Lucky Chinese Dishes in Los Angeles

Originally posted on Discover Los Angeles. To see the full post, addresses and all the photos, click here.

The Chinese New Year began on Jan. 31, 2014. It’s the start of the Lunar Calendar and the onset of the agricultural season. For the Chinese, this date is single-handedly the most important holiday of the year. It’s a 15-day soiree – a time of reunion, a time for family. Each day has a new theme. The first day is for lighting fireworks and bamboo sticks, the fifth day is for dumplings, and so on. The last day of the festival is called the Yuan Xiao Festival, reserved for eating tang yuan – a sweet rice ball stuffed with sesame paste, grounded peanuts or red bean. The common link for each day is food: the half-month is filled with an abundance of dishes. After all, food is the cornerstone of Chinese culture. Traditional dishes are steeped with symbolism – many of which are homophones for lucky phrases.

Here are ten auspicious Chinese dishes and where to get them in the greater Los Angeles area.

Fish — Chengdu Taste
The word fish (yu) in Chinese sounds like the phrase for “may the new year bring prosperity” (nian nian you yu). A whole fish is required, as it symbolizes unity within the family. Preparation methods differ depending on regions. The most common one is steamed fish – garnished with ginger and infused with a light soy sauce. But try Chengdu Taste’s lion fish on for size. The Monterey Park restaurant whips up an expertly fried tilapia, served amazingly intact and glazed with a sweet and spicy sauce. It’s quite a sight and a welcome addition to any Instagram feed.

Rice cakes — Shanghai No. 1 Seafood Village
Rice cakes (nian gao) come in both sweet or savory forms. The savory versions are more common; they’re usually shaped into thin disks and then stir-fried. The sweet ones, baked and stuffed often times with red bean, start appearing in local Chinese supermarkets exclusively around the holiday time. The word nian gao correlates to the phrase “increasing prosperity year after year (nian nian gao sheng).” Most Shanghainese restaurants around town sell the savory renditions. Shanghai No. 1 Seafood Village whips up a very traditional version sautéed with onions and leafy greens.

Dumplings — Luscious Dumplings
The dumpling (jiao zhi) is shaped like an ingot, which personifies wealth. They’re the hallmark of the fifth day of the Chinese New Year. It’s the birthday of the God of Wealth. The associated saying is gen shui jiao zhi, which means “ring out the old year and ring in the new.” Luscious Dumpling on Las Tunas Drive is a solid choice for fantastic homemade jiao zhis. According to popular legend, the more dumplings you eat during the new year, the more money you can accumulate in the upcoming cycle.

Noodles — Silk Road Garden
Noodles are a symbol of longevity, the longer the better. They’re usually served uncut. Head over to Rowland Heights’ Silk Road Garden for some of the lengthiest noodles the county has to offer. Silk Road is a Xinjiang specialist and their laghman noodles are strikingly long. They’re served with lamb, tomatoes, wood ear mushrooms and bell peppers.

Poultry — Sam Woo
A whole poultry is symbolic of unity and a harmonious marriage between families. Chicken or duck is usually served whole with the head and feet attached. Sam Woo sells whole duck by the dozens. The carcass is air-dried for hours until the skin is like paper and then glazed with a maltose sugar coating. This is the Cantonese method of preparation. You can order a whole duck for the family, or if you dine in, get it served cut-up accompanied with a wonderfully tasty sweet and sour sauce on the side.

Mustard Greens — Tofu King
Mustard greens (jie cai) are a standard vegetable dish for the celebration. They’re also known as chang nian cai, which translates to “perennial vegetables.” This vegetable is a symbolic proponent for longevity – the associated phrase is chang chang jiu jiu, which means “long life.” They can be found at any Chinese restaurant around town. Tofu King in Arcadia has a simple version, topped with a bit of minced pork for extra flavor.

Shrimp — Yunnan Garden
Shrimp is pronounced xia in Mandarian and ha in Cantonese. The words sound like laughter, so shrimp is consumed during the Lunar New Year in hopes of annual happiness. Spice lovers should head over to Yunnan Garden in San Gabriel, where whole shrimp is sautéed in a heaping of dry chili peppers. The sight is bound to cause even the most die-hard spice lovers some apprehension but it’s well worth it. Each bite is bursting with flavor.

Sweet rice balls — Emperor Noodle
These sweet rice balls (tang yuan in Southern China, yuan xiao in Northern China) are usually eaten during the last day of the celebration, when the full moon comes out. The glutinous rice balls are traditionally stuffed with sesame paste, grounded peanuts or red bean. The roundness of the rice ball is supposed to be indicative of a complete circle of harmony within the family. Emperor Noodle in San Gabriel serves a beautiful traditional tang yuan soup spiked with sweet rice wine and dried Osamanthus flowers. Order it for dessert, it’s an ideal way to top off dinner.

Turnip Cakes — Four Sea
Turnip cakes are embraced in Taiwan because the Taiwanese pronunciation for turnip cake (cai tao gui) is a homonym for a Taiwanese phrase of good luck, “hao cai tao.” These cakes are made from daikon radishes, steamed and then pan-fried on the sides. They’re typically found at your local dim sum eatery or at Taiwanese breakfast establishments. For a quick bite, head to Four Sea Restaurant, which has one of the largest selections of Taiwanese breakfast items in LA. Their turnip cake is made crispy on all sides and topped with a fried egg.

Spring roll — Lunasia
The Chinese word for spring roll (chun juan) literally mean “spring” and “roll.” The golden color of the fried spring rolls represent gold bars, which of course, symbolizes wealth. Most Cantonese dim sum restaurants carry the rolls on their menu. At Lunasia in Alhambra, the portion sizes are massive and the spring rolls are deep-fried and stuffed with a generous helping of shrimp.