Food is about so much more than nutrition—it’s one of the most personal expressions of our cultures, values, and traditions. Our series, Behind the Recipe, profiles a different healthy cook every month to explore the personal, untold stories of their favorite dishes. This month, Vegetarian Chinese Soul Food ($24) author Hsiao-Ching Chou shares her recipe for lucky eight stir-fry and why it's the perfect dish to make for Lunar New Year.
Lunar New Year is about the reunion feast. It's a time when everybody comes together. If you have family who lives far away, they come home. You round up your friends. It's all about having a lot of people at the table, which is crowded with foods meant to bring luck and longevity.
Growing up in Missouri, we weren't close enough to celebrate with my extended family, which was spread between the coasts of the U.S. and in Taiwan. But my parents were in the restaurant business, so we always had a big feast with the employees who worked at the restaurant. Being a kid, the best part of Lunar New Year was the red envelope full of money I would get from my parents. That's every kid's favorite part of Lunar New Year.
My husband isn't Chinese, so as an adult, it's always been important for me to keep up my favorite Chinese traditions and pass them down to our kids—and that definitely includes Lunar New Year. I always host it at our house—in Seattle, Washington, now—and invite my brothers and their families over and we share a big meal together.
It's tradition on Lunar New Year to eat foods that symbolize luck. It doesn't have to do with the ingredients, necessarily, it's more about certain words that are homophones and sound very similar to "luck" or "money" in Mandarin. For example, in Mandarian, "eight" sounds very similar to "big fortune," so eight is a lucky number. One traditional Lunar New Year dish is to make a stir-fry with eight ingredients, which I call lucky eight stir-fry. The specific ingredients can vary as long as you have eight of them. Here's what I use in mine: bean sprouts, celery hearts, shiitake mushrooms, carrot, dried lily flowers, dried wood ear mushrooms, sliced Chinese cabbage or baby bok choy, and snow peas.
The first time I made this recipe was a few years ago as part of the Lunar New Year feast for my family. My mom lives with us, so she of course was part of the celebration, too. I cook for my husband, kids, and mom every day and most of the time, my mom doesn't really say much about it. Getting a compliment from her is really high praise. But I remember when I made this lucky eight stir-fry, she sat across the table eating it and said in Mandarian what roughly translates to "this is a classic." This is a high compliment from her.
Here's what to keep in mind when making this recipe at home: You can swap out any of the core ingredients, so long as you still have eight ingredients total. Maybe you don't like celery so you want to use something else or you don't live near a Chinese market that sells dried lily flower. That's fine, but you have to have eight ingredients. Any other day of the year you can make stir-fry however you want, but in order for it to be lucky, it has to have eight.
There is a little bit of cutting involved, but the cooking process is really quick. That's essentially true of most Chinese dishes. With Western-style cooking, you often have dishes that require longer cooking times. For many dishes, especially stir-fries, once the prep work is done, the cooking is fast. Western-style cooking always makes the eater do the work of cutting too; you have to cut your cauliflower steak, chicken, or whatever you're having. But with Chinese cooking, the cutting is part of the prep work. That's why you only need a pair of chopsticks to eat it.
I plan on making this lucky eight stir-fry for Lunar New Year as well as some other foods my kids requested, especially dumplings. I'll probably also pick up some roast duck from the International District here. Because of the pandemic, it will be just my immediate family: my kids, husband, and mom. We're going to try to time our dinner so we can eat over Zoom with our extended family. And of course there will be red envelopes for the kids.
This past year has been challenging for everyone. We're all in this storm together, but some of us are weathering it better than others. My New Year's wish is that everyone can find some level of peace and recover in a way that's meaningful to them. Before the pandemic, it might have been easy to take a simple family meal for granted, but it has so much meaning now. That's what I hope for the year ahead: peace, recovery, and lots of luck.
Hsiao-Ching Chou's Lucky 8 Stir-Fry
Makes 4 servings
1 Tbsp vegetable oil
1 cup bean sprouts
3 inner stalks celery hearts, cut on the bias ¼-inch thick
4 to 6 medium dried shiitake mushrooms, soaked in warm water for 2 to 3 hours
1 medium carrot, cut into 1/4-inch-thick strips
1/2 cup dried lily flowers, soaked in warm water for 30 minutes
1/2 cup dried wood ear mushrooms, soaked in warm water for 30 minutes and cut into ¼-inch-thick strips
1 cup sliced Chinese cabbage or baby bok choy
8 snow peas, trimmed and cut on the bias into 1/2-inch-wide pieces
1 Tbsp soy sauce
1 tsp Shaoxing wine, sherry, or dry Marsala wine
1 Tbsp water
1/4 tsp sesame oil
1/8 tsp white pepper powder
1/4 tsp kosher salt, if needed
1. Preheat a wok over high heat until wisps of smoke rise from the surface. Swirl in the vegetable oil and heat for a few seconds until it starts to shimmer.
2. Add all of the vegetables: bean sprouts, celery, shiitake mushrooms, carrot, dried lily flowers, wood ear mushrooms, Chinese cabbage or baby bok choy, and snow peas. Stir-fry for about 90 seconds and then add the soy sauce, Shaoxing wine, and water. Stir-fry for about one minute.
3. Add the sesame oil and white pepper powder. Stir-fry for about 30 seconds more to combine.
4. Turn off the heat. Taste for seasoning. If you think it needs a pinch of salt, add the kosher salt and stir to combine. Transfer to a serving dish.
*As told to Emily Laurence
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