Wednesday, February 2, 2011

In bounds the rabbit: Chinese New Year Yummies

My Chinese mother is a self-proclaimed banana, which I suppose is a kinder term than "twinkie." Vronsky is a self-proclaimed "egg," so I suppose everything evens out in the end. If you can't figure out what I am referring to here, think colors and pejorative terms for race.

Slang aside, I think there are a lot of "eggs" out there when it comes to food. My favorite part of Anthony Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential was where he decreed that, in all honesty, his favorite, quintessential New York meal was Chinese take-out, Sriracha sauce, a joint and a classic movie. Illegal drugs aside, a part of me truly does think that Chinese food really is the "world's cuisine." I am not kidding. You could find a "Lucky Noodle" in Nairobi and in St. Louis. And while the level of taste at these places could vary widely, from fake Chinese food like orange chicken, to wonderfully authentic, I always smile at the ubiquity of the cheesy fortune cookie and lo mein.

Since Chinese New Year's Eve is this Wednesday and Thursday ushers in the Year of the Rabbit, now's a good time to partake in the omnipresence of Chinese food and try some traditional Chinese New Year treats. Food has such a high standing in Chinese culture itself, the food served on the New Year is filled with tradition and some superstition.

For example, a whole roasted chicken symbolizes family togetherness, while noodles represent long life, so eat them whole and don't break them if you can! And my po-po made sure to remind me to eat some oranges or tangerines tomorrow night and Thursday, which symbolize good luck and Cantonese families will give the fruit to each other as gifts. Too bad I don't have any oranges from her orchard out in Sacramento. Those are the best...always sweet, never sour, and she always peels them for me in a single long peel, like she's done since I was little, because it still impresses me.

Fish also served whole, on the bone, is another traditional treat and done well (nice and thin and crispy) it is absolutely delicious and de-bones very easily. In fact, whole proteins are the M.O. for New Year meals as the act of cleaving meat could be perceived as cleaving family togetherness and unity, a big no-no. As far as your whole fish goes, don't be intimidated by the fact that it comes with the eyes still intact. My grandfather would always tell us to eat it because it would make us wise (all-seeing perhaps) but we never believed him. The fact that he never ate the eye either tipped us off...

Steamed rice cakes are the classic desert. Rice is life, the sweetness symbolizes richness, and the circular shape of the cake itself represents unity. Pomelo fruit is also a classic, but I actually don't care for the taste, but I'll eat plenty of leafy greens and gai lan (Chinese Broccoli), which are also "lucky," to counteract that.

In the moving book Mao's Last Dancer, Li, the protagonist fondly recalls making "jiaozi," or special New Year dumplings with his mother when he was a boy. He grew up in abject poverty in a collective farm in northern China, where "jiaozi" are tradition, and the family would scrimp and save for months to be able to afford enough meat, oil and dough to make the dumplings.

To balance out the excessive feasting that occurs on the eve of the new year, the first meal New Year's Day is traditionally vegetarian. This meat-free meal is also thought to generate good will on that first day as nothing was killed to make it.

The New Year feasting lasts for almost two weeks and you can learn more about each day and what food coincides with it here, but for a half-banana and an indulgent egg, one night of feasting is enough. I plan on making Vronsky's favorite "at home" meal: fresh white rice, steamed lapchong, some sauteed veggies (broccoli, water-chestnuts, snow-peas, ginger and carrots with soy sauce and garlic), and oranges for dessert. And then we will leave all the cleaning for the next day, since it is also bad luck to clean on the New Year, lest you sweep bad luck away. I am convinced that tradition was started by fed-up wives, who themselves were exhausted after the feast and the preparations the night before and needed a DAY OFF before tackling all that mess....

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