In New Jersey, as elsewhere, even adventurous eaters are often thwarted in their efforts to experience authentic Chinese food. There’s the language barrier, compounded by Chinese language menus that aren’t routinely offered to non-Chinese patrons. But if there’s a time when the rewards for persistence are greatest, it’s Chinese New Year. Celebrations of the holiday, which arrives two new moons after the winter solstice, revolve around food.
Chinese families of all sizes flock to restaurants for holiday banquets, which are expanded versions of prix fixe menus available all the time. On Chinese- language menus, these banquets are often listed by the number of people they serve—a clue for the intrepid.
The pulse quickens when entering restaurants where all or most of the customers are Chinese and where signs with Chinese writing abound—restaurants like those mentioned in this article. There is absolutely nothing wrong with walking around with eyes peeled, then discreetly pointing to dishes that interest you and asking your server what’s in them. (Don’t ask if dishes are good, because you’ll probably be told you won’t like them, whatever they are.)
The good news is that one of the most accessible of New Year treats is the dumpling feast. Almost all foods associated with Chinese New Year are considered to bring good luck for one reason or another. Dumplings, especially those with golden wrappers, are fancifully thought to resemble ingots used in the Ming Dynasty, and the word for dumplings is said to sound like the Chinese word for an early form of paper money. So you have gilt by association.
King’s Village in Edison (1639 Route 27, 732-339-9858) takes its dumplings seriously all year, but especially in its all-you-can-eat New Year Dumpling Feast, available Feb 13 through 28 for $16.95. (King’s Village is one of the few authentic Tianjin restaurants in New York or New Jersey. Tianjin, a harbor city near Beijing, is known for its stir fries served with thin pancakes and its breakfast-lunch cuisine of dumplings, buns, noodles, and soups.) The dumpling feast includes a number of varieties made just for the holiday: pumpkin with shrimp; pumpkin with lamb; mixed vegetable; flounder; beef with green pepper; pork with bok choy; pork with chives; pork with pea shoots; pork with radish; pork with corn; and pork, shrimp, mushroom, and egg.
Wrappers come in three hues: the aforementioned golden, made with pumpkin; purple, made with black rice husks, symbolizing strength and healing; and green, made with spinach, for the coming of spring. “For New Year’s,” says King’s Village owner and dumpling expert Jing Wang, “we need more color to make people happy.”
Here are other Chinese restaurants, known for authentic regional cooking, that are adding new items or expanding prix fixe menus for the new year:
CANTONESE (known for seafood and dim sum): Jade Isle in Plainfield (158 Terrill Road, 908-322-6111); Noodle Chu in Parsippany (770 U.S. Highway 46, 973-299-6518); Wonder Seafood in Edison (1984 State Route 27, 732-287-6328).
HUNAN (known for spicy flavors, stews, and smoked dishes): Hunan Noodle House in Parsippany (1551 U.S. Highway 46, 973-263-8855).
SHANGHAI (known for dumplings and sweet-and-sour dishes): Grand Shanghai in Edison (700 U.S. Highway 1, 732-819-8830); John’s Shanghai in Edgewater (880 River Road, 201-945-8825); Shanghai Bun in Matawan (952 State Route 34, 732-765-8388).
SICHUAN (known for spicy and oil-based sauces): Chengdu 1 in Cedar Grove (89 Pompton Avenue, 973-239-7726); Dragon Palace in Edison (1635 Oak Tree Road, 732-549-7554); Sichuan Spring in Highland Park (1167 Raritan Avenue, 732-572-9510).
TAIWANESE (influenced by both mainland China and Japan): China Palace in Middletown (1815 State Route 35, 732-957-0554); Shangri La in Cherry Hill (101 Springdale Road, 856-428-5866).