Happy Chinese New Year! Here’s What to Eat to Celebrate the Year of the Dragon

Some traditional Chinese new year eats and their meanings. Also, where to go tonight.
On the left, my parents’ gao; on the right, gao at Panya.


For the Chinese new year, my parents sent some nian gao, the requisite brown sugar sweetened sticky rice cake and some date and lotus seed candies. It’s their way of saying “Happy Year of the Dragon” and hurry up and have kids. (Of all the 12 animals in the Chinese zodiac, the dragon is the most prestigious. Every time the Year of the Dragon comes around, there’s a Chinese baby boomlet.)


The Chinese language is full of homonyms, which make for plenty of punny jokes, and for the new year, all the traditional eats are loaded with auspicious symbolism. The nian gao is always eaten around the new year because “nian gao” not only means sticky cake, but also to advance, year after year. Usually, the nian gao is topped with dates and sometimes filled with lotus seeds, or there might be a dessert soup with the two, symbolizing more children, a blessing for Chinese. The Mandarin Chinese word for date is a homonym for early, and lotus seed, or lian zi, sounds like the words continuous and children.


Theres almost always fish at a Chinese banquet, especially for the new year. Fish is pronounced similarly to reserve or leftover in Chinese, and by the time the fish course arrives, toward the end of dinner, everyones usually so full they cant finish it. But thats the point: a hope of abundance for the new year.


Last night, the eve of the lunar new year, was a big night for most Chinese restaurants, but theres still plenty more eating for tonight. Restaurants like Mings Chinese, Kirin, and Jade Dynasty Seafood still have open reservations.


Chinatown, of course, is always a go-to for nian gao, but Panya also makes a few nian gao variations: the traditional brown sugar cake, a coconut sticky cake, and a water chestnut nian ago thats more like a firm jello with chunks of sweet, crunchy water chestnuts. My favorite way to eat nian gao is to chill it overnight, then slice it and pan-fry it for a caramelized sugar exterior and oozy, sticky inside.


Gung hee fat choy!


Mings Chinese Restaurant, (808) 841-8889

Kirin, (808) 942-1888

Jade Dynasty Seafood, jadedynastyhawaii.com, (808) 947-8818

Panya, multiple locations, panyagroup.com


(Another homonym case in point: Chinese restaurant phone numbers tend to have lots of 8s, which sounds “fortune” in Chinese.)