For classically trained chef Tim Ma, opening a Chinese takeout restaurant wasn’t about reinventing the classics, nor was it about serving “Americanized” Chinese food. Rather, the menu at Virginia- and Washington, DC-based Lucky Danger honors takeout favorites right alongside dishes Ma grew up on, drawing on his background to explore how his upbringing in an immigrant families shaped his approach to the Lunar New Year.
“We experienced a lot of racism in Arkansas back in the ’70s,” Ma says of his formative years. “My parents thought that if we were very American, people would get past how we looked.” As a result, Ma wasn’t taught to speak, read, or write in Chinese. He wasn’t taught much about Chinese culture, except for the food his mother would sometimes make at home. But there was always a large, food-filled celebration for Chinese New Year.
“It was the time we got to see other Chinese-Americans in the community—there weren’t many of us,” Ma says. They’d gather to eat traditional celebratory foods that symbolize good luck for the coming year—like nian gao, sweet glutenous rice cakes, for prosperity and long noodles for longevity— and give out traditional red envelopes filled with money to family members and friends.
One year in particular was pivotal for Ma. “In my teens, at a Chinese New Year celebration, my mom introduced me as her American son,” he recalls. “It was her way of explaining I didn’t speak Chinese, that I was Americanized.” That moment was so impactful, it became the name of Ma’s future restaurant: American Son was open in Washington, DC, from 2018 to July 2021. There, Ma’s culinary path took shape. “I’ve tended more toward the cuisine I didn’t know much about, so I’ve explored more of the Chinese part of cuisine than the American part,” he says.
Because of the language barrier, Ma couldn’t communicate much with his grandparents, so he didn’t grow up cooking with them. By learning and cooking Chinese cuisine later in life, Ma’s culinary journey has taken him into an exploration of his own family as well as his heritage.
Nowadays for Ma, Chinese New Year is celebrated at home with small gatherings of close family. Ma’s parents, uncle, and cousins live in Virginia, so they’ll meet at someone’s house for a potluck dinner. 2021 was Lucky Danger’s first Chinese New Year in business, so they served up big platters of celebratory dishes and handed out red envelopes.
To craft a Chinese New Year menu that celebrates each of their heritages as well as the holiday itself, Ma draws from his memories celebrating, both with big communities in the past and their quieter gatherings with family nowadays. Many appear on Lucky Danger’s menu, like the broccoli beef, cashew chicken, and crab rangoons. Some are recipes that “every Chinese-American family has their version of,” Chiou says, like the tomato egg and congee—Ma makes his with long grain rice. The blue catfish is a take on the tradition of serving a whole fish, cooked in the same sauce as Tony’s black bass—though this chopped iteration is a bit more accessible to the home cook. Taken as a whole, these celebratory recipes are the culmination of their years exploring their particular intersections of Asian American culture through the lens of Chinese American cuisine.
Tim Ma’s Lunar New Year Menu
- by Amber Chase
- by Emily Havener
- by Amber Chase