Whether you're looking for food to celebrate Chinese New Year, or just an easy low carb appetizer, these Chinese lettuce wraps are a delicious choice. (Plus the filling is great for meal prep!)
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A different New Year's tradition
While many people are gearing up to celebrate New Year today, for others the bigger New Year is still to come. Amongst Chinese communities across the world, Chinese New Year, or the Spring Festival, which this year is February 16th, is a much bigger deal. It is also celebrated as the Lunar New Year in other Southeast Asian communities such as Korea.
Chinese New Year is an incredibly old celebration of the New Year under the Chinese lunar calendar. Celebrations usually go from the evening before the New Year to the 15th day of the first lunar month which is the lantern festival.
It’s far and away the biggest of the many celebrations in Chinese communities, both in China and in major Chinese communities across the world. I know amongst Chinese friends, even if they weren’t with family, they would always celebrate it in some way.
Chinatowns across the world are decorated with lanterns, garlands and much more. Many places have parades, particularly with lion dances, as I remember seeing when I lived in London which competes with San Francisco for the largest celebration outside of China.
For many internal migrant workers in China, it’s about the only time they get any real time off to be able to travel back to where they are from. As a result, that first evening is usually known as a reunion dinner. As you might imagine, there are some special foods involved. If you want to know more, there's a summary with some menu ideas below the recipe.
While these Chinese lettuce wraps are traditionally for Chinese New Year, they are certainly way too good to limit when you eat them. They're low carb, easy to make, plus you can make extra of the meat filling, freeze it then defrost and warm it when you need it.
How to make sang choy bao
These are really easy to make, as all you do is separate out some lettuce leaves, and chop a couple ingredients before a really quick cook up of the meat with some tasty seasonings. There's really not too much to it, but the result is delicious. While it’s traditionally an appetizer, you can also serve any leftover meat filling with rice or noodles as a main.
These Sang Choy Bao, Chinese lettuce wraps, are incredibly quick and easy to make, and a fun food to eat. Great for a party, great for meal prep, the filling is a flavorful mix you'll be making again and again.
Try these other easy Chinese favorites:
Sang choy bao, Chinese lettuce wraps
- 8 oz water chestnuts 230g, 1 can
- 3 spring onions scallions
- ½ tbsp fresh ginger grated
- 1 clove garlic grated
- 2 tbsp cilantro coriander, roughly chopped
- 1 iceberg lettuce
- 2 tsp vegetable oil
- 1 lb ground pork 450g, or chicken or turkey
- 2 tsp soy sauce or tamari
- 1 tsp sesame oil
- 2 tbsp hoisin sauce
- Drain the can of water chestnuts and chop the slices into small pieces. Thinly slice the spring onions/scallions and have your grated ginger, garlic and chopped cilantro ready to go as well. Break off pieces of lettuce to make cups (they can be whole, smaller leaves or parts of big leaves - you just want them a good size and shape to hold the meat and eat from). You’ll need approx 20 to use all the filling.
- Warm the vegetable oil in a wok or skillet then add the spring onions/scallions, ginger and garlic and cook for a minute, stirring regularly.
- Add the ground meat and cook for approx 5 minutes, stirring regularly, until the meat is cooked through.
- Add the chopped water chestnuts, soy sauce/tamari, sesame oil and hoisin sauce and cook a minute as you mix them through. Remove from the heat and stir through the cilantro. Spoon the mixture into your lettuce cups and serve.
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Want to know more about Chinese New year food traditions? Read on...
Chinese New Year Food
Foods eaten for Chinese New Year (both the reunion dinner and other days) vary from one family to another as many dishes are passed down the generations. With China being such a big place with varying cuisines, this also influences the different traditions. However there are a number of dishes that are common to a region at least.
Many dishes are eaten for symbolic reasons, such as due to the shape or the sound of a food’s name being like something else. Here’s a quick introduction to some classics. All would be great as part of a Chinese New Year meal at home.
‘Yee sang’, a Chinese salad is common in some areas and is a fun, if messy, way to get the celebration going. The salad includes shredded vegetables, fried wontons and sometimes raw fish like salmon. Everyone stands around and tosses the salad with chopsticks. The belief is the higher you toss, the better the next year will be.
Spring rolls get their name from the Spring Festival and are particularly common in Cantonese communities. The golden fried Spring rolls are thought to be like gold bars, symbolising wealth or prosperity.
‘Jiaozi’, dumplings, like these Chinese pork and cabbage dumplings are another lucky food. They are believed to symbolize wealth as the shape is like silver ingots. If you make some, be sure to make plenty of pleats - if too flat you’ll be poor! Sang choy bao, meat-filled lettuce cups, are another common appetizer (recipe above!). ‘Sang choy’, lettuce, signifies growth and prosperity.
Marvelous main dishes
Chicken, pork and fish are all common mains with many different preparations. If you serve fish, it will almost certainly be a whole fish, often steamed with light seasonings. While everyone digs in, a little is left for good luck. ’Yu’ for fish sounds like the word for leftovers.
Noodles are also very common and are often handmade. You don't cut the noodle in short lengths as you might typically. Instead, you leave them long, as long noodles symbolize a long life and longevity.
Various candies might be eaten, as well as fruits which are symbolic. Mandarins are especially common in South China as the dialect’s pronunciation of the name is similar to the word for ‘luck’. Tangyuan, Chinese sweet dumplings are made from glutinous rice flour with a sweet filling, often made with sesame seeds or peanuts. They are common in Taiwan and some areas of China, both for the lantern festival and sometimes throughout Chinese New Year. They symbolize family togetherness.
Niangao, a dense cake made with sticky rice, sugar, chestnuts and Chinese dates, is another popular dessert. The name sounds like the word meaning ‘getting higher year on year’, linking to the belief the higher you are, the more prosperous your life.