Chinese New Year: A lesson on how to eat a year’s worth of luck

Chinese New Year falls on Sunday, February 10 this year, when we kick off the year of the snake. Snake personalities are known to be acute, cunning, aware, proud, vain, and vicious at times. My mother was a snake, so besides the fact that my teenage years represented an era of nonstop nuclear warfare in our house, I appreciate this cycle of the Chinese Zodiac much more than most.

I’m ready to kick off this lunar year in DC right, then. There are certain foods one must eat during Chinese New Year to bring in luck for the home and the family, and to be frank, for oneself. And though the New Year is a one-day holiday, celebrations often extend for a week before and after – which means a lot of eating potential. While it seems like every single foodstuff has a corresponding symbolic meaning in the Chinese culture , I’ve selected a list of 8 the most symbolic foods to eat over the holiday, where to find some of their best iterations throughout the city, plus why exactly you’ll be eating them in the first place.

eel noodles


We here in DC look to cities like LA and NY with ramen envy. So instead of that brothy, porky, noodly combo, let’s stretch our imaginations and parla Italiano for a second. Legend has it that Marco Polo brought the concept of spaghetti to Italy via China, so we’ll play that card here. DC has no shortage of Italian gems, but this year’s standout has got to be Fabio Trabocchi’s Fiola.  If you haven’t heard of Fiola yet this year, you’ve got to be living in China or something.

Noodles are a symbol of longevity. The longer, the better. So order up some spaghetti, bucatini, or fettucine on Fiola’s menu, and leave that short stubby orecchiete stuff for another day.

market fish

Whole Fish

Thank you Chesapeake Bay, for your abundance of seafood. Thank you for your oysters,  your crabs, your whiting and your hake. Thank you for providing the folks here in DC with an orchestra of tasty delights from your waters. Finally, thank you, Farmers Fishers Bakers, for opening this past year and bringing us the most sustainable of your daily catch.

In Chinese, the word for fish is a homanym for abundance, and symbolizes just that.  Traditionally fish is served steamed, always whole – representing prosperity for the whole year, from head to tail. 



It’s winter. Where do you think you’re getting fresh peaches around here? Now’s the time to look for the little sugary fruits baked into pies! Dangerous Pies DC, with it’s rock star mentality and hand made pies, is serving up both sweet and savory desserts as a part of H Street’s growing food scene. If you can’t get out to H Street, don’t fret. – Dangerous Pies is now going mobile, bringing a bit more abundance of goodness to my stomach, and unfortunately, my thighs too.

Peaches are often brought as housewarming gifts, as ancestral offerings, or displayed in the home, symbolic of youth and eternal longevity. China is the number one producer of peaches in the world. 



Mmmmm… little packets of meats and veggies wrapped in a thick fluffy dough. Hey now, we may be stretching our imaginations for a bit, but isn’t the empanada, like, the dumpling of South America? Check out DC empanada’s new outpost at Union Market, with a rotating menu ready to please all senses. Favorites include the WMD- Weapon of Mass Deliciousness (Chili and cheese), the The Badass (Buffalo chicken and blue cheese), and the Tio Shawn (black beans, rice, cheese, chipotle). Yes, that last one’s vegetarian, but yes, it’s tasty and a personal favorite.

Traditional dumplings resemble the ancient golden nuggets used as currency in medieval China, and are symbolic for wealth and prosperity. Mo’ dumplings mo’ money (I think this expression just might catch on).

chinese candies


That Georgetown Cupcake line don’t lie, we Washingtonians need our sugar fix. Rather that a cupcake though, I’d rather indulge in the cupcake’s daintier little sister, the macaron. This French staple has officially arrived thanks to DC Patisserie. Indulgent enough to pass for a special-holiday treat, plus small enough to pop a few at a time, the macaron is the perfect sweet treat.

Sweet desserts for a sweet year. Though the Chinese don’t often have an abundance of sweets and desserts in their cuisine, the New Year is a time when they roll up their sleeves and pull a few tricks out from their sleeves. Tiny red-wrapper candies are passed out to kids, and cakes and tarts are baked for dinners and parties.


Tangerines and Oranges

To balance out your new diet of empanadas, pies, and macarons, maybe a little something fresh would be appropriate. Thankfully little clementines are the winter darling of the produce world. I’m always searching to get my hands on a little extra Vitamin C in the wintertime, and popping a few of these for an afternoon snack do just the trick. Korean grocer giant H-Mart carries these by the carton, and for cheap. That’s some good fortune for both you and your wallet.

In Chinese, the word tangerine sounds a lot like the word ‘luck’. Additionally, oranges represent abundance. So pairing a bowl of oranges along with tangerines, means you’ll have abundant luck. Even better, the more leaves that are on the tangerines the better – those symbolize life and longevity! You know, in case eating those noodles didn’t do the trick.

red beans and dates

Nien Gao

A dessert with dates and beans? Hey, I warned you earlier, the Chinese don’t really do sweets and desserts. But actually the floating red dates and sweet red beans suspended in glutinous rice flour is actually…well, quite good. You know who does glutinous rice and sweet red bean paste better than the Chinese, though? The Japanese, and their mochi (though, I might be starting WWIII with this statement). Tiny little Hana Market, tucked on a corner of U street adjacent to a fire station, is one of the only authentic Asian markets in the district, and a good one at that. Stocked from floor to ceiling with hundreds of varieties of Japanese goods, you can find mochi in their refrigerated cases.

Nien Gao is another homonym for good luck – actually meaning “sticky cake”, it can also mean ‘high year’. All over china and beyond, Chinese eat this dessert for the new year to bring a tall order of good fortune in the new year. I personally eat it with high hopes that in the future, I won’t find the Chinese language so damn confusing.

stir fry at home

Stir Fry with 10 Vegetables

Both my parents reminisce of their childhood New Year dinners, when there was always a big plate of 10-vegetable stir fry on the table. Every Year. My mom fondly recalls her father meticulously chopping vegetables the whole day into paper-thin slices, specifically for this dish. Traditionally made with ingredients such as pickled mustard greens, lotus root, fresh bamboo, bean sprouts, and shiitake mushrooms, it’s a light respite that is welcome during feasts of rich seafood and meat. For this one, I say visit a local DC farmers market to pick out the 10 best ingredients, and make your own seasonal, lucky stir fry. Onions, cabbage, parsnips, celery, tofu, bean sprouts, parsley, leeks, mushrooms, and carrots sounds like a great wintery combo to me. To the farmers market I go!

The number 10 represents completeness, and having 10 vegetables serves a purpose of being fulfilled in family and life. Plus this one hits close to home, which is good a reason as any to eat a dish.


So there you have it: Eight foods you should be eating these next few weeks, and where you’ll find their best versions in DC. And oh yeah, eight is very lucky in the Chinese culture, because it sounds like the Chinese word for “prosperity” or “wealth”. So yeah, it’s confirmed that we Chinese are pretty superstitious mofo’s looking for luck everywhere we can.


If you remember, I tried to go river rafting a couple of months ago, to no avail.

For one last grand hurrah in Guangzhou, the DiploMan and I gathered a group of friends for a second attempt at a rafting adventure, just on the outskirts of town, about an hour from our home. I read about the location and anticipated a pretty manmade experience but boy-oh-boy, was I in for a surprise.

Imagine a very long waterpark ride, only instead of plastic tubing, the ride is made of concrete. But there are rapids, simulated to look and feel like nature intended. Oh wait- just imagine splash mountain. Except, instead of being strapped in a log-like roller coaster, you’re just sitting in a two-person raft. With a helmet, duh.

It took about an hour total to rush down the rapids. 10 minutes of that was spent being jostled back and forth in the rapids, and the other 50 minutes were spent in the three large pools that were interspersed between the dashing straits, where as many as 70 rafts at a time would gather and engage in water fights.

Conventional? Hardly. Safe? I think not. Fun? Absolutely.

Check us out, in action.

I mean, if this picture doesn’t just sum it all up….

It’s about time.

Look! Newly released snapshots from the next Hoarders episode!!

Just kidding. This is our apartment, pre-packout. Specifically, the day before the packers came, when we decided that piling everything we wanted to pack in one room, despite it seeming to be the antithesis of packing our things up, worked really well.

There is actually some strategy to the madness that you see above. We were methodically separating our goods according to how we wanted the movers to pack our things, so each room got assigned a designated shipment, more or less. Here’s what you need to know:

Our UAB (Unaccompanied Air Baggage) is a limited number of pounds that gets to be sent with us home (to the Bay Area) and then onward onto DC (where the DiploMan will be going through training). These items were confined to the dining room table. Well, it was only the table at first, and then it spilled out onto the chairs and against the wall next to the table…

Our HHE (HouseHold Effects) is most of our belongings, and is our shipment with a max limit of 7,500 lbs. that will be shipped and stored somewhere in Singapore. These items will sit patiently in a dark, dank, musty storage space and then sent to Tanzania by sea once we arrive in May of next year. This is all the boxes that you see in the last three pictures of the post…and more, because that didn’t include a few stray boxes in the kitchen and our bedroom. In other words, we won’t see a lot of our stuff for a year!!!

Vocabulary words aside, our movers were brilliant. I think we actually hired human machines that wrapped, packed, folded, taped, stuffed, unscrewed, and dismantled as we directed them to.

Some of you reading this are, like we are, going through packout, or have in the past. So you can empathize. Others will get to experience this in the future, so maybe you can sympathize. But I guess most of you won’t have to deal with moving all your belongings and having a smidgen go with you back to the states while the other portion goes to a far-away mystery storage area. In that case, you can probably stop reading here, and I’m sorry if this post has been completely pointless.

This experience, this adventure, like with every adventure, has its advantages. I hope those of you that have packed out have seen the bright side of things, because otherwise it can be pretty easy to drown yourself in a fortress of newsprint and bubble wrap. What advantages, you might ask? Well, for example, packout is the perfect reason to clean out your closet and get rid of that feather boa you collected on New Years’ Eve (but keep the feather flapper headband, of course). Packout is the perfect time to unload all your crappy booze that was unloaded unto you when others left post. And during packout, you also get to record how much stuff you have as gross weight, which can become a fun game. Our grand total was a mere 3,500 lbs, in case you were wondering, far under our estimated 4,500 lbs. Well under the 7,500lb max limit the State Department offers, so we get to collect lots more junk in the future, hooray!

After two long days of packing and wrapping and tiresome hours of instructing other people to do stuff (that was meant to be wryly sarcastic, but it turned out to be sadly true) the DipoMan and I sat down in a newly emptied living room and made a short list. A list of how to go through this process easier, and better. Now, this list is mostly for us, but I’m also going to share it with you, because if it will help you with your move, then all the better. Because seriously, in the end, this packout process is a good amount of stress with a little fun and a lot of relief, and really just a drawn out way to say goodbye to a place that I call home and people I call friends.

The DiploMan and Jessie’s Packout Pointers.

*original notes in black, added commentary in italicized red.

Things that are good to know: 

  • Reduced reduce reduce, then reduce again
  • Items going UAB should be separated into three piles according to necessity- and weighed between each to determine how much more can go in:
    1. Things that MUST go (then weigh)
    2. Things that really should go (weigh it again)
    3. Things that we would like for them to go (weigh to reach max UAB weight, if not already)
  • Hiring help just to fold clothes is a GREAT idea Our a-yi came for three full days (we were able to snag another day from a friend) and really, mostly folded clothes to be packed. It was the best idea we (the DiploMan) had throughout this entire process.
  • Clearly separate and check welcome kit The welcome kit is a small kit of plates, utensils, sheets, etc. that we are provided when we move in, to enable us to survive on fried eggs and buttered bread until we receive our belongings. It also serves, on the flip side, to allow us to live out our last few days in Guangzhou with a bit of sanity. If you’re like us, you’ll have packed a plate or knife or two from the welcome kit into the HHE. It’s not a big deal, but it just means you’ll have to deal with getting rid of an ironically dull chefs knife when you get to your next post, and that you’ll be cutting your vegetables with a steak knife between packout and your leave date.
  • Pack carry ons and checked bags first
  • 250 of UAB is two boxes, not quite maxed out Typically one person would receive 250 lbs, and persons after that an additional 200 lbs each. But because my medical clearance is still pending, we had to suffice with a 250 lb shipment. 250 lbs is not a lot between two people. Especially if you have to anticipate spending three seasons on the East Coast and you like to have dinner parties. And your significant other HAS to pack his three-piece suits for “work”. Looks like we’ll be layering during the cold season and we’ll be coming over to your house instead. But at least I’ll have arm candy as my date.
  • Post-its for jbone are useful jbone, the DiploMan’s wildly un-romantic petname for me.
  • Set aside UAB first, and in order of necessity.
  • Jessie does a great job labeling boxes Thank you. And yeah, if you don’t label things yourself, you’ll have a lot of boxes labeled “living room” and a lot of boxes labeled “books”. Be specific, and you’ll thank yourself later. In a year.
  • Be in the room that is being packed up, and label each box yourself
  • Yarn does not go into UAB ‘really’ This happened after an attempt where one of us thought that twine should be packed into our “should go” to DC pile. The other one of us condescendingly (albeit unintentionally) remarked, “Really? You think YARN should go with us, really?!”. I mean, it wasn’t even yarn. But it’s okay, that was in the heat of the moment. We’ve since called a truce.
  • Remember to pack extension cords Our home is now a graveyard of various extension cords, both 110w and 220w capable.
  • “Just as bad as it is a liar” This is the iPad voice recording feature’s transcription of ‘Jessie is bad at leaving things in the dryer’. I originally didn’t want that full statement written down, but admittedly, I kept leaving things in the dryer.
Okay, so where does all this information leave us? Here’s a Useful order of operations:
  1. Welcome kit is separated (including bedding)
  2. Pack for flight (don’t forget travel docs)
  3. Go around the house and put post-it’s on small groups of items in each room: UAB, HHE, mail, and give items
  4. Create and movie items into UAB, HHE, etc., piles in separate spaces- separate rooms, if possible.
  5. Start to pack UAB first, and in order of piles. Must go, Should go, Would like to go.
  6. Supervise while movers pack (if possible, with one person handling- labeling- HHE items and the other person doing UAB and other misc packing items)
  7. (There was something inappropriate here that was written as a joke, but I’ll let you imagine what it could have been)

Lingnan Plant Market

One of the many markets that I only recently explored was the local plant and flower market. Located just across the river from my home, I’m surprised I hadn’t ventured out sooner.

It’s too bad, because there were aisles and aisles of potted plants and flowers, from as little as $5-$10 for a fern that reached my height. I could have definitely spent a pretty penny at this market, getting some plants for our house. It’s actually probably a good thing I discovered this market so late in our tour.

Of course being in China, you can’t go to a market and not see a fire hazard. For example, this light, that was hanging down the middle of an aisle, dangling by a wire. Things like this used to scare/anger/annoy me, but now make me smile. I’m actually going to miss this stuff!!

Granted, this market wasn’t as exciting as say, the kitchen market, or the jewelry market, or the leather market. After all, they’re just plants. But as with all outings in Guangzhou, it’s interesting just to walk around and see the quantities of stuff being sold, advertised, and packed. Watching the locals go about their daily business is also akin to people watching at the airport- it provides a surprising amount of entertainment and amusement.

It was plenty hot by the time I was out- and being the middle of the day, business was slow. Shirts were off, cards were being played, women were sitting back fanning themselves. People were lounging like lazy cats all over the market, with ample amounts of shade created by the large overhang between the aisles. Where there was no overhang, there was plenty of plant shade to be found. I guess there’s definitely some benefits to be working at the plant market.