Ellen Xu stands over a shallow pan filled with oil, which bubbles and spits as she pan-fries some traditional Chinese pork dumplings. They have crimped edges and are shaped like little crescent moons, which is fitting, she says, because they are traditionally served for the Chinese Lunar New Year (which falls on Feb. 16 this year)
In the U.S., there are traditional New Year’s foods, too, like pork, greens and black-eyed peas. And just like those foods represent prosperity, Xu says the Lunar New Year table is also full of symbolism.
“They eat a lot of fish because the word for ‘fish’ also means you will be rich,” Xu says. “We have a lot of noodles, too, because they are related to long life.”
The list goes on: savory rice cakes are related to attaining higher social status; sweet, glutinous rice cakes symbolize family togetherness; and those dumplings in the pan also represent wealth.
Xu, who was born in Shanghai, moved to Louisville in 1991 with her husband after he received a scholarship at the Speed School at the University of Louisville. They now have twin sons who are in college.
And Xu says, while she has lived in the U.S. for decades, she still makes a point to maintain the culinary traditions she grew up with.
“That’s the food you were raised with, right?” she says. “Like my sons will eat more American food than Chinese because at school they eat all American, so I think a lot of eating habit is because you grew that way.”
Part of the way she does this is by cooking with other members of Louisville’s Chinese and Chinese-American community.
The community itself isn’t huge compared with other immigrant groups in the city, but Xu is in a texting group with about 30 other women who share photos and recipes. They also host huge parties for major Chinese holidays like the Lunar New Year and the mid-autumn festival.
The group already had a potluck last weekend for the New Year, with tables and tables full of those symbolic dishes. This weekend, they have other plans.
“We have about 22 people,” Xu says. “And one of the friends, she invites everybody to go to a Chinese restaurant in Dupont called Peking Express. The chef, he cooks a lot of traditional Chinese.”
And, Xu jokes, she’s pretty confident that she can predict another year filled with good food.