In the South, Chinese New Year recipes had to adapt
Sally Chow always makes a Chinese sponge cake when she goes to a gathering of fellow Chinese Americans. And the Lunar New Year celebration is the biggest celebration of the year, bringing together family and friends in her hometown of Cleveland, Mississippi.
"It makes me feel good that I can carry on that traditional recipe," she said. "It's something that is Chinese and makes everybody feel good about their culture."
Chow, 75, is among Chinese Americans who have a long history in the South. Her grandfather came to the United States in the late 19th century. He eventually ended up in the Mississippi Delta, where like many Chinese immigrants in the Deep South he ran a small grocery store.
By the 1960s there were probably 2,500 Chinese Americans in the Delta area, said Chow's husband, Gilroy. Today, that number is closer to 500.
The Chows celebrate the Lunar New Year with fireworks. They wear red for good luck. And they eat.
"Because we live in rural Mississippi, we can't celebrate the way they do in San Francisco or New York with these large Chinese communities," she said.
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Over the years, the Chows and their ancestors adapted their food to their new home. Chinese ingredients were not always available, and they liked the flavors of the South.
"The menu is traditional, but with a little bit of Delta flair," Chow said of their New Year meals.
The Chows have added black-eyed peas to their own New Year tradition, although theirs has pigtails and star anise. And while Chow's mom, who arrived in the United States as an infant, made a few traditional Chinese desserts, she was more adept at cakes and apple pies.
"Mississippi was the highest concentration of Chinese immigrants, but they were also in neighboring states, like Arkansas and Tennessee, and New Orleans as well," said Larissa Lam, who directed the documentary "Far East, Deep South." The film charts the journey of Lam's husband, Baldwin Chiu, to discover his own family's history in Mississippi.
In the rural South throughout the 20th century, Lam said, Chinese families would travel from their small towns and gather at church halls for a major event like the New Year.
Some of the traditional treats of the New Year celebration were easy to recreate, like sponge cake or crisp almond cookies. Others required ingredients that were hard to find in small towns before online shopping.
"There is a lot of emphasis on food that's round or golden color because it looks like the moon or the sun," said Kristina Cho, author of the award-winning cookbook "Mooncakes and Milk Bread."
In Cho's Cantonese family, slices of citrus typically ended a meal rather than sweets. But around the New Year celebration, her grandmother always made fa gao, a steamed cupcake with a craggy top, that Cho would snack on.
Older generations, Cho said, would praise a baked good by declaring it "not too sweet." Today, as the younger generation's taste buds have changed, she thinks Chinese baked goods in the United States have gotten sweeter.
"Chinese bakers are constantly changing and evolving with the times," she said.
Shu Lan Tang, 39, is a more recent immigrant to the South. When her family arrived in Siloam Springs, Arkansas, they were the only Chinese people in town. Her father picked the location so his Chinese restaurant would have no competition.
Their New Year celebrations were not always traditional, because many ingredients had to be purchased in towns hours away. Their guests were non-Chinese friends and employees who preferred Chinese American dishes like chow mein or Mongolian beef.
Today, Tang and her husband, Brian, own Tang's Asian Market in Northwest Arkansas, a fast-growing and increasingly diverse home to companies like Walmart and Tyson Foods.
"We make it a lot easier for people to choose to come to this area," Tang said.
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Tang said the food at her family's New Year dinner has become "more traditional." Many ingredients that were once scarce are now stocked at her store.
For years, the family had their New Year feast inside the store, where Tang's father could use the kitchen's large wok. The meals still ended with sliced fruit, as was traditional in her Cantonese family. But now along with oranges and apples they had fresh dragon fruit and Thai bananas. And her brother would bring pies from a nearby diner while the kids would raid the freezer for mochi ice cream.
The Lunar New Year, which is celebrated by many Asian cultures, begins Jan. 22. Try these two recipes from Cho's "Mooncakes and Milk Bread" to welcome The Year of the Rabbit.
Goong Goong's Almond Cookies
When Cho's goong goong, or grandfather, came to the United States, his first job was baking almond cookies at a Chinese restaurant. It was an unusual position, since few Chinese restaurants at the time made their own baked goods. Shortly before he died, Cho's grandfather showed her the recipe for his famous almond cookies.
125 grams (1 cup) all-purpose flour
¼ teaspoon baking soda½ teaspoon coarse salt113 grams (½ cup or 1 stick) unsalted butter, softened130 grams (⅔ cup) sugar1 large egg¾ teaspoon pure almond extract1 large egg yolk15 sliced almondsFlaky salt, for topping
In a medium bowl, whisk to combine the flour, baking soda and salt.
In another medium bowl, mix to combine the butter and sugar with a flexible spatula until smooth. Add the egg and almond extract and continue to mix until fully incorporated. Add the dry ingredients and mix until a thick dough is formed (it will be sticky). Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and chill until slightly firm but scoopable, about 1 hour.
Preheat the oven to 350°F and line two large rimmed baking sheets with parchment paper.
Using a 1 ½-tablespoon cookie scoop, measure out 1 ½ tablespoons of dough and place on the prepared sheet. (Or use a spoon to scoop and roll the dough into a smooth ball, wetting your hands if the dough is still sticky.) Repeat with remaining dough, spacing them 3 inches apart. Wet your fingers with water to prevent dough from sticking and gently press down on the dough balls with your fingers until they are 1/2 inch thick.
In a small bowl, whisk the egg yolk and use to lightly brush the tops of the cookies. Place an almond slice on each cookie.
Bake until cookies are golden brown and crisp around the edges, 16 to 18 minutes. Transfer the sheets to a wire rack, sprinkle with flaky salt and allow cookies to cool on the sheets for 5 minutes. Transfer cookies to the rack to cool. Serve warm or at room temperature.
Cookies can be stored in an airtight container (a resealable bag works great) at room temperature for up to 5 days.
If the cookies come out of the oven looking less than perfectly round, don’t fret! The moment you transfer the sheet to a cooling rack (this only works when the cookies are still warm), grab a round cutter or glass that’s slightly larger than the cookies, place it directly over a cookie and gently swirl the cutter or cup in one direction. The cookie will bump around and gradually take on a rounder shape!
Pau Pau's Steamed Cupcakes
Fa gao, little steamed cakes with craggy tops, are traditional for Chinese New Year celebrations. It took Cho years to learn that the secret to the recipe made by her pau pau, or grandmother, was Bisquick. Cho still uses the pancake mix for her fa gao.
150 grams (1 ¼ cups) pancake mix, such as Bisquick
150 grams (1 ¼ cups) all-purpose flour
130 grams (⅔ cup) firmly packed dark brown sugar
300 grams (1 ⅓ cups) water
Prepare two bamboo steamers over a pot of water. Bring the water to a rapid boil. Line ten individual 3-inch cupcake or tart molds with paper liners and arrange in two bamboo steamers.
In a medium mixing bowl, whisk to combine the pancake mix, flour, brown sugar and water until smooth. (The batter should be thick but runny.)
Divide the batter evenly between the molds, filling each about three-quarters full. Stack the bamboo steamers and cover with a lid. Steam for 15 minutes. Lift the lid, remove the steamers, and allow the cupcakes to cool for 5 minutes. Serve warm or at roomtemperature.
Cupcakes can be stored in an airtight container (a resealable bag works great) at room temperature for up to 4 days.
Recipes from "Mooncakes and Milk Bread" by Kristina Cho. (C) 2021. Used with permission of Harper Horizon.