Imagine a Thanksgiving bender that lasts until just before Christmas, in a guiltless torpor of schmoozing and snacking. Now align your notion of "snacking" with the ceaseless creativity and cross-pollination of a few dozen stellar regional cuisines and some of the best tea on the planet. There you have Chinese New Year, possibly the world's supreme eating event. Certainly it's the most colossal, lasting 15 days and involving more than 1 billion people.
Pork dumplings, tens of billions of which are eaten on New Year's Eve as part of the customary family meal, represent the perfect confluence of the traditional and the irresistible. The oblong dumplings resemble the gold and silver ingots that were used for currency in premodern China and therefore symbolize good fortune, which explains why they appear on the New Year's table. Served steaming hot on a cold winter night, dripping with their own liquefied fat, they are the definition of comfort food, which explains why people eat a dozen or two, loosen their belts, and then eat a few more.
Eastern Lights, a venerable Chinese and Korean restaurant in Durham (4215 University Drive, 403-3650, www.easternlightsrestaurant.com), serves a 10-course New Year's banquet featuring particularly juicy and tender dumplings. The recipe descends from Chef Frank Chao's father, who fled from China to Korea to escape conscription during the 1940s. He found work in a string of dumpling shops and slowly mastered the mysteries of flour and water. In 1974, he left Korea for Taiwan, where he made a comfortable living selling his perfected dumplings to shops, schools and fire stations.
The Chaos opened their first restaurant in America, Durham's Mandarin House, in 1981.
"The dumplings weren't very good," explains Chef Chao's wife, Lily, who manages Eastern Lights. "So we went back to Taiwan to study from the master. He gave us his recipe and we follow it exactly." According to Frank Chao, the family patriarch is still thriving at 88. He has often dined at Eastern Lights and approvingly savored the dumplings—as well as the fine handmade noodles—that memorialize his exile in Korea.
The Chaos' dumplings are distinguished by a particularly stiff dough that is hydrated with a little boiling water, the use of extra-fatty pork belly and the unusual admixture of minced white onion, which lends the meat filling a sweetness and a slightly pink hue. According to Lily Chao, however, the principal secret is patient hand-kneading and hand-warming of the dough. "If you use a machine, there's no love," she says.
This year's Chinese New Year celebration begins Feb. 3 (the second new moon after the winter solstice) and ends with the Lantern Festival on Feb. 17 (the full moon). Packaged dumplings would initiate the Year of the Rabbit, but homemade dumplings will festoon it.
Get the recipe for Eastern Lights dumplings at our Big Bite blog.