One of my favorite times of the year is Chinese New Year, or CNY. Lots of company (family reunion), good food (overeating), firecrackers (Boom, Boom, Pow), dragon dance parades, red envelopes (MONEY) - it's my equivalent of Thanksgiving and Christmas rolled into one (and before anyone asks, yes, I grew up in one of those households where Santa Claus was just some old dude in a costume trying to break into your house in Brooklyn).
CNY is never on the same day each year since it follows the lunar calendar. This year, the lunar new year starts on Monday, January 23rd and it will be the year of the Dragon. If you can, try catching the firecracker show in Chinatown today in Roosevelt Park, between Grand and Hester Streets. Otherwise, catch the rest of the celebrations and dragon dances on Mott Street on Saturday, January 29th.
A crash course on CNY food:
All major holidays I can think of revolve around food, and CNY is no different. Celebrations are supposed to last 15 days, but no one gets two weeks off just to eat, drink, and be merry in the modern world, so it typically lasts 3 days.
Unlike the Western world's new year, the most important day of the festivities is the evening before CNY starts. Everyone gets together to feast on dishes that signify good luck, happiness, and prosperity.
Chicken (to signify wealth), fish (a homophone for 'surplus' and is left partially uneaten or just presented to be eaten the next day), and a vegetable dish called "Buddha's delight" (sometimes made with black moss, which is a homophone for prosperity) usually make appearances at the dinner table.
For breakfast, it's not uncommon to find a variety of "cakes" that have been fried in addition to your regular dim sum, such as taro cakes, turnip cakes, and something called "nian gao" which is a sweet and sticky cake made from glutinous rice flour sweetened with brown sugar, and is a homophone for "high year."
Chinese New Year is a time to eat at big restaurants and not just the $1-for-5 dumpling establishments (not that I don't love those places). Of course, you could always head to Mr. Chow's, but why not go a little more authentic?
Here are five great places to get your Chinese food fix in Chinatown after letting your eyes feast on the dragon dancing (and your ears on the drumming and firecrackers!), but fair warning, be ready for elbow-pushers and possibly long lines!
Ping's Seafood Restaurant
Where: 22 Mott Street (between Bowery and Pell Street)
Whether you go in the mornings for dim sum or later for dinner (with the option to dine on fish fresh from the tanks), Ping's is guaranteed to satisfy your appetite for great Chinese food.
Where: 9 Pell Street (between Mott and Doyers Streets)
Go here for lunch or dinner. Joe's Shanghai cannot be missed if only because its soup dumplings are AMAZING. Well, soup dumplings in general are amazing since they're made with the soup IN the dumpling with the pork filling, but these are really good. While they're not traditional CNY food fare, the point of CNY is to enjoy yourself, and you definitely will when you bite into one of these. Just make sure you don't scald your mouth!
And if you can't get a seat at Joe's Shanghai, there's also Joe's Ginger literally right down the street at 25 Pell Street (between Bowery and Doyers Street).
Where: 17 Mott Street (corner of Mosco Street)
I'm almost loathe to put this on the list because it's mostly Americanized Chinese food rather than authentic Chinese dishes, but it's such an institution (it opened in 1938!), that it deserves mention; obviously they're doing something right to have stayed in business for so long. Anthony Bourdain remembers it as the Chinese food of his childhood, and you can't get a better deal in town than a bowl of their delicious wonton soup for less than $3.00. AND it's open 24 hours! Remember to go to the restaurant downstairs and not the one next door at street-level.
Where: 20 Elizabeth Street (between Canal and Bayard Streets)
Definitely the place for dim sum if you can swing it in before watching the celebrations. You'll get your pick of fresh, tasty, and hot dim sum from carts that are pushed around. There are so many things from here that are good that I couldn't just recommend any one thing for you to try. Yes, there will be a lot of tourists, but you will still get your authentic Cantonese dim sum here. And if you want to try this place for dinner, they hold Chinese New Year dinner banquets ($20 a head usually, for 10 awesome courses), and they'll have people doing dragon dances up and down the aisles during breaks between courses.
Big Wong King
Where: 67 Mott Street (between Canal and Bayard Streets)
As opposed to where all the tourists go, this is the place where all the locals go. it's kind of dive-y, but no complaints since the food is really good and about the only thing that has changed is the name (Big Wong to Big Wong King). Forever known as "Dai Wong," if you're looking for a quick bite for lunch, this is the place to go. Get the spare ribs. "Finger-lickin' good" doesn't just apply to Colonel Sander's chicken.
I leave you with this video of a dragon dance troupe performing during the year of the Tiger in 2010, just to give you an idea of what CNY celebrations could be like. It takes place in San Francisco, but they're "shuffllin', shufflin',"and this begs to be seen.
Happy Chinese New Year!