It’s nearly Lunar New Year, and Johnny Mui is finally smiling.
After staring at empty tables for the last two years because of the pandemic, the owner of New York’s Hop Lee restaurant says business is slowly recovering.
Mui joined the 48-year-old Chinatown establishment in 2005 as an employee – after losing everything to Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans – and took over in 2018.
These days, he’s busy talking to suppliers to ensure he’s got all the necessary ingredients to meet the demand for one of Hop Lee’s most popular Lunar New Year dishes: Stir-fried Ginger Scallion Lobster Yi Mein – aka longevity noodles.
“Every Lunar New Year, almost every table would order our longevity noodles,” he says. “Good looking and better tasting, they symbolize luck, too.”
This year, Lunar New Year falls on January 22, but celebrations occur over several days – collectively referred to as the Spring Festival. Traditional rituals, foods included, are filled with symbolism.
Longevity noodles symbolize long life. According to tradition, the chef can’t cut the noodle strands, and each strand needs to be eaten whole – no breaking it before you eat it.
But that’s where the consensus ends.
Ask people of Chinese heritage which types of noodles should be eaten, and you’ll likely get different answers.
Longevity noodles: the lucky Lunar New Year dish
At Hop Lee, longevity noodles are synonymous with yi mein, also known as e-fu noodles. These chewy and spongy Cantonese egg wheat strands are dried, deep-fried and consumed all year long, especially on special occasions like birthdays and during the Spring Festival.
Hop Lee’s lobster longevity noodles recipe has been passed down for decades. The yi mein noodles are braised with seasonings and shiitake mushrooms. The lobsters are stir-fried with fermented salted black beans, eggs, minced meats, ginger and scallions.
“Then we put the lobsters on top of the noodles, and the juice trickles down. It’s so delicious. Even my son loves it – he’d ask me to prepare the dish for his school parties,” says Mui.
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