Lunar New Year 2009

January 26th, 2009 was Lunar New Year, the most important holiday in many Asian cultures (eg. Chinese, Vietnamese, Nepalese).  Although in Japan we celebrate New Years on January 1st, I still love to celebrate Lunar New Year. Any excuse for partying and traditional food is good by me!  During this celebration people wear red clothes, decorate with poems on red paper, and give children “lucky money” in red envelopes.  Red lanterns are hung and there is red and gold just about everywhere you look.  Red symbolizes fire, which according to legend can drive away bad luck. The firecrackers that go off are rooted in a similar ancient custom.

I was fortunate enough to be invited to join in the festivities with some Vietnamese friends.  We went to 2 temples in the San Gabriel Valley.  It was a lovely day for temple hopping, and I was impressed with the massive Hsi Lai Temple.

Chinese lanterns

Chinese lanterns

I couldn’t believe how many people there were!  There was so much excitement and happiness in the air, and it was so nice to be a part of this cultural experience.  The Hsi Lai Temple sits atop a hill and boasts spectacular views of the SG Valley.

Hsi Lai Temple

Hsi Lai Temple

At the main entrance to the temple, there was a small stall run by 2 ladies selling Dharma fortunes.  For $1 (hey, the Chinese will charge you for everything!) you can buy a small red plastic ball containing your fortune.  Sort of like a poor man’s fortune cookie.  Here is mine:

“In getting along with others, be amiable.

In business, be diligent.

In research, be serious.

In practice life, be detached.

Master Hsin Yun ”

Hmmmm…..gramatically incorrect Buddhist teachings.

After receiving blessings in the main temple, we set our lit incense sticks in the big incense burner.

Incense burner

Incense burner

Unfortunately, we got here later in the afternoon so all of the food stalls were out of food.  However, we did get a nice home cooked Vietnamese new years meal at our friend’s house.  It is tradition to eat a simple vegetarian meal in honor of this Buddhist holiday.

Vegetarian new years meal

Vegetarian new years meal

Our friend’s mother made us a wonderful curry dish with mushrooms and carrots.  It was light , not too thick, and wonderful over white rice.  The stir fry dish above is with bitter melon, bamboo shoots, and faux abalone made from gluten.  It was nothing even close to real abalone, and reconfirmed my general aversion to fake meats (eg. Tofurkey, imitation crab).  You just can’t substitute the real thing.  The faux abalone tasted like deep fried tofu, so it tasted good as long as I didn’t fixate on the fact that it was marketed as ‘abalone’.

The green roll to the left is banh chung, which is a traditional Vietnamese new years delicacy.  It is made with sticky rice, mung bean, and fatty pork bits wrapped and steamed in banana leaves.  We were initially presented with a vegetarian version of this dish in keeping with the spirit of new years, but our friend’s mother was kind enough to give us the real pork version, which was very flavorful.  We ate it with pickled vegetables which definitely enhanced the flavors of the fatty pork.

They say that the way you spend new years day will reflect how the rest of your year will go.  I spent the day with intentions of peace, happiness, and positive vibes- I hope 2009 will be a wonderful year for me!

Happy Year of the Ox!

Random trivia: Did you know that in ancient Egypt the new year was celebrated when the Nile river flooded?

Japanese New Years

It’s a tradition in Japan to eat a certain assortment of foods called ‘osechi’ on New Years Day.  It’s an assortment of all types of beans, fish, meats, and vegetables which all require a painstakingly long and elaborate preparation process.  Each type of food has a special meaning, so eating it will grant you that good fortune.  All of these foods are cooked in such a way as to last for a few days (not immediately perishable), so they can be eaten without refrigeration during the first few days of the new year.  This is so that people (well, women) can take a break from the kitchen and enjoy the new year.  As most Japanese cuisine goes, the food is just as beautiful to look at as it is to eat, and they are displayed in elegant lacquer boxes.

Osechi lacquer box

Osechi lacquer box

These boxes usually have 3 levels, each overflowing with lots of delicious food.

Let’s open the lid and look at the top level…

osechi level 1

osechi level 1

The little fish in the top corner are soy sauce stewed baby anchovies (tazukuri), and they symbolize good harvest.  The lobster in the middle is for extravagance, and it also symbolizes longevity, supposedly because long antenaes on the lobster make it look like an old man.  The black beans (kuromame) in the front symbolize diligence and living each day with humility.  The gold flakes are sprinkled on for that extra ‘bling’ effect.  The yellow wedges above that which look like orange wedges are pickled herring roe, or kazunoko, which symbolize fertility.

The second level…

Osechi level 2

Osechi level 2

The seaweed wrap in the upper right hand corner symbolizes happiness and joy.  The orange and white stuff in the blue bowl in the front is pickled radish and carrots- supposed to symbolize and celebrate the white and red of the Japanese flag.  On the left is sake steamed abalone, a popular delicacy in osechi.

The bottom level…

Osechi level 3

Osechi level 3

Interestingly, the cooked lotus roots symbolize a good future, because you can look straight through all of those holes right into the future.  Every little item in these boxes are made with a certain intention- whether to bring wealth, longevity, good fortune, or to promote health and happiness.

This is a wonderful Japanese New Years tradition that most families celebrate.  After we eat this food, we drive over to the shrine and get our blessings for the new year.

Happy New Year!

Random trivia:  Did you know that lobster blood is colorless (clear) and flavorless?