These days many diners are attracted to food with a story. The Asian Lunar New Year — a holiday that anticipates the coming spring and is celebrated in China, Japan, Korea and Vietnam —is loaded with symbols, celebrated through eating, intended to bring good fortune in the year ahead.
On Jan. 23, the Chinese will usher in the year 4709, which on their 12-year zodiac cycle is a year of the dragon, symbolizing intensity, enthusiasm, vitality, leadership and strength.
Lucky foods eaten during the 15-day festival include noodles for longevity, peanuts for auspicious new beginnings, spring rolls for prosperity, dumplings for wealth, whole fish for abundance, melons for health and family unity, pork for strength, sweets for happiness, and oranges and other citrus for several reasons.
Restaurants across the United States are serving up many such dishes, and a number of them also are handing out hóng bāo, red envelopes traditionally containing money, but in this case containing gift certificates to be redeemed on their next visit.
P. F. Chang’s China Bistro is doing just that during the celebration. From Jan. 23 through Feb. 6, each guest will receive a red envelope to be opened by a manager or server on their next visit. The gift certificates must be redeemed by March 4. P. F. Chang’s is also offering a promotional Dragon Punch cocktail featuring Chinese beer, vodka infused with dragon fruit and Sriracha sauce.
Casual-dining Chi Dynasty in Studio City, Calif., also will hand out red envelopes with $8 in “Chi Bux” to be used at a future visit. Its celebration will feature a lion dancer, Chinese drummers and red paper lanterns in their parking lot.
The eight-unit Big Bowl chain, based in Chicago, is starting its celebration early, on Jan. 19, with specials such as shrimp and chive dumplings in a fiery sauce meant to represent a dragon. They also will serve a Cantonese-style lobster, as the Chinese word for lobster translates as “dragon shrimp,” and because lobster also is eaten for abundance. Almond cookies, representing gold coins and thus good fortune, will be served, along with spicy peanuts.
On Jan. 20, the Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises subsidiary will host a “good luck gamble” for each table to roll a pair of dice. Whatever number comes up, that number of dollars will be deducted from the check.
On Jan. 22, all guests will receive a hóng bāo with a $10 or $25 gift certificate or gift card for a free appetizer, dessert, housemade ginger ale or bottled Big Bowl sauce. Children will get a hóng bāo with a $1 bill.
Finally, on Jan. 23, a free dinner, dine-in only, will be provided to anyone born during a year of the dragon: 1928, 1940, 1952, 1964, 1976, 1988, 2000 and 2012.
Panda Express has relaunched its firecracker chicken breast as a limited-time offer from Jan. 4 through Feb. 15.
The spicy dish features wok-fried red and yellow peppers and spicy black bean sauce. Facebook fans of the quick-service chain will get a coupon for a free serving of the dish on Jan. 23.
Wolfgang Puck helped legitimize Chinese as fine-dining food in the United States with his restaurant Chinois on Main, and several of his restaurants are celebrating the New Year with specials.
His WP24 Restaurant and Lounge at the Ritz-Carlton, Los Angeles, is offering a $16 Dragon Fire cocktail, made with muddled jalapeño, añejo tequila, orange liqueur, grapefruit juice, lime juice and simple syrup, served in a Martini glass with a salted rim and garnished with sliced jalapeño.
Puck’s The Source in Washington, D.C., is featuring a $125-per-person menu from Jan. 23 through Feb. 3, featuring dishes that represent the five Chinese “elements” of fire, water, wood, earth and metal.
Fire is represented by wok-fired lobster dumplings with XO chile sauce. The water course is a roasted loup de mer with preserved lemon and black pepper sauce. Next is an applewood smoked Peking duck with Chinese mustard and duck fried rice. For earth, chef Scott Drewno is preparing Szechuan pepper crusted filet with wok-fired “longevity noodles.” Metal comes with the dessert course: golden pineapple sticky cake with black pepper ice cream and a gold dusted chocolate talon.
The 26-property Destination Hotels & Resorts is launching a new culinary program for the Chinese New Year called “Destination Dish.” Each month, every hotel will highlight one “seasonally relevant” ingredient, starting with a lucky citrus fruit, the kumquat.
Koi in Evanston, Ill., will feature a traditional Lion Dance on Jan. 21, and from that night through Jan. 26 will feature a Good Luck Menu with items such as Szechuan won tons with peanut sauce, lychee chicken — chicken for prosperity, lychees for family harmony — beef with bamboo shoots — because “bamboo shoots” in Chinese sounds like “wishing that everything would be well” — and seafood pan-fried noodles. Additionally, the restaurant’s signature Dragon Maki sushi roll will be offered for $5 on Jan. 23 instead of the usual $12.95.
Foumami, an independent quick-service restaurant in Boston that makes sandwiches in thick Chinese pancakes called shaobing, will offer a La Long, or spicy dragon, sandwich of pulled pork rubbed and braised in a lucky red-colored spicy Chinese barbecue sauce topped with red cabbage and scallions and drizzled with a spicy jalapeño-based sauce. It also will be serving a longan melon soda, since melon promotes family unity and the Chinese word for longan translates as “dragon eyes.”
Many restaurants also follow the custom of giving to charity during the season.
Big Bowl will donate up to $5,000 to the Make-A-Wish Foundation from sales of its seasonal blood orange ginger ale.
Panda Express is offering its free Chinese New Year Learn with Me Program to elementary schools across the country. Geared for second through fourth graders, it teaches about traditional Chinese holiday celebrations.
Doc Chey’s Noodle House, based in Atlanta, is donating $2 for every purchase of its $12 Lucky Sampler trio to the Atlanta Community Food Bank. The sampler includes shrimp rolls, dumplings and peanut noodles.