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February 03, 2016

Why is Maine lobster a Chinese New Year staple?

Chef Joseph Poon explains the connection

It's no secret that what many Americans refer to as Chinese food is really a long-running amalgamation of adapted recipes that have been homogenized over the years to look very different from what is actually eaten in China. Though cities like New York, San Francisco and Philadelphia have been lucky enough to attract authentic Chinese chefs and eateries, there's still so much that the eating public often doesn't know or get to experience. 

Speaking for myself as a young woman whose cooking specialty is burning water, I'd consider myself even less educated about Chinese culinary traditions than the average American. Thus, with the Lunar New Year arriving Monday, Feb. 8 (2016 is the Year of the Monkey, by the way), I was curious to find out what a traditional Chinese New Year meal looks like. 

RELATED READ: Celebrate the Chinese New Year with these 7 Philly events

During a casual search on the interwebs, I was immediately bombarded with headlines proclaiming Maine lobster was the next big thing in Chinese New Year traditions. According to The Associated Press, American exports of lobster to China even hit $90.5 million in 2014, up from $2.1 million just five years earlier. 

To find out why exactly Maine lobster is in such demand, I called up Chef Joseph Poon. The gregarious and happy-go-lucky chef is well-known for opening Philly's first duck house, Sang Kee, in 1979; these days, many restaurants and careers later, he is a TV personality and food tour guide. (He's also known to whip up a multi-course lobster dinner in honor of the new year.) 

As it turns out, the connection between Maine lobster and the Lunar New Year is pretty simple. It starts with the symbol of the dragon in Chinese culture: It represents strength and good luck. 

"In America, the dragon is evil, but in China, the dragon is macho man! He is the top of the heap," Poon said. 

The lobster is, essentially, the culinary representation of the dragon, so "the lobster brings high energy, longevity, respect and prosperity" too, Poon said. 

So why Maine lobsters? Well, thanks to overfishing, the spiny lobsters that typically inhabit the South China Sea are harder to come by and thus more expensive. Plus, Maine lobsters turn a more vibrant red when cooked, which is a lucky color in Chinese culture. Finally, families pull out all the stops for the holiday meal, so an imported dish is extra special. 

And there you have it: a simple explanation for a globe-trotting meal.

In celebration of the holiday and this delicacy, Poon will be hosting a special dinner at Asian Arts Initiative Saturday, Feb. 27. His "Lobster Feast: Off the Menu!" pop-up will feature six lobster dishes, from lobster caviar salad and stuffed claw to a lobster cheeseburger. The menu will include many of Poon's signature fusion influences, too; seating is limited, and tickets are required. Click here to reserve your spot