February 19, 2015 marked the first day of the Lunar New Year, or the Spring Festival as it is known in China. While it is still very much winter here in Ithaca, there were still many of us that found our own ways to celebrate Lunar or Chinese New Year. After living in Singapore, welcoming in the year of the sheep (or goat or ram) was quite different back in America. Although I never grew up celebrating Chinese New Year, I still found myself missing the general festiveness at this time of year, similar to how I felt while I was preparing to celebrate Thanksgiving in Singapore.
As my husband and I prepared to celebrate with the Singaporean traditions that were special to us, we also wanted to celebrate with our friends, both American and international students alike. The solution ended up bringing together a variety of people and traditions that one might only find in an eclectic college town like Ithaca. After much collaboration we held a pan-Asian Lunar New Year Party with a collection of cooks and their dishes representing China, Singapore, Thailand, South Korea, Taiwan, and Asian American communities. For our contribution, my Singaporean husband prepared yu sheng and Foochow ang chow chicken from our home fermented ang chow. After some research and experimentation I attempted to reproduce Singaporean pineapple tarts and cashew cookies, while also taking charge of decorating with some homemade lanterns and oranges.
After all of the planning, recipe research, tracking down ingredients and finally cooking, I realized how this gathering was much more than just celebrating a common holiday. The dishes also were not just friends’ family recipes. This was instead a group of friends sharing food and traditions that were shaped by the tastes and cooking skills acquired throughout their entire life.
While some of these friends grew up preparing these dish others of us only recently tried to cook certain items that our families once made. It was in the middle of these experiments, often far from their origin, that we learned from those near us. For example if it was not for our experimentation with fermented red yeast rice (ang chow), we would not have befriended the Foochow women at our favorite Asian grocery store.
If I look closer at our menu for that evening I could see how the lines of culture were not simply defined, but were influenced by each person’s journey and their heritage. For instance my pineapple tarts consisted of a buttery pastry that is probably easier to make in the humid climate of Singapore. In the end though I adapted the recipe slightly for the dry winter in Ithaca using techniques taught to me by my American grandmother while making pie. The final result was a tart whose taste reminded me of celebrations with friends in Singapore while also reminding me of making pie with my grandmother as a child.
Finally this celebration was a reminder of how the places we live in shape our food memories. It is our cities that are composed of people from multiple backgrounds, trading a variety of ingredients and diverse cooking knowledge that create such foods and gatherings. As this group of friends will most certainly move away from Ithaca in the future, our Lunar New Year celebrations will also change with the coming years, each time effected by our present place, but also by our varying past. In the end each of our journeys will be filled with new places and new people, that will shape our New Years ahead.
The following books and essays about food, culture and immigration inspired this post. Enjoy!
- A Lunar New Year Reflection on Being Chinese by D. Tunas in Singapore
- Plus Six Five – A Singaporean Supper Club Cookbook, a story of Singaporean home chefs in London
- Breaking Bread: Recipes and Stories from Immigrant Kitchens
All photos were taken by the author.