How Margaret Cho, Dale Talde, and others celebrate Lunar New Year
Five people, five distinct traditions.
With more than one billion people across the world ringing in Lunar New Year on January 22, there’s a sense of bonding over the shared traditions of lucky red envelopes, firecrackers, and feasts of symbolic food, from ingot-shaped dumplings for fortune and long noodles for longevity to whole fish for abundance.
Despite the commonalities across the Asian diaspora, each family also has their own spins on the holiday, especially if they’ve moved away from their home countries and formed new traditions, now passed down through the generations. So we talked to prominent Asian Americans—from comedians and actors to chefs—to find out what the holiday has meant to them growing up in the U.S. and their favorite places to connect with their cultures.
Korean American actress, musician, podcaster, activist, and comedian, whose 30-date North American tour Loud & Livid runs from February 18 to September 9
Growing up in San Francisco, Margaret Cho went to school in Chinatown, where she was surrounded by the annual festivities. “You would see the huge dragon and huge celebrations—and it was such a big deal,” she said. “A big part of the way that I understood my childhood was through Lunar New Year.”
Identifying as culturally Korean and ethnically Chinese, her family celebrated by eating duk man doo gook, a soup with coin-shaped rice cakes—a tradition Cho still abides by today, usually making it herself, though she admits making the stock can be a challenge. “But if you don't make it, you can't start the year,” she said. “You have to have it.”
While the soup is a requirement, there were some traditions she rejected growing up—and still today. For one: In Korean culture, you historically call someone one year old the day they're born, with everyone aging a year together at Lunar New Year. With her December birthday, she would have to say she was two years older than she actually was. “I’m not going to be adding years here in Hollywood,” she joked, noting that Koreans are now shifting the system to calculate actual ages.
Though her family took a more practical approach to the holiday, often celebrating on January 1 (“I think it was just to make it more convenient for my family’s work schedule or something!”), she kept the spirit going year-round, draping two lion dance costumes in the entranceway of her home for years. “There was a black one, which I'd never seen before, other than the one that I had, and then the traditional red and gold one,” she said, though she lost them during her divorce. “You bring them to life by using a ballpoint pen and painting in their eyeball, but mine were never brought to life because it's bad feng shui to have them alive in your house.”
No matter what happens, though, she’ll always have the rice cake soup. “Rice is such a meaningful thing,” she said. “It is an assurance that you’ll survive any kind of hardship or struggle; my mother would be really upset if even one grain of rice was wasted or had fallen. The symbolism of the work that it takes to make a rice cake is so beautiful—it’s such a precious commodity since it’s been made into a confection. To have the luxury to spend on a confection is really quite an important part of the celebration, so that's why I love it.”
Where Cho shops for Asian essentials
Galleria Market, Los Angeles
Inside the Koreatown Galleria, a mall with more than 70 shops, is the Galleria Market, where Cho goes for all the ingredients of the rice cake soup. “They also have the best fried chicken at Witch’s Chicken—and you can only get it in a supermarket,” she said. “They put rice cakes in the chicken, which is the ultimate!”
BCD Tofu House, locations in California, Texas, New Jersey, and New York
“I love a BCD moment,” Cho said, of the restaurant chain specializing in soon tofu soup. “I'm such a basic Korean, and I really don't want to mess around—I'm gonna go to BCD wherever it is.” She even gets the kit from the supermarket to make it at home. “It’s quite delicious!,” she raved.
ABC Stores, locations in Hawaii
With a love for Japanese convenience store food—especially Japanese egg salad sandwiches on milky bread—she said Hawaiian’s ABC Stores, where you can get everything from deli food and wine to clothes and beach essentials, have a “similar vibe.”
Chinese American triple threat from Glee, now starring on the London’s West End in George Takei’s Allegiance, a musical based on the Star Trek star’s experience as a Japanese American incarceree
“As a Chinese-American kid growing up in an immigrant home in Brooklyn, Lunar New Year felt like the one time of year that was truly special for the Asian kids,” actor Telly Leung said. “Christian holidays (like Christmas, Easter), and Jewish holidays (Chanakah, Rosh Hashanah) were a big deal with my other classmates. Lunar New Year was specifically mine, and felt like this wonderful opportunity for the other kids in my New York City public school to know what my culture was like at home.”
That said, unlike the other celebrations that were school holidays, Lunar New Year was never a day off. “Sometimes, my parents would let me skip school on that day so that I could celebrate with my family—but I sometimes felt guilty or wrong about missing school on that day,” he said, despite it being the biggest holiday in Asia. “As a kid, I often wished that my cultural holidays had the same weight and significance as Christmas, Easter, or the Jewish High Holy Days.”
Even so, he honored the traditions proudly. “The first thing we did when we woke up was pay my respects to my deceased grandparents by lighting three incense sticks, bowing three times, and asking for their blessing for a prosperous and lucky new year in front of an offering of delicious traditional Chinese food,” Leung said. That would be followed by a “breakfast feast” that included nian gou (new year cake) and lo bak gou (turnip cake).
As a kid, his favorite part was getting red envelopes with money from his parents, grandparents, and aunts and uncles. Nowadays his work often finds him away from home during the holiday and he’s “thankful for all the other Chinese American communities and Chinatowns where I know I can find community to be festive with me,” he said. Still, there’s nothing like being home for Lunar New Year. “It's a time for being with family and taking a moment to be grateful for another year together—and that gratitude is often expressed in food and gifts of cash,” he said. “Gosh, I love this holiday!”
Leung’s favorite Chinatown spots
Mott Street in Manhattan’s Chinatown
“Mott Street in New York City’s Chinatown is bursting with life and a sense of community during the Lunar New Year,” Leung said. “As a kid, I remember being both thrilled by the dragon dancers and also scared out of my mind by the firecrackers popping on the streets to ward away evil spirits for the new year. It is so festive, and a feast for the senses!”
Grant Avenue in San Francisco’s Chinatown
“I loved watching the lion dancers on Grant Avenue and seeing the vibrant Chinese American community come together for the big celebration,” he said. “[It] has a special place in my heart because it was the setting for my first Broadway show in 2002, the revival of Rodgers & Hammerstein's Flower Drum Song. In fact, there's a song in the show called, ‘Grant Avenue.’”
Bruce Lee Mural in San Francisco
“The giant mural of the amazing Bruce Lee, who was the inspiration for the HBO show I'm working on called Warrior” is one of the places in U.S.’s oldest Chinatown that Leung thinks of “fondly.”
Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory in San Francisco
The only thing better than a fresh cookie is a fresh fortune. The actor enjoys the lucky treats “still warm” at this S.F. favorite, where they’re served “right out of the oven.”
Vietnamese American blind cook who won MasterChef season three and is chef and owner of Houston restaurants The Blind Goat, Xin Chào, and—coming soon—Stuffed Belly
Born in southern California and raised in Houston, Christine Ha vividly remembers receiving li xi (red envelope money), watching lion dances, and listening to firecrackers as a kid when she was about five years old during Tết, the Vietnamese name for Lunar New Year. “I knew by these rituals that Lunar New Year is a time for celebration,” she said. As she grew older, she came to understand they were also meant to bring luck and fortune into the new year.
But of course her favorite part of the festivities has always been the food. “I try to make bánh chưng, which is the traditional Vietnamese square sticky rice cakes,” Ha said, explaining that the rice is filled with pork belly, shallot, and mashed mung beans, and then wrapped in banana leaves. “My grandma used to make dozens of these every Tết to give as gifts to family and friends who come to visit during New Year’s week.” Other of her favorite holiday eats include noodles for longevity and egg rolls, which represent wealth.
Loving the festive spirit of the period, she decided to travel to Vietnam a few years back. “It turns out the festivities happen leading up to New Year’s, and after the New Year, all businesses close down, and people return home to visit their families,” she said. “There was nothing to do, and the streets were dead—the complete opposite of what I was expecting. I had missed it by just a few days!”
Despite the mistimed adventure, the trip still brought back childhood memories of when she “observed my grandparents, parents, and family go through the rituals of getting ready for the new year—buying something red to wear, lighting incense for the ancestral altar, preparing abundant foods, cleaning the house, and so on,” Ha said. “Even though I don’t live near much family anymore, Lunar New Year is still a time that reminds me of my heritage and my family.”
Ha’s Houston Lunar New Year favorites
Cho Thanh Binh Market
There’s no better spot in Houston to gather all the Lunar New Year essentials than at Cho Thanh Binh Market, where Ha goes for bánh chưng, as well as red envelopes, and other celebratory gifts.
Located in Houston’s Universal Shopping Center, Ha raved about the eatery’s variety of gio lua (pork rolls), especially their extra large ones just for Lunar New Year.
In the same shopping center on Bellaire Boulevard, the chef turns to this spot when it comes to sticky rice.
“Whole fish is a symbol of abundance and carrying out something from start to finish for Lunar New Year,” Ha said, noting she goes to Saigon Pagolac for whole fish to wrap in rice paper.
Josh Dela Cruz
Filipino American Broadway star of Aladdin turned host of Nick Jr. series Blue’s Clues and You! and Paramount Plus’ original movie Blue’s Big City Adventure
Josh Dela Cruz starts his year by looking up the Zodiac and learning about the year’s traits. “I find that it’s really fun to frame the new year with spiritual attributes instead of creating lists of things I think I need to accomplish,” he said. “Personally, the Lunar New Year represents a spiritual reset, free from our personal ambitions and perceived goals.”
After all, Lunar New Year has been a time of hope for him ever since he first learned about it growing up in New Jersey in Miss Menzella’s second grade class. “It was one of the first times I felt seen,” Dela Cruz said. “I remember feeling there was so much possibility ahead—a feeling I never associated with the new year till then.”
That same spirit is carried through one of his favorite elements of the festivities: watching the dragon dance. “I’m constantly blown away by the performers’ abilities to transform fabric into a living, breathing dragon,” he said, urging everyone to see it live. “I’m instantly transformed into a child full of wonder, as if every adult instinct that tells me, ‘It’s impossible’ disappears—what a poetic way to start a new year, ‘Nothing is impossible!’”
Dela Cruz’s favorite New York City Asian eats
The family-run Cantonese restaurant, dating back to 1968 and known for dishes like its crabs with black bean sauce and Peking style pork chops, was a favorite of Anthony Bourdain’s and “holds a lot of personal and professional significance for me,” Dela Cruz said. “I’ve shared numerous meals here with mentors and friends who helped me become the performer and person I am today.”
“My family would travel through tri-state traffic just to grab two boxes of pork buns from this place then promptly return home,” the actor remembers of his childhood. “When I moved to New York City, this became a frequent pit-stop before I visited family for the holidays. They are the best!”
Filipino American three-time Top Chef alum, who has been a guest judge on Chopped and Beat Bobby Flay, and runs the Goosefeather in Tarrytown and was a 2022 James Beard Award nominee for best chef in New York
Born in Chicago to Filipino parents, chef Dale Talde didn’t celebrate the Lunar New Year in a big way growing up. But once he started working in Asian restaurants in his mid 20s, he started understanding just how essential the holiday is, especially when he was at Buddakan, where many of the staff were Cantonese.
“How you go into the new year is representative of how the rest of the new year's going to be for you,” he said, explaining they would never raise their voices during this time of year, even if things went wrong. “You don't want that energy going into the new year. That's why it's always super chill, minus the firecrackers to scare off all the evil spirits. It's the complete opposite of our western New Year. It's time to be with family.”
That’s exactly how he celebrates the holidays now, instilling the traditions in his two young kids. His family will go over to his Korean wife’s parents’ home, where his sons have learned how to bow and recite sayings to their grandparents before getting red envelopes—and then they’ll all share a meal with rice cake soup and dumplings, made by his mother-in-law.
When it comes to his own cooking, Talde is honoring the Year of the Rabbit at his Tarrytown restaurant Goosefeather, featuring a “bomb ass” rabbit dish in two ways: a Sichuan-style braised leg and thigh and the remainder fried to a crisp topped with citrus. And of course, every guest will also get an orange and red envelope to carry forth that spirit into the new year.
Talde’s picks for Lunar New Year eats across the country
When it comes to dumplings, Talde said to head to any of the dim sum mainstays, like Jing Fong, with roots dating back to 1978 (but downsized to a smaller Centre Street location after a pandemic closure); multi-floored Golden Unicorn, which opened in 1989; or unassuming Dim Sum Go Go, relatively newer to the scene established in 2020.
Ping’s in New York City
Talde’s pick for whole fish is this Mott Street establishment that opened in 1998, serving Hong Kong food. While the live fish can vary day to day depending on what they’re getting in, he said, “If they have black bass, get it—it’s awesome with some ginger and scallion.”
Sun Wah BBQ in Chicago
“I just love that place,” he said of the longtime family-run Cantonese-style barbecue spot, located in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood, famed for its roast Peking duck and roast pigs, noting that its legacy earned it a James Beard Foundation award for being one of America’s Classics in 2018.
A pair of Korean shops located in the H Mart Ridgefield shopping center, are both known for their rice cakes (“In Korean culture, things are grouped together—it’s not considered competition,” he said.) Soram is best known for their duk man doo gook (rice cake dumpling soup), while Yedang specializes in rice cakes, which you can order by the trayful during Lunar New Year. “If you go to someone's house or are celebrating with family members, you exchange these kinds of things during Lunar New Year,” he said.
R&G Lounge in San Francisco
Talde said this San Francisco Chinatown Cantonese restaurant, running since 1985, is “so good,” especially for its live seafood, like its Dungeness crab and spot prawns.