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Eat your words: Chinese New Year foods send hopeful messages

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What is for dinner? Happiness and good fortune (available at Wazuzu), apparently.
Photo: Beverly Poppe
Jet Tila

Around this time every year, the Las Vegas Strip channels China for Chinese New Year. In case you were wondering why it’s not the same day annually, Chinese New Year is based on a lunisolar calendar, which relies on the positions of the sun and moon. So if someone asks, “When is Chinese New Year?” you simply say, “Duh. It’s in the second new moon after the winter solstice. Geez.” This year, that means it’s February 4.

The Chinese love homophones—words that are pronounced the same but have different meanings. For instance, the Chinese word for six, lui, is also the word for smooth. So you are wishing someone a smooth year if you give denominations of six. Eight is the homophone for lucky. Lucky number 7? Not in China. This homophony repeats itself in New Year’s foods. First and most important is fat choy, translated as “hair seaweed” or “hair moss.” Fat choy also means “huge increase in property or wealth.” Pair your fat choy with ho see (dried oysters), which also translates to “great news or great business,” and you’re eating ho see fat choy or hair seaweed and dried oysters that symbolize wealth and good business.

Health and prosperity soup, served at Wazuzu at Encore.

Other edible Chinese New Year homophones are lotus roots (lin ngau), which mean abundance year after year; lettuce, which translates to “growing wealth;” and pig’s tongue, which forecasts “profit.” At Wazuzu, I’m making dishes that incorporate all the esteemed symbolic foods. First are stewed pork trotters (yep, feet) over lettuce topped with hair seaweed—a meal that essentially says, may you grab an abundance of wealth and luck. My other dish is hair sea moss and dried oyster soup with pork tongue, which wishes you profit with great news and successful business.

They might sound strange, but these foods and their messages are taken seriously in Chinese culture. Working with older Chinese cooks at Wazuzu and making these traditional dishes that have been handed down for hundreds of years has been very special for me. In the past, I was too young or immature to truly appreciate the hours my grandmother would spend in the kitchen for the holiday. Now I understand and appreciate what these foods and traditions mean. They’ve brought me closer to my roots, my cuisine and my culture. Gung hei fat choy (happy new year), friends!

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