Kickstart the Year of the Rat with delicious—and symbolic—chicken and shiitake mushroom dumplings tumbled in tangy chile oil.

Andrea Nguyen
January 16, 2020
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Lisa Cassell-Arms

My Vietnamese family is Catholic, so our holiday season stretches from Christmas to Lunar New Year. My parents attend church on December 24 then we dine on Eastern and Western fare. A week later, I toast to Auld Lang Syne and ring in the solar new year.

But in all honesty, I'm never fully ready for the "new year, new you" concept until Lunar New Year rolls around. I joke that I'm too disorganized to close out the year by December 31, but my brain and emotions aren't ready for a true reset until Tết, the Viet term for Lunar New Year (Chinese customs heavily influenced those of Vietnam). It's part of my DNA and heritage. In 2020, I'm looking to start anew on January 25, when the Year of the Rat commences.

Don't Fear a Rat-Filled Year

If a rat-centric year rattles you, consider the characteristics of rats: they're loyal, hardworking, independent and smart. Lore has it that the Jade Emperor announced a race for the Heavenly Gate and invited 12 animals to serve as its guards. The order of each animal's arrive would determine the Chinese zodiac calendar. To get to the gate, the Rat cleverly hitched a ride on the Ox, but as they closed in on the finish line, the Rat jumped off the Ox and arrived first, becoming number one in the Chinese zodiac calendar. (In 2021, it'll be the Year of the Ox and following that will be the Year of the Tiger. You can read more on the ancient story on the website China Highlights.)

Rats are energetic and kind, but they can be stingy savers and poor communicators who may offend. There's always balance in the Chinese zodiac to remind you to reflect and not take things too seriously. No one is perfect.

Lisa Cassell-Arms

Feast for the New Year

Vietnamese people mark the occasion by saying "ăn Tết", which means to eat the Lunar New Year. Food is extremely important since the holiday fervor combines all the giddiness of Christmas, New Year, Easter, Thanksgiving and Yom Kippur. It was traditionally when all of Vietnam took time off from work to visit family, pay respects to ancestors, cook, drink and eat.

Given that, before January 25 arrives, I plan to tidy up the house, send out holiday greetings and make a mess of food. On the first day of Tết, I plan to relax (minimal cooking!), have fun (no work) and feast (eat!).

Though my annual Tết menu has been mostly Vietnamese, for nearly a decade, since I wrote my Asian Dumplings cookbook, I've included Chinese dumplings in my celebrations too. Dumplings are a big deal during Lunar New Year for people of Chinese descent, and I love to honor their traditions along with mine.

Dumplings are chockful of fun Lunar New Year symbolism. For example, the Mandarin Chinese term for dumplings is jiǎo zi, which people associate with a homonym for transition between the old and new year. That passage of time is important to Chinese culture. Additionally, the shape of dumplings mimics that of ancient gold ingots; eat more dumplings to invite prosperity in the new year! Finding a coin hidden inside your dumpling will bring you extra good luck.

All that aside, making and cooking dumplings is a great Lunar New Year activity. Dumplings can be filled many ways. My recipe for Chicken & Shiitake Dumplings in Tangy Chile-Oil Sauce (pictured above) features chicken—a symbol of prosperity, family unity and rebirth (serving a whole chicken during the holiday is popular in both Vietnam and China).

These dumplings may be panfried or steamed, but I like to poach them because you can cook off a large batch and tumble the dumplings in a zippy sauce. That translates into less work and a faster path to eating lots of dumplings—just what a genius rat would plan to usher in a new year.

Andrea Nguyen is a James Beard Award-winning cookbook author. Her latest book is Vietnamese Food Any Day: Simple Recipes for True, Fresh Flavors.

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