Jason Wang, owner and CEO of Xi’an Famous Foods, is accustomed to small holidays. Even before adjusting to a worldwide pandemic made celebrating from a distance necessary, his Lunar New Year festivities were intimate. “My family [in the United States] is pretty small,” he told me recently by phone. “It’s basically just me and my father, so the two of us will usually get together and have a meal.”
Some years, there have been larger festivities. When he’s in China to visit extended family, he says he attends a lot more events; the family “will always get together to make and eat dumplings on Chinese New Year’s Eve.” Other years, he has celebrated with his girlfriend’s much-larger family in the States. But he says that “unless we get the vaccine for everyone by then, which isn’t looking likely,” they’ll have to forgo the big get-together this year.
Still, Wang will celebrate. He’ll make dumplings and noodles, as he usually does. In fact, he says the great thing about dumplings is that “if you’re making them just for yourself, you’re probably going to make too many to eat at once.” To freeze any extras, just line the folded dumplings up on a sheet tray and pop them in the freezer. When they’re frozen solid, transfer to a storage bag. Then you can cook your dumplings straight from frozen.
Wang also plans to make Longevity Noodles. “Unlike thick, wide biang-biang noodles”—the signature hand-ripped noodles served at Xi’an Famous Foods—each single portion of longevity noodles is “one long strand that can measure up to 30 feet.” Wang says these extremely long noodles hold special significance for Lunar New Year. Here’s how he plans to round out the menu to usher in the Year of the Ox:
Wang says this singular noodle strand (the recipe makes two portions) “is a representation of time passing.” At Lunar New Year, “we’re celebrating our continued health—our own longevity.” You serve the noodle “in one piece, with the toppings and the sauce, to honor that symbolism.” This recipe is Wang’s family’s take, he says, on “a type of pulled noodles that originated in Central Asia.” You can serve the noodles with a simple soy-and-vinegar noodle sauce, spiced with star anise, Sichuan peppercorns, fennel seeds, and ginger, or read on for Wang’s preferred pairing.
Wang says that you can eat the extra-long noodles with his restaurant’s famous Spicy Cumin Lamb (or any of the other proteins in his book), but he plans to serve his Lunar New Year noodles with Concubine’s Chicken. “Reminiscent of big plate chicken,” or da pan ji, Wang says, this family recipe is named after 8th century Tang dynasty consort Yang Guifei, one of the storied Four Great Beauties of ancient China, and a well-regarded lover of fine food.
To make the dish, you stir-fry sweet and hot peppers, potatoes, garlic, scallions, ginger, and spices with chunks of cornstarch-coated chicken. A dash of cooking wine and Pixian bean sauce (a fermented bean and chile paste) goes in, too. To serve, you toss the chicken and vegetables with the boiled noodles and a few fresh, crunchy things, including chopped celery and red onion. The recipe also calls for a splash of that aforementioned soy-and-vinegar noodle sauce. If you don’t want to make the whole sub-recipe for the noodle sauce, Wang says, you can take this shortcut: Just pour in a splash each of soy sauce and black vinegar. “You’ll miss out on some of the spicing from the noodle sauce,” he notes, “but it won’t mess up the taste of the dish.”
Dumplings are an important part of Lunar New Year, says Wang. Not just because making them is a great group activity that ends in having something delicious to eat; but because they’re also instrumental in a game his family used to play. “One dumpling would have a single peanut in the filling—or a piece of shrimp, or something different from the main filling.” This was “the special dumpling” and if you were lucky enough to choose it from the platter, you’d win a red envelope.
The tradition of handing out red envelopes filled with cash (most commonly from adults to children) on Lunar New Year is called yasui quian. “Literally translated, it means money for pressing down your age,” laughs Wang, “basically it means: here’s some money to make up for you getting older.”
These spinach dumplings are “a little fancier” than the average, says Wang, because they start with dumpling wrappers (also known as skins) that have been dyed green with the juice from spinach that’s been puréed and squeezed dry. “Some families get fancy with different ways of pleating, but our fanciness came in the form of having skins of all different colors.”
“We make pork dumplings with carrots and use the carrot juice to dye those skins a yellow-orange color, and we might have red or purple skins for another type of dumpling.” A colorful dumpling wrapper, Wang says, always “makes it feel festive.”
The spinach dumpling filling, which happens to be vegetarian, is made with the leftover spinach pulp (nothing goes to waste!), plus blanched carrots and bok choy, tofu, chopped rice noodles, ginger, and more aromatics and spices. You can fill the dumplings and boil them immediately, or fill them and freeze them to enjoy at some other date down the road. The boiling method for cooking them fresh or frozen is the same, Wang says, though it may take a few extra minutes if you start from frozen.