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What to Eat? A Daughter's Lunar New Year Dilemma

I grew up in South Carolina in the 1970s and '80s, amid a sea of towheaded children. There wasn't a whole lot of Chinese-ness around us — but the one big exception was our kitchen. So my Chinese identity, and much of my Mandarin vocabulary, is connected to food.

I'm the first generation of my family born in the United States, and our meals reflected that. We had our fair share of Ragu spaghetti sauce, tacos from a kit and tuna casserole topped with crushed potato chips.

But nearly every Sunday night, we had dumplings, hot-and-sour soup and scallion pancakes. My dad's job was to roll out the dough for the dumpling wrappers; my brother, sister, mom and I worked as a factory line to fill and seal the lovely little pouches of meat and vegetables.

At other meals, we ate whole fish, heads, eyeballs and all; we had stinky dried mushrooms rehydrating on the kitchen counter, along with wood-ear fungi that looked like something that had been wiped off the counter.

All those years, I watched my mother cook, but I never really learned how to myself.

When I found out my parents would be with my husband and me at the beginning of the lunar new year, I hightailed it to a Chinese market. I bought regular tofu, deep-fried tofu, oily tofu, shiitake mushrooms, golden needle mushrooms, and two different kinds of fish balls. The cashier laughed at the parade of comestibles: It was enough food to feed a small village. She asked me how big my family was.

But I didn't buy the must-have traditional New Year food: sticky rice cakes. They're called niangao in Chinese, which sounds like the words for "year" and "high," and are eaten to bring better luck in each new year.

As far as I'm concerned, "making" sticky rice cake consists of cutting and heating up thick slices from the big chunk of the stuff that my grandmother sends me. I don't really even know what goes into them.

So for this new year's, I've settled on a modest meal: hot pot, otherwise known as fire pot or Chinese fondue — lots of do-it-yourself dipping.

This won't be the most complicated meal my parents will have ever had at the new year. In fact, by traditional Chinese standards, it will likely rank among the most simple and humble.

But I hope more than anything that they enjoy it and leave the table feeling full and happy, for its main ingredients will not be the fancy meats or mushrooms I bought, but the love I feel for them and the desire I have to try and repay them the riches — edible and not — they have given me.

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Maureen Pao is an editor, producer and reporter on NPR's Digital News team. In her current role, she is lead digital editor and producer for All Things Considered. Her primary responsibility is coordinating, producing and editing high-impact online components for complex, multipart show projects and host field reporting.