Lunar New Year & Chinese Almond Cookies


The lunar new year is possibly the biggest Chinese holiday of the year.  It is a huge family holiday, and families travel far and wide to be together during this happy, auspicious time.  My mom told me that, traditionally, the new year was observed for two weeks and people went home to be with their families.  Nowadays, overseas Chinese typically take anywhere from 2-7 days to celebrate the new year.

While there is a lot of overlap in how the new year is observed, each province and village celebrates the holiday in its own way.  Because my father’s family is from Guang Dong (southern China), and my mother’s family is from Taiwan by the way of An Hui (northern China), I was raised with a mix of traditions.

My mom told my sisters and me that everything you do for the first week of the new year sets the tone for the rest of the year. The Chinese culture is chock full of superstitions, and most traditions have a reason, story, or symbolism behind them. Avoid fighting and stress, which includes no working and no major cleaning – everyone eats, relaxes, socializes, and plays games. You aren't supposed to use a broom, because you might sweep out the good luck. You aren't supposed to use a knife or scissors, because you might cut your good luck. Before the first day of the new year, everything in the house is cleaned top to bottom to chase out any ill-fortune that might be lying around and give the new year a clean start. We all wear something new that is red, because red symbolizes good luck.

In many homes, the word fortune is hung upside-down, outside on the front door.  This is to symbolize good fortune pouring down on you.

This is fortune, right side up.

While most people take the word down after awhile (just like any holiday decoration), I keep 福 () on my door all year-round.  I don’t think you can ever have enough good fortune!

We also give hong bao, which are little red envelopes decorated in gold and filled with money.  Traditionally, adults give hong bao to children.  Interestingly enough, you are a “child” until you are married.  Once you are married your parents no longer have to give you hong bao and the giving is reversed (you give hong bao to your parents and grandparents, and to children).  In my family, on new year’s day morning, my sisters and I used to go to my parents’ bedroom and bow three times to them, wishing them good health, prosperity, and a happy new year.  Then, they would bless us with good wishes and give each of us a hong bao.  To properly receive hong bao, you accept it with both hands as you bow to the giver in thanks.  After receiving our hong bao, we'd bow and say, "gong xi, gong xi" which means congratulations.  My grandparents also gave us hong bao, and all the grandchildren would line up in front of them to bow, and give and receive blessings.  

Hong bao. There are tons of variations though; you can even find hong bao with Mickey Mouse on them! 

The Chinese culture is very superstitious about numbers.  For this type of thing, I’d look to a place like Wikipedia for all the number combinations that are good or bad.  There are so many, it takes real effort to memorize them all.  The worst number is 4, which is a homonym of death.  You want to avoid giving money beginning or ending in 4.  Generally, the other odd numbers are good, while 2, 8, and 9 are particularly auspicious: 2 because good luck comes in pairs, or the desire to double your fortune; 8 because it is a homonym for prosperity; 9 because it is a homonym for long, thereby symbolizing longevity and a long life.  Some provinces celebrate the birthdays ending in 9 the way Americans emphasize the celebration of decade birthdays.  Some provinces believe celebrating on the decade birthday ending in zero is not fortunate, because zero symbolizes emptiness.  When giving money, it's okay to give whole numbers ending in zero because it's the first number that counts.  Don't ask me why.  My mom’s favorite number is 168, which is one of the luckiest number combinations: 168 (yi liu ba) sounds like 一路发(yi lu fa), which roughly means long-lasting prosperity, or prosperity all the way.  The cash given in hong bao is traditionally nice, new and crisp, fresh from the bank.  Fresh money, fresh fortune.

Good gifts to give during the new year?  Food!  Oranges and other citrus fruits symbolize good luck, wealth, and a sweet life.  They are similar to the color gold, which is a good luck color.  You also can’t go wrong with chocolates and candy, to wish someone sweetness in his or her life. Plants are also good gifts, but make sure you do your homework and get the right type!  This year a good friend gave me a jade plant, which I’m thrilled about.  Jade symbolizes friendship, wealth/prosperity, and good fortune.

This year, I made my first lunar new year dinner by myself.  It was exciting on one hand, but it also filled me with longing for my mom and sisters.  When we all lived in the same city, we gathered together to make food, talk, and laugh together.  My mom’s egg rolls are to die for, and she made everything taste delicious.  Every dish symbolizes some kind of good fortune or blessing for the new year.  The six basic types I’m familiar with are good fortune, wealth and prosperity, good health, longevity, happiness, and abundance.  For more, you can check out this site for a brief, though not complete list.  I’m only one person, and a novice new year’s cook, so I went with a soup, three entrees, one side dish, and a dessert.  In this post, I share how to make the dessert: almond cookies! 

Also, I got a really lucky surprise new year's eve: I got to see both my sisters!!  Their flight was delayed and they ended up with an overnight layover in Chicago!  I was so, so happy.  We hung out for eight hours eating cookies, laughing, and talking the night away.  It was the best.

The Year of the Dragon New Year Menu! 

Chicken Soup
chicken, ginger, shitake mushrooms
Roast Chicken
brined whole chicken, bacon fat, olive oil, cracked salt and pepper
Roasted Brussel Sprouts
bacon fat, chicken fat, cracked salt and pepper
Steamed Salmon
soy sauce, sherry, ginger, garlic, scallions
Shrimp Fried Rice
rice, green peas, eggs, shrimp, scallions, garlic
Almond Cookies
recipe below!

Almond Cookies1

Besides being delicious, almond cookies symbolize wealth and prosperity.  So eat up, eat up!!

This recipes makes about 36-46 cookies. 

1 c. whole wheat flour
2 3/4 c. all-purpose flour
1 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. salt
1 c. butter, room temperature
1 c. sugar
3 tsp. almond extract
1 egg
Whole almonds (36-46)
1 egg (for the wash)  

Pre-heat the oven to 350°.

1.  Mix together the flours, baking soda and salt.
2.  Cream together the butter, sugar, almond extract, and one egg. 
3.  Combine the flour and butter mixture together until it looks all pebbly. 
4.  Form 1 tablespoon balls of dough.  Gently flatten the top with your fingers and press a whole almond into the center.  Alternatively, place an almond inside the tablespoon and pack it with dough.  Then, flip it over so that the cookie looks like a little dome.
5.  Beat the second egg and brush it over the top of the cookies.  Bake for 15 minutes.

新年快樂!  恭禧發財!
Xin Nian Kuai Le! Gong Xi Fa Cai!


  1. I've been in a baking mood lately and can't wait to make these! Thanks!

  2. I was wondering if you were going to post this or not. I totally devoured all of the cookies Kiel packed for us :(. Oh wells. They were so delicious