Chinese New Year is the most celebrated holiday in many Asian countries where shops are closed for two weeks to a month. Created for the purpose of counting a 12-year cycle in the Chinese calendar, each year is represented by twelve animals in the Chinese zodiac: rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, sheep, monkey, rooster, dog, and pig. This Chinese Lunar New Year on February 10 is the Year of the Water Snake. Throughout Asia and Chinatowns in the western nations, the streets are lined with people watching the festive parades with lions and dragons dancing to the beating of heavy drums and clanging cymbals, and "embraced" with a relentless spray of firecrackers to scare away malevolent spirits from spoiling the chance of a prosperous and hopeful year.
As in any meaningful celebration, the food is abundant and also specialized to fit the holiday. The most important meal is actually on New Year’s Eve where family members travel far and near to share the last meal together before the beginning of the New Year. Traditional dishes served in the New Year’s menu are time consuming in their preparation and vast in their variety. I immerse myself in the preparations many days ahead. It’s my annual New Year’s prep and cooking marathon. For instance, a vegetarian dish called Buddhist Delight includes at least 13 vegetarian items such as lily buds, gingko nuts, deep-fried dry bean curd, seaweed hair, dried shitake mushroom, dried oysters, etc. Although the ingredients may seem “exotic”, the dish is so uniquely delicious with its variations. It is even better the next day as the flavors deepen. The star of the menu is the humble but essential poached whole chicken (yes, head and tail attached – a beginning and an end). This succulent “white cut chicken” is cut into bite-sized pieces to be eaten with a dipping sauce of minced ginger, scallion and salt saturated in hot oil. So very simple yet subtly complex! In the Chinese New Year menu, there is always a broth-type soup - mine is bean curd sticks (Foo Jook Tong) in a clear pork broth with shitake mushrooms and red dates. Another traditional dish is braised shitake mushrooms topped with minced pork and seaweed hair. Of course, amidst the 10-12 dishes on the table, the young people’s tastes gravitate toward the fried foods such as fried scallops, dumplings, spring rolls, and shrimp chips. We all have our favorites to look forward to eating every year.
Visiting the homes of friends and relatives is an important tradition. We wish each other “Gung Hay Fat Choy” as we offer our host pastries, bright oranges and tangerines, and trays filled with candied fruit, nuts and colorfully-wrapped sweets. Of course, the children wait with excitement for those little red envelopes (lai see) filled with money. I hope you will accept the invitation to celebrate with us by making an Asian style dish that will match your comfort level of preparation. The menu you put together will be enjoyed by all. If not, there is always the Chinese takeout!
Gung Hay Fat Choy! May you all have a prosperous good year!
Dim Sum: The Art of Chinese Tea Lunch by Ellen Leong Blonder
The Chinese Takeout Cookbook: Quick and Easy Dishes to Prepare at Home by Diana Kuan
Chinese Dim Sum by Hwa Lin Lee
Chinese Kitchen by Eileen Yin-Fei Lo
Easy Chinese Recipes: Family Favorites from Dim Sum to Kung Pao by Bee Yinn Low
The Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchen by Grace Young
Stir-Frying to the Sky’s Edge by Grace Young