How Grace Young Is Celebrating Lunar New Year
The 2022 JBF Humanitarian of the Year is filling her home with lucky bamboo, bright citrus, and nian gao cake.Alyse Whitney
January 19, 2023
You may have already shelved the menorah or taken the Christmas tree down, but the holidays are far from over. This Sunday is Lunar New Year, which marks the beginning of the lunar calendar year and the first new moon of the year. Celebrated widely by many Asian cultures, there are myriad different traditions which include foods and objects that signify good fortune.
Grace Young—multi-award-winning cookbook author, Wok Therapist, and 2022 James Beard Foundation Humanitarian of the Year—is foregoing cooking this year as she partners with JBF, the MTA, and NYC & Company on a #SupportChinatowns social media campaign. “Normally I cook the New Year feast, but for the Year of the Rabbit I’m going to swing through Chinatown and buy dishes from different restaurants to support as many businesses as possible. The goal is to remind everyone that America’s Chinatowns continue to suffer from reduced foot traffic, and that without our support, we could lose them,” Young explains. “Lunar New Year is the perfect time to visit your local Chinatown, dine in the restaurants and shop in the markets and stores. Then post a photo or video on your social channels and use the hashtag #SupportChinatowns.”
As a Korean American adoptee who only started celebrating Lunar New Year officially a few years ago, I still have so much to learn about traditions across Asian cultures. I asked Young for her personal bucket list for the holiday. Below, she shares some of her favorite spots in New York City to eat and pick up red envelopes and Year of the Rabbit décor, as well as how she decorates and indulges just like her mom did before her.
1. Decorate With Flowers and Bamboo to Increase—or Change—Your Luck
“It’s traditional to buy flowers like peach blossoms and narcissus to decorate the home with the hope that the flowers will bloom on the first day of the New Year, a sign that the year will be full of good fortune. I like to buy lucky bamboo at G&J Florist. They sell spiral bamboo which is said to change your luck if you’ve had a bad year. The straight bamboo will boost or increase your luck. My mother also always had a centerpiece of oranges, tangerines, and a pomelo with an envelope of lucky money, and I continue that tradition. I always look for tangerines that have bright green leaves and stems. The centerpiece is a beautiful reminder of my parents. And if you’re looking for festive Chinese red envelopes, lucky knot charms, and special decorations, go to Grand Tea & Imports, which also has an online store.”
2. Eat Nian Gao Cake
“When I was growing up in San Francisco, my mom would only buy the nian gao—the special New Year’s cake—at Eastern Bakery, Chinatown’s oldest bakery (opened in 1924). But this year one of my favorite bakeries in Manhattan’s Chinatown, Kuih Cafe, is making a Malaysian-style nian gao. The owner Veronica Gan caramelizes sugar in the French tradition rather than using Chinese sugar, and then she cooks the cake wrapped in banana leaves. She’s only open January 20–21, and I can’t wait to try it. If you get one, you have to cut the cake into thin slices, dip it in beaten egg and pan-fry it one or two minutes per side in a little oil. When you eat it, it’s warm with a mochi-like texture and rich, caramel flavor.”
3. Eat Abundantly in Chinatown
“Head to your local Chinatown and have a fun time eating some of the time-honored lucky foods for the Lunar celebration. On New Year’s you have to have a whole fish with the head and tail, symbolizing a proper beginning and end to the year. I love the steamed sea bass at Pings. They also serve kung pao shrimp, and shrimp represents liveliness and joy. Clams and scallops have a shape similar to ancient coins and symbolize wealth. I love the clams and black bean sauce or the scallops with garlic sauce at Hop Lee. If you’re in the mood for Shanghainese food, head to Shanghai Asian Cuisine where you can enjoy lion’s head, a delicious pork meatball that represents strength and bounty. They also serve the famous jiao-zi—boiled pork and leek dumplings—and pan-fried pork dumplings to bring prosperity. I also love the roast pork at Green Garden Village, which represents bounty and purification and is crazy good! The pork skin is crunchy and the meat is always tender and succulent. Or on New Year’s Day you can head to Jing Fong for dim sum. The spring rolls are eaten for prosperity, turnip cakes for prosperity and rising fortunes, shrimp dumplings for liveliness and joy, and finish with sweet sesame balls which portend expanding fortunes!”
4. Embrace Hope and Calm—and Wear Red
“It’s tradition to wear something new that’s red on New Year’s Day for good luck and to symbolize a new start. It doesn’t have to be a fancy outfit. I generally get a new scarf, gloves or even socks. The red color wards off evil spirits and bad fortune. This is the Year of the Rabbit and is supposed to be a year of hope and calm. We are leaving the Year of the Tiger. The tiger is a king among animals but is also ferocious and courageous. The rabbit is more lovable while still being clever and quick. I’m already feeling hopeful.”
Alyse Whitney is a food editor, recipe developer, and TV host (most recently seen as co-host and guest judge on Netflix's Easy-Bake Battle with Antoni Porowski and guest critic on Pressure Cooker). Previously, she was managing editor of Cravings by Chrissy Teigen, senior food editor at Rachael Ray Every Day, and associate editor at Bon Appétit. She is a Korean American adoptee who spent most of her life in New York, but now resides in Los Angeles with her rescue dog, Miso. She's always looking for a new dish to transform into a dip—and her next go-to karaoke song. Follow her on Instagram @alysewhitney.