and their cousins are more extensive at these Chinese markets.
Chinese New Year marks a time of renewal and togetherness. As I attend to my own holiday list, I will attune my peripheral vision to my fellow shoppers. The more guests we can seat at our collective feast table, the more auspicious our future will be as neighbors.
Asian Food Center
(North Seattle, 13200 Aurora Ave. N, 206.367.1229; Bellevue, 14509 NE 20th St., 425.643.8558; afcwa.com)
99 Ranch Market
(Edmonds, 22511 State Route 99, 425.670.1899; Kent, 18230 E Valley Hwy., at the Great Wall Mall, 425.251.9099; 99ranch.com)
(Chinatown/International District, 600 Fifth Ave. S, 206.624.6248; Bellevue, 699 120th Ave. NE, 425.747.9012;
(Lynnwood, 3301 184th St. SW, 425.776.0858; Bellevue, 100 108th Ave. NE, 425.990.8000; Federal Way, 31217 Pacific Hwy. S, 253.528.0500; hmart.com)
(Chinatown/International District, 1032 S Jackson St.; 206.329.1399; vietwah.com)
Seafood City Supermarket
(Tukwila, 1368 Southcenter Mall, No. 100; 206.316.4258; seafoodcity.com)
Find recipe ideas for your Chinese New Year’s feast here. Follow Hsiao-Ching Chou at her blog, Chinese Soul Food (mychinesesoulfood.com).