clock menu more-arrow no yes
Chinese Togetherness Tray and Vietnamese Mut Tet Tray
A Chinese togetherness tray is a must-have this Lunar New Year
Shutterstock

Filed under:

The Ultimate LA Guide For What to Eat on Lunar New Year

Ring in the Year of the Ox with foods that bring luck and prosperity

The Lunar New Year — also known as Chinese New Year, Spring Festival, Tet Nguyen Dan, and Seollal — falls on February 12 this year and is celebrated by millions of people around the world, including those in China, Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Mongolia, Singapore, Vietnam, Malaysia, and here in Los Angeles.

Traditionally, celebrants return to their hometowns for 15 days to spend time with family, receive red envelopes full of money, and feast together. The celebration usually begins on New Years Eve, when many families come together for a reunion dinner to eat lucky foods in the hope of bringing prosperity and good fortune into the New Year. In many instances, what the dish’s name sounds like, how it’s prepared, or the way it’s served all adds an additional layer of auspiciousness to the dish.

Since food is the cornerstone of Lunar New Year celebrations, we’ve rounded up some of the holiday’s most essential dishes, shared a bit about the dish’s cultural significance, and provided details on where to find each dish in Los Angeles. Here’s to a lucky and prosperous Year of the Ox.


Niángāo (glutinous rice cake)

Niángāo (glutinous rice cake)
Niángāo (glutinous rice cake)
Shutterstock

Glutinous rice cake, or niángāo, is one of the most symbolic Lunar New Year dishes. Also translated as a “New Year cake,” niángāo is made of glutinous rice flour. The sweet variety, which hails from southern China, is the more popular version, and is made with sugar, sticky rice, chestnuts, Chinese dates, and lotus leaves. The savory version is typically stir-fried in dishes in Shanghainese and northern Chinese.

Glutinous rice cake symbolizes progress, advancement, and growth because the sound for niángāo in Chinese sounds similar to “getting higher year after year.” This can refer to children growing taller and stronger, students getting better grades, or achieving general success in the New Year. New Year cake is cut into small pieces, steamed, or battered in egg and pan fried. The texture is similar to that of mochi. Here’s where to find it:

  • Atlantic Times Seafood. 500 N. Atlantic Blvd., Ste. 200, Monterey Park, (626) 872-0388.
  • Phoenix Food Boutiques (multiple locations)
  • Domie’s Bakery. 7609 Garvey Ave., Rosemead, (626) 280-3085.
  • Kee Wah Bakery (multiple locations)
  • Huge Tree Pastry. 423 N. Atlantic Blvd., Monterey Park, (626) 458-8689.
  • Happy Bakery. 846 E. Valley Blvd., Ste. B, San Gabriel, (626) 308-3532.
  • Also available in Asian supermarkets like 99 Ranch, 168 Market, GW-Supermarket, and Thuan Phat.

Fó tiào qiáng (Buddha Jumps Over the Wall)

Buddha Jumps Over the Wall
Buddha Jumps Over the Wall
Shutterstock

Fó tiào qiáng, which literally translates to “buddha jumps over the wall,” is a traditional and expensive stew. The thick soup from Fujian, China dates back to the Qing Dynasty and is thought to have many health properties. The name derives from the legend that the dish was so good that even a vegetarian monk would jump over a temple’s walls just to taste it.

The dish is a delicacy made up of luxury ingredients and is high in nutrients and collagen. It takes up to two days to make it, with many additional hours in preparation time. Typically, the soup has dried abalone, dried scallop, dried shiitake mushrooms, dried mushrooms, scallops, fish maw, pork tendon, taro, quail eggs, bamboo shoots, ginseng, sea cucumber, red dates, Chinese wolfberry, Jinhua ham, and beef shank, to name a few. Ingredients can be interchanged depending on the season and what is available.

Buddha Jumps Over the Wall is most often served at banquets and important holidays like Lunar New Year. Preparing the dish is difficult and time-consuming since certain recipes use up to 30 main ingredients and more than 10 condiments. Jiang Nan Spring is offering its version of Buddha Jumps Over the Wall for the Lunar New Year in two sizes ($168 for the small size) and require diners to bring in their own vessel for the soup. Here’s where to find it:

  • Jiang Nan Spring. 910 E. Main St., Alhambra, (626) 766-1688.

Chinese Togetherness Tray and Vietnamese Mut Tet Tray

Chinese Togetherness Tray and Vietnamese Mut Tet Tray
Chinese Togetherness Tray and Vietnamese Mut Tet Tray
Shutterstock

Both Chinese and Vietnamese cultures consider togetherness trays quintessential to the Lunar New Year holiday. They believe that since many of the items in the trays are sweet, eating sweet foods will bring them good luck and success in the New Year. The Tray of Togetherness is a red Chinese candy box with usually six or eight compartments (since six symbolizes luck and eight symbolizes wealth) filled with different candied fruits, vegetables, snacks, and candies that all have symbolically auspicious meanings. The snacks featured are extra special since they are only sold this time of the year.

Dried candied lotus root signifies abundance year after year. Dried candied coconut signifies togetherness. Dried red watermelon seeds signify happiness for its red color and fertility or an abundance of offspring as the word for seeds is a homophone for children. Candied winter melon and ginger symbolize growth and good health. Dried pineapple signifies good luck or prosperity. Apples mean peace and harmony. Citrus fruits symbolize prosperity and wealth and peanuts symbolize longevity. Pistachios bring happiness since the Chinese translation literally means “happy nuts”.

Unlike Chinese Togetherness Trays, Vietnamese mut tet are typically divided into five compartments. Many of the meanings of the snacks are similar to the Chinese ones, but the Vietnamese trays feature different sweets. Vietnamese trays also have fried seeds like watermelon, lotus, sunlight flower seeds, and pumpkin, but they include candied fruits like soursop, preserved tamarind, candied wax gourd, banana candy with sesame and peanut, candied tomato, candied starfruit, candied ginger, and colorful candied coconut ribbons. Mut tet typically includes a sugar preserved jam in most cases, kumquat, as it symbolizes good fortune. Here’s where to find it:

  • Vua Kho Bo (multiple locations) sells a large selection of goods for DIY Togetherness Trays.
  • Nature Land (multiple locations in the San Gabriel Valley and Orange County) is offering build-your-own Togetherness Tray or mut tet.
  • Also available in Asian supermarkets like 99 Ranch, 168 Market, GW-Supermarket, and Thuan Phat.

Tāngtuán (glutinous rice balls) or Chè Trôi Nước

Tāngtuán (glutinous rice balls) or Chè Trôi Nước
Tāngtuán (glutinous rice balls) or Chè Trôi Nước
Shutterstock

Usually eaten on the last day of the Lunar New Year celebrations, known as the Lantern Festival, tāngtuán are sweet mochi rice balls that symbolize togetherness. Tāngtuán can have black sesame, red bean, and ground peanuts. There’s even an option that’s a bit boozy with fermented glutinous rice and dried osmanthus flower. The pronunciation of tāngtuán is very similar to a Chinese phrase meaning “being together and gathering with your family.”

Chè trôi nước is the Vietnamese version of the glutinous rice balls. It is made with a creamy mung bean paste and topped with sweet ginger syrup that’s been drizzled with coconut cream and lightly toasted sesame seeds for a dessert.

Here’s where to find tāngtuán:

  • Southern Mini Town. 833 W. Las Tunas Dr., San Gabriel, (626) 289-6578.
  • Jiang Nan Spring. 910 E. Main St., Alhambra, (626) 766-1688.

Here’s where to find chè trôi nước:

  • Hien Khanh. 8150 Garvey Ave., Ste. 117i, Rosemead, (626) 288-8128.
  • VK Tofu. 9210 Valley Blvd., Rosemead, (626) 288-1001.
  • Also available at Vietnamese sandwich shops like Banh Mi Che Cali

Luóbo gāo (turnip cake)

 Luóbo gāo (turnip cake)
Luóbo gāo (turnip cake)
Shutterstock

Turnip cakes are a staple in dim sum, but they are also a lucky Lunar New Year food. During the celebration, bakeries and restaurants make a larger version for sale than what’s available at dim sum parlors. Although it is a Cantonese food, the Taiwanese and Fujianese also eat this during the New Year since the pronunciation for turnip cake, cai tao gui, is a homonym for good fortune. The cakes can be eaten steamed or fried. Here’s where to find it:

  • Domie’s Bakery. 7609 Garvey Ave., Rosemead, (626) 280-3085.
  • Atlantic Seafood: 500 N. Atlantic Blvd., Ste. 200, Monterey Park, (626) 872-0388.
  • Phoenix Food Boutiques (multiple locations)

Banh Tet (cylindrical glutinous rice cake)

Banh Tet (cylindrical glutinous rice cake)
Banh Tet (cylindrical glutinous rice cake)
Shutterstock

Vietnamese banh tet is offered to the ancestral altar and then eaten by revelers afterward during the Lunar New Year celebration. It is typically in the shape of a cylinder and stuffed with glutinous rice, pork fat, mung bean seasoned with shallots and black pepper, and rolled into banana leaves, then boiled for many hours. After cooking, the leaves are removed and the cake is sliced into wheel shapes.

The rice cakes are served with pickled scallions, pickled vegetables, and fish sauce. Some people eat it steamed and others like to fry the cake so the result is chewy and crispy. You can also sprinkle sugar on top, or dip with chile and soy sauce for more umami taste. The cylindrical form of banh tet is popular in southern Vietnam whereas the squared shapes are prepared in the central and northern parts of Vietnam.

Although you can buy banh tet at markets and Vietnamese sandwich shops, some mom and pop restaurants like Sau Can Tho make their own from scratch. However, the true meaning behind this dish is to promote family bonding since making banh tet is time-consuming. Here’s where to find it:

  • Sau Can Tho. 8450 Garvey Ave. #103, Rosemead, (626) 307-8868.
  • Trai Cay Mien Tay. 9324 E. Garvey Ave., #D, South El Monte, (626) 452-8984.
  • Also available at Vietnamese markets and Vietnamese sandwich shops.

Lo hei

Lo hei
Lo hei
[Official Photo]

Lo Hei is a Cantonese tradition that has become popularized in Singapore and Malaysia. The name, which literally translates to “tossing up good fortune,” refers to the ritual where families gather around a plate during the Lunar New Year, mix and toss the ingredients while wishing each other lucky phrases before eating it. The tradition dictates that the higher the toss, the luckier the year ahead will be.

Typically, raw fish like salmon is the centerpiece of the dish. Other auspicious ingredients like carrots, pomelo, peanuts, sesame seeds, green and white radish, and crackers are drizzled with plum sauce. Although the traditional lo hei is hard to find in Los Angeles, Mr. and Mrs. Creamery created a sweet version of the New Year’s dish.

The Mr. and Mrs. Creamery’s version has eight lucky toppings with coconut sago dressing and crispy sugar noodles as the base. The 10 items together represent the Chinese lucky phase 十全十美, also known as “a perfect 10.”

The auspicious fruits chosen for their lucky meanings include red dragon fruit, golden pineapple, Korean rice crackers, Asian pear, oranges, sweet strawberry slices macerated in rosemary syrup, white dragon fruit, and blush pomelo. The set also includes two Pocky “chopsticks” so you can toss the dessert and say blessings in the spirit of lo hei.

  • Mr. and Mrs. Creamery. 146 W. Live Oak Ave., Arcadia. (323) 379-9276.

Good Luck Cookies

Good Luck Cookies
Good Luck Cookies
Shutterstock

Brittle horn cookie is a crispy peanut puff cookie. It is considered good luck because it is made in the shape of gold ingots that the ancient Chinese used for centuries as money. The cookies are topped with some dried coconut and sesame seeds. Chinese believe that eating these cookies bring good fortune.

Chinese smiling sesame cookie balls are a popular Lunar New Year snack. They are small crispy sesame-infused cookies with moist interiors that are supposed to bring a happy and prosperous New Year. The cookie gets its name from the way the dough ball cracks open when deep fried, which many think resembles someone laughing. Here’s where to find it:

Since cookies and pastries in the shape of gold ingots bring good fortune, Bistro Na’s is making fresh yuan bao crisp cookies. Made with black sesame, peanuts, walnut, and tangerine skin, which are auspicious ingredients, the cookies are meant to bring money in for the New Year.

  • Bistro Na’s. 9055 Las Tunas Dr., #105, Temple City, (626) 286-1999.

Tteokguk (rice cake soup)

Tteokguk (rice cake soup)
Tteokguk (rice cake soup)
Shutterstock

Lunar New Year in South Korea, known as Seollal, runs for three days. The Korean New Year is similar to a birthday, and eating tteokguk is part of the celebration. Once finished eating your soup, Koreans believe you are one year older.

Eating a bowl of it is said to bring a person a long life. Tteokguk is a savory soup made with a meat stock, vegetables, and rice cakes. The rice cake soup is very symbolic during the Lunar New Year as it represented long life and a bright New Year. The shape of the cakes resemble Korea’s old coin currency, yeopjeon, which is believed to symbolize prosperity. Here’s where to find it:

  • Yongsusan Restaurant. 950 S. Vermont Ave., Los Angeles, (213) 388-3042.
  • Seong Buk Dong. 3303 W. 6th St., Los Angeles, (213) 738-8977.

Spoon by H is also creating a special box with various auspicious foods for Seollal — the tteok guk rice cake soup is for good luck and a fresh start, the japchae symbolizes longevity, the galbijjim (braised beef short ribs) signifies wealth, and the dumplings are for good fortune.

  • Spoon By H. 7158 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles, (323) 930-0789.

Poon Choi

Poon Choi
Poon Choi
Shutterstock

Poon choi, which literally translates to “basin vegetables” in Cantonese, is a shared delicacy that is from Hong Kong and dates back seven centuries. Legend has it that when Emperor Bing of the Song Dynasty found himself near modern day Hong Kong/Guangdong area, the villagers wanted to pay their respects and feed the Emperor and his army by throwing in the most luxurious ingredients they could offer from their homes. However, due to the lack of containers, the villagers had to instead lay the prized ingredients layer by layer in a large bowl.

Poon choi is a dish that is only seen during big celebrations and during the Lunar New Year holiday. The dish symbolizes abundance in the coming year. The dish requires lots of preparation and is very time-consuming to make. The basin is assembled into a casserole where each item must be prepared separately and then layered into place. Although there are no set ingredients, there can be upwards of 15 ingredients depending on how lavish the poon choi is including barbecue pork, abalone, sea cucumber, lamb, beef, pigskin, bean curd, taro, turnip, and napa cabbage. Here’s where to find it:

  • Sham Tseng BBQ. 634 Garvey Ave., Monterey Park, (626) 289-4858
  • U2 Cafe & BBQ. 1200 E. Valley Blvd., Alhambra, (626) 282-1800.
  • Atlantic Seafood & Dim Sum Restaurant. 500 N. Atlantic Blvd., Monterey Park, (626) 872-0388.
  • Happy Harbor Cuisine. 736 E Valley Blvd., Alhambra, (626) 282-3838.
  • Sea Harbour. 3939 N. Rosemead Blvd., Rosemead, (626) 288-3939.
  • Ho Kee Cafe. 533 S. Del Mar Ave., San Gabriel, (626) 766-1076 and 558 Las Tunas Drive, Arcadia, (626) 766-1076.
  • Capital Seafood. 333 E. Huntington Drive, Arcadia, (626) 574-8889 and 755 W. Garvey Ave., Monterey Park, (626) 282-3318.

Fa Gao (fortune cake)

Fa Gao (fortune cake)
Fa Gao (fortune cake)
Shutterstock

Fortune cake is a Chinese cupcake-like pastry that is eaten for Lunar New Year. The top of the cake is split into multiple segments. The cakes are dense and gummy, as they are made mainly of rice flour. The name of the pastry “fa” means both “raised” and “prosperity (leavened)”, so “fa gao” means both “fortune cake” and “raised (leavened) cake”. These cakes are steamed and eaten to signify wealth in the New Year.

  • Domies. 7609 Garvey Ave., Rosemead, (626) 280-3085.
  • Huge Tree Pastry. 423 N. Atlantic Blvd., Ste. 106, Monterey Park, (626) 458-8689.
  • Tanbii Bakery, 8150 Garvey Ave., Ste. 104, Rosemead, (626) 280-2151.

LA Restaurant Openings

One of LA’s Top Cantonese Chefs Does Dim Sum Decadence in Arcadia

Awards

LA’s New Michelin Bib Gourmands for 2021: The Full Restaurant List

AM Intel

A New Vision Emerges at Sightglass Hollywood, 18 Months Into the Pandemic

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for the Eater Los Angeles newsletter

The freshest news from the local food world