I miss a lot of things about Singapore, but one thing I’ve been missing, especially during this Chinese New Year season, is the hong baos.
Hong bao—literally, “red package” (红包)— is a little red envelope that relatives and elders give to single people. They are filled with real CASH. In Korea, we call it “sae bae don” (세뱃돈) and though it’s not tucked into a red envelope, it’s still the same brilliant CASH.
It’s awesome! You receive a hong bao from someone, and you bow and say thank you and all those appropriate, respectful mannerisms, but your mind is mentally calculating how stingy/generous this person is. Would it be $5? $10? $50?! Your mind starts equating that envelope to that toy or candy you really wanted.
Chinese New Year is the Christmas of Asian countries.
You pretend you don’t care about the cash. You pretend that you just care about the symbolism of the festivities, the warmth of family love and gratitude and good will for the new year.
Well, every kid knows it’s bullshit. The minute the benefactor turns his or her back, you’re flying off to the corner with your siblings and friends, where you can privately tear open the red envelope with gleaming eyes. The whole day, your brain is like a cashier, ringing cha-ching! each time you receive a hong bao and tallying up the total amount.
Of course, I’m reminiscing this the way I felt back when I was a kid. After I moved to America when I was 14, I have not received a single hong bao.
Well, actually. My Chinese professor gave all her students hong baos last week:
But instead of cash, it was a chocolate coin that felt waxy and tasted like Chinese medicine. It was still sweet though, and I felt my heart aching with nostalgia for the days when the annual Chinese New Year would feed my entire year’s allowance.
That was the only form of celebration I enjoyed during Chinese New Year, though. Since my family was a missionary family stationed in Singapore, we didn’t have relatives with whom to celebrate the traditional 15-day holiday. My total bounty from hong baos was only about 1/5 of the amount my fellow Chinese-Singaporean friends would receive because I didn’t have grandmas and aunts and cousins to give me New Year cash. I only had my church. Still, cash is cash and I was happy to amass all the hong baos I could get.
Anyway. This year, I did the opposite. I got to celebrate Chinese New Year without the hong baos. It wasn’t with my blood family, but my new family here in Los Angeles.
Like my little “sister,” Jordan:
Not only do we share the same last name, we share similar double-majors: Journalism and East Asian Language & Cultures. Difference is that she’s totally white and I’m totally Korean, and she’s in broadcast while I’m in print. Still, ever since Jordan met my parents, she’s been calling them her “spiritual Korean godparents” so to me she’s the closest non-related sister I have.
We met up two other individuals at a teeny northern Chinese diner at Monterey Park:
We were a few minutes late because of traffic so this shot was taken outside the window. I was like the creepy paparazzi. But look at the bespectacled couple. Aren’t they adorable?
That’s my friend Jingjing and her boyfriend, Hao (pronounced “how”).
I met her at one of my internships and introduced her to my church. I was really happy to meet another Christian, a fellow sister in Christ. We sometimes listen to Mandarin gospel songs during our internship. We’re trying to make a weekly dine-out together, and this was one of those days.
The place we decided to celebrate Chinese New Year in was Dean Sin World in Monterey Park.
Dean Sin World is a four-table eatery specializing in Northern Chinese cuisine. It’s so small that I don’t even know if “restaurant” is the right term for it. I imagine that it is really meant for take-outs; in fact, they have a separate menu from which you can buy bags of frozen dumplings and meatballs.
They are celebrated among the Asian community in San Gabriel Valley. That’s because not only are their food authentic and super delicious, it’s also ridiculously CHEAP.
I entered this place trembling with anticipation. For some reason, I had been craving good Chinese food for weeks. I’ve been planning numerous times to make a visit out east to San Gabriel Valley (also known as “Little Taipei” for its huge Taiwanese community), but things just didn’t work out.
But now that I was here, boy was I ready to order!!
Unfortunately, my dining companions didn’t seem to share my appetite. I proposed ordering 20 dishes, and they looked at me like I announced a new-found devotion to veganism. So then I lowered it down significantly to 10 dishes.
We ended up ordering only seven dishes. Seven dishes! Tell me, how is that enough? Does that sound enough to you? I think not! But when I tried to order more, even the lady serving us exclaimed in Mandarin, “Woa! I think this is enough, isn’t it?”
“Fine,” I pouted.
Second dish, the Shanghai smoked fish (上海熏鱼):
Oooh. I loved this dish!!! I think this would make a brilliant snack during study hours. It’s fillet of white fish that has been cured, marinated, and fried—before being dunked and bathed in another pool of marinate sauce. After the days-long, time-consuming process, it is finally ready to be devoured cold.
It’s so flavorful!! It’s the seafood version of jerky or something. There were lot of little bones you had to spit out while munching, but all the best dishes require a bit of mess!
Third dish, that also requires mess to eat was xiao long bao (小笼馒头), or pork dumplings:
Love these! One of my favorite food in the world for sure. I love biting into that chewy skin and squirting a small, pork-saturated pool of broth into my mouth.
I love these doused with a lot of soy sauce and black vinegar. I just cannot understand how someone could strictly ban all pork from the diet.
Fourth dish featured more carb-wrapped pork with the pan-fried pork buns (上海生煎包):
How cute are they? Sprinkled with toasted black sesame seeds like little spots of hair. They were massive, too. Each bun encased a mound of fatty pork.
I really liked the bun; it was perfectly fried so that the bottom was crunchy but the insides were still fluffy and light. Soaked with pork juices, of course. That’s the best part.
Okay. I guess Chinese people really do love their pork, because here’s another pork-centric dish. The Lion Head Casserole (沙锅狮子头)!
Supposedly it’s called lion head because the fatty pork balls look like lion’s heads…a far fetch, but whatever—they’re utterly delicious! The casserole version came with a thickened, soy sauce-infused broth sunken with bunches of tender napa cabbage and glass noodles.
I LOVED this dish!! My favorite of the night. I liked it even better than the version at Mama’s Lu because the broth was soupier and it was easier to slurp up the cabbage and noodles. Um, I might have practically devoured the whole pot by myself.
Sixth dish was yet another porky item, the wonton soup (云吞汤):
Jordan likes to order soup when she dines out so this had to appear in our meal.
I loved the strands of seaweed they added to the broth; it added an extra depth of umami flavors. Hm, that was a wobbly shot, sorry. I guess I was just too eager to start eating by this point.
Okay, last and final dish was the beef pancake roll (牛肉卷饼):
It’s dried beef stuffed inside a flaky pastry with cilantro and sweet-and-savory sauce. It’s really such a nice play of opposing textures and flavors. I remember trying one at 101 Noodle Express with my parents.
Jordan told me this was her favorite dish.
There was no hong baos that night. Instead, I went home $10 lighter (YES! All that for LESS than $40!! I told you it was damn cheap!).
But the gleaming eyes? The excitement and delight? The loud and boisterous festivities? The symbolisms of new beginnings?
They were all still there. And they were yummy, too.
Question of the Day: Happy Lunar New Year, everybody! Did you do anything special?