This post was updated Feb. 20 at 4:12 p.m.
As an extensive line of students formed well before opening time Thursday evening, the dining staff at Feast at Rieber – a dining hall featuring Asian-inspired cuisines – bustled with final preparations to welcome the Year of the Dragon.
The festivities and food were part of UCLA Dining’s annual Lunar New Year celebration in honor of the holiday which took place Feb. 10. Lunar New Year ushers in the arrival of the new year on the lunar calendar, marked by one of the 12 zodiac animals in traditional Asian folklore. Inside Feast at Rieber, red lanterns hung from the ceiling, members of the UCLA Wushu team warmed up for their live performance and the smell of freshly-made food filled the air.
Although different cultures celebrate the new year in various ways, well-wishes for the upcoming year are usually expressed with symbolic dishes and a reunion of friends and family.
Vanessa Galvan, general manager of the Rendezvous and Feast at Rieber dining halls, said the event was an opportunity for students who celebrate the Lunar New Year to share their culture with students who may not partake in the holiday.
For one, first-year biology student Chidera Igboakaeze said she took part in the festivities because of her roommate’s ties to the holiday, even though her roommate had gone home to celebrate with her family.
“Many of us are away from our families, and a special celebration such as the new year can bring our students together,” Galvan said. “It drives us and motivates us to create that environment, that warm feeling that we can for our students, for our staff and our faculty.”
Joseph Kim, a fourth-year Asian studies student who attended the dinner, said he believes it is important for UCLA to honor Lunar New Year, as a large portion of the student body celebrates the holiday.
The menu aimed to preserve the authenticity of traditional dishes while incorporating a twist to appeal to student audiences, said Orlando Lina, Rendezvous’ executive sous chef.
When asked what his favorite dish was, Kim had a simple answer.
“All of the food,” he said.
One featured dessert was a mixed fruit salad featuring round fruits, or “Good Fortune Fruit,” as listed on the dining hall menus.
Wilfredo Vitug, executive chef at Rendezvous and overseer of Feast, said the spherical nature of the fruit symbolizes luck and fortune and added that the dining hall aimed to put a modern twist on the dish. Rather than keep the fruits whole, chefs cut up the oranges, watermelon and grapes, added lemon juice, orange juice, sugar and mint leaves and presented the fruit salad as a dessert alongside Chinese almond cookies.
“Kids now don’t just want one fruit. They want variety, color, taste – something new, something that will catch their eye,” Vitug said. “That’s what we did – tradition, but with a twist.”
For the entrees, the dining staff assembled platters of shrimp shumai, vegetable egg rolls, pork ribs with black bean sauce, sambal pork skewers, eight treasure rice and longevity noodles.
Although students only see the final product, Vitug and Galvan said the meal took significant work to plan.
To start, UCLA Dining’s research and development team looked into the traditions and customs of each dish, Vitug said. He added that once the staff settles on a dish, the team tests the food and assesses the allergen risks before establishing the final menu.
One of the biggest challenges was sourcing the ingredients, Galvan said.
“If there was a recipe we liked, and then when we are ready to order, the ingredients are not available, then back to the drawing board we go,” Galvan said.
Aside from the red lanterns and the paper decorations commemorating the incoming Year of the Dragon, students were treated to a performance by UCLA’s student-coached Wushu team. Wushu is a Chinese form of martial arts centered around performance, said Talia Tam, a third-year psychobiology student and the team’s coach.
The performances included a variety of skills, from straight swords to staff forms of all levels, Tam said. She added that she hopes being part of the event helped introduce the sport to more of the student body.
“It’s always great to be able to perform for new audiences, and we would like to reach a larger audience to share our culture and our sport,” she said.
Igboakaeze said the event was important because it celebrated a tradition while introducing students to cultures they may have never experienced before.
Galvan said her hope with the event was to reach 2,000 students – a number close to Feast at Rieber’s record high of 2,300 meals served during one day.
“A day like today creates more awareness of different cultures, different holidays, maybe some that we normally don’t come across every day or celebrate yearly,” Galvan said. “I think it’s very important in who we – UCLA – are.”
Contributing reports by Catherine Hamilton, News editor.