Lunar New Year in Petaluma

A few of the local celebrations of food and culture planned around town.|

Depending on where you are in the world or from where you draw your cultural foundations, it is sometimes called Lunar New Year, sometimes called Spring Celebration and (due to their vast influence over centuries and even millennium throughout Asia) is often referred to as Chinese New Year.

No matter what you call it, a good portion of the world celebrates the New Year according to the lunar calendar, not the Gregorian calendar we use in Europe and the Americas. One notable exception here in the west are the Nisga’a, indigenous peoples of Canada, mostly concentrated around Vancouver, who celebrate Hobiyee at the emergence of the first crescent moon of their New Year.

Lunar New Year signifies the beginning of the new lunar calendar, which is based on the cycles of the moon, unlike the Gregorian calendar where the phases of the moon rarely appear on the same day of each month. Even those who use lunar calendars celebrate the start and end of the year at different times. Hindu, Islamic and Jewish cultures usually celebrate at a different time than most of the Chinese-influenced celebrations, which fall shortly after the winter solstice.

Traditionally, Chinese New Year starts at the second new moon after the winter solstice, while in other cultures the Lunar New Year is often celebrated on the first new moon. However, as most Asian New Year’s celebrations derive from the Chinese, the New Year in Japan, Korea and Vietnam all tend to follow the same dates as Chinese New Year. Of special note, the Chinese incorporate their 12-year cyclical animal-zodiac into their celebration. During this year’s Chinese New Year’s celebration we wave goodbye to the year of the Rat and welcome in the year of the Ox.

As it stands, there are two schools of thought when it comes to how to refer to this New Year’s celebration. Calling it “Chinese New Year” may be considered overbroad, however, calling the same celebration “Lunar New Year” ignores the fact that there are other cultures that have their own lunar new year celebrations at other times of the year. If you do find yourself in China at the time of the celebration, know that there it will simply be called “New Year’s,” just as Nubian goats are simply call “goats” in the region of Nubia.

Regardless of what it is called, where it is celebrated and to which customs it adheres, unlike the west’s single night of New Year’s Eve frivolity, most of the rest of the world celebrates a Lunar New Year with multiple days of festivities that focus on food and family. This year’s celebration started on Thursday, Feb. 11, (New Year’s Eve) and at least for the Chinese, ends after the Lantern Festival, Friday, Feb. 26. And for those who think westerners really know how to live it up on New Year’s, consider that the Chinese take the whole week off from work to celebrate their New Year.

I inadvertently stumbled into this year’s Chinese New Year when I reached out to Joanne Wu of Fantasy Restaurant for the accompanying article on this page. I just so happen to contact her on the first day of the Lunar New Year and she was slammed beyond belief. We both had a good laugh and agreed to talk later. Thankfully, many of my missteps lead to great food, as well as heart-warming stories of cross-cultural celebrations.

As soon as Chinese New Year was on my mind, I started to notice more celebrations. First came an email from Liberty Ducks. With duck being one of my favorite parts of Chinese cuisine, I clicked the link and found several duck recipes, including one from long-time Liberty Ducks fan and local celebrity Lance Lew.

The attached video showed Lance making two Nian Goa (a Chinese New Year’s cake), explaining that one is for the household’s New Year’s alter, while the second cake is eaten in portions, some on New Year’s Eve and some on New Year’s Day.

“This symbolic ‘carry over,’ having enough for today and tomorrow, is an important Chinese virtue and a global wish as we manage this pandemic,” says Lance.

As often happens in such a close-knit community, Lance Lew’s name popped up in the Petaluma Foodies group on Facebook when he posted tantalizing photos of half a dozen dishes he had prepared for the celebration.

“Traditional Lunar New Year meals includes symbolic foods that will bestow good luck and always include something from the land, ocean and sky,” Lance posted, with a detailed description of the dishes he had prepared as well as their significance to the celebration.

If Lew’s name sounds familiar, his face is even more recognizable as he is a regular on-air personality on NBC Bay Area, as well as the director of community marketing for the same. He is an avid chef (and floral designer) and is well known for his charitable Lunar New Year’s dinners. His 10 course dinners are paired with 10 Benzinger Family wines and have raised over $125,000 for Sonoma charities over the past decade, with two of his dinners bringing in a record $20,000 each.

If longtime Petalumans do not recognize the Lew name, they will certainly remember his family’s contribution to Petaluma’s food history. This family has lived and worked in Petaluma for nearly a century now, and were the family who opened the Petaluma Grocery Supermarket (at Petaluma Boulevard and Lakeville) in 1941 and ran it until 1979.

Lance grew up learning to cook from his father, grandmother and aunt. “It takes a village — our grocery store created a safe village setting of co-parenting uncles and aunties,” he remembers. “Chinese New Year was special and allowed us to share all the customs of the holiday. Remember, we were to assimilate and be Americanized but during this special season we decorated our doors with red lucky banners, dressed in culturally appropriate clothing and shared homemade foods.”

Lance’s family also owned the Egg Basket restaurant, where Risibisi currently resides at 154 Petaluma Blvd. The Egg Basket was the only local restaurant at the time that served both Chinese and American food, before closing sometime in the late 1950s.

While attending Chico State, Lance earned spending money by presenting cooking demonstrations at Zucchini & Vine and offered Chinese cooking classes at the House of Rice. After college, Lance entered the world of visual media.

“Working in television has allowed my hobby to benefit charities by auctioning off my dinners,” says Lance. “What is great is food unites us all and helping charities is a fun way to get the cooking bug to a wider audience. A long way from cooking as the steward of my fraternity.”

Lance and his wife Roberta Mar Lew (who just so happened to be featured in last week’s column about Bright Bear Bakery’s closing) settled back in Petaluma after they married, because they still had family living here and craved sense of community.

“It was the best culinary move for both of us to learn hands-on cooking skills from my grandmother and aunt, who still lived here,” says Lance.

He remembered, “In the 50s our store also provided some housing upstairs and boasted a full kitchen with cook. The cook fed the workers before going down to the Egg Basket. I have a vague memory as a toddler being carried into the kitchen, which was a striking contrast to the store below, with industrial burners and wok, simple homemade wooden benches and a rustic table. Two wooden windows hung open, cigarette and bacon smoke, coupled with conversations in Chinese and English permeated the air. I was handed off to my grandfather to be held; my father ripped the center portion of white bread toast while the cook handed him a bowl with a shelled soft boiled egg with a pinch of salt; mixed together –this is my earliest memory of a perfectly prepared egg breakfast.”

Not unexpected, but still genuinely pleasurable to see, the community reacted with overwhelming delight to Lance’s post. One comment in particular stood out and piqued my interest.

Alice White Roberti commented, “That looks amazing. We did Korean food in honor of our daughter's heritage.”

“That is great strengthening your daughter’s heritage,” Lance responded.

Lance went on to explain that he was friends with Alice’s husband’s late Aunt Irene, who had given Lance her ravioli crimper, which he still uses to this day. As I always say, “you are only one person away from knowing everyone in Petaluma.”

Alice’s story intrigued me as I have several friends and family members who struggle to help their adopted children connect to their birth cultures. I caught the Santa Rosa Junior College history professor in the middle of grading papers, but we were able to chat via email later that day.

Alice and husband Paul are native Petalumans, with Paul coming from the historic Dahlmann/Starke lineage. While living in Texas, they adopted Emma from Korea. (They also have two sons, Michael and Bradley.) They immediately moved to Egypt for Paul’s work with Vodafone, which presented a challenge when trying to keep Emma connected to her culture.

“Then we lived in Portugal,” Alice says. “Same story, then England, where she at least could have outstanding Chinese food (she still prefers the Hong Kong style Chinese food served in London). But still no Korean culture, except for the British Museum's Asian rooms.”

The Robertis moved back to Petaluma when Emma was in grammar school, at which point they spent a great deal of time in San Francisco searching for Korean food. Shortly thereafter, they found a Korean Culture Camp in Minnesota, where Alice and Emma would spend two weeks each summer until Emma went off to the University of Oregon, where she graduate in 2020 with a degree in psychology, with a specialization in social media and a minor in business.

“I worked in the kitchen and learned how to prepare the traditional dishes,” Alice says. “Emma is now 23 and she is an avid Korean chef, her specialties are banchan and bulgogi. She buys all her ingredients from Asiana Market in Cotati and when she does not feel like cooking, we eat at Soban. Soban has the finest and most authentic Korean food outside of Korea.”

She adds, “Lunar New Year for us is all about family and food. We gather together to celebrate the blessed strength of our family ties and to honor Emma's mother country. We eat traditional dishes such as ddeckbokki, mandu, jabchae and galbi and talk about the adventures we have had while visiting Korea.”

A final piece of local Lunar New Year food news comes from Dumplings for Unity: A Lunar New Year and Black History Month “Dumpling Cookalong Fundraiser.” The online event is hosted by Petaluma’s Herb Folk (, an Asian American herb shop and clinic located at 117 Washington St., in collaboration with Adrian Chang. This is a fundraiser for Oakland-based Good Good Eatz (

“At this virtual event, Adrian Chang, co-founder of Asian American Folk Traditions, will teach you in real-time how to make both meat-based and vegan filling and then a variety of dumpling folding techniques. Adrian will also demonstrate how to steam and boil the dumplings. During the class, he and co-founder Erin Wilkins invite you in on the conversation (as we always do) so we can share Lunar New Year memories, talk about food and the importance of standing together in the face of division and racism.”

All of the proceeds will go directly to Good Good Eatz, “an Oakland based organization working to revitalize marginalized neighborhoods and forge unity across BIPOC communities. Good Good Eatz’s underlying and ongoing mission is to create a bridge between ethnic communities — particularly Asian and Black unity — across Oakland districts by supporting local restaurants and business and providing access to food to their community members who otherwise are without resource.”

More information and registration are available at the “Events and Workshops” page of

UPDATED: Please read and follow our commenting policy:
  • This is a family newspaper, please use a kind and respectful tone.
  • No profanity, hate speech or personal attacks. No off-topic remarks.
  • No disinformation about current events.
  • We will remove any comments — or commenters — that do not follow this commenting policy.