January 26, 2006

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Goodbye rooster, hello year of the dog

Celebrate the Chinese New Year with some Buddha’s delight

By Susan Reilly  news@hippopress.com

Westerners celebrate the new year on January 1 and typically mark the holiday with resolutions to improve oneself — to cut calories or get into shape.

For the Chinese, the New Year is lunar and this year it starts on January 29.

There are no vows of self-improvement and crazy dieting. It is a time to celebrate family and good fortune with big communal meals.

In the east, food is not the enemy like it is for many carb-counting Westerners and during the New Year it is believed that if you choose the right foods, you can eat your way to good fortune.

If your New Year’s resolutions have fallen by the wayside and you have fallen off the proverbial wagon by the end of January, embrace the Chinese New Year, put your fat-free meal away and eat for good fortune.

Here is how it works. A feast is laid out on New Year’s Eve where family and the spirits of ancestors dine together. This communal feast is called weilu, or “surrounding the stove,” and it is meant to unify past and present generations.

Adults and children are on their best behavior because it is believed that whatever happens on the first day of the year will decide events for the coming year.

Many homes decorate with red and gold and set a blossoming tree in the main room. The tree is adorned with wishes written on slips of red paper. The legend has it that there is an ancient banyan tree in Hong Kong that people travel to at New Year’s. Wishes are written on colorful red wishing paper, then tied to oranges and thrown up into the tree. If the wishes stick in the tree, it is thought that they will come true.

Food is the center of this symbolic rich celebration, and certain ingredients and dishes have particular meanings.

Ken Hom, the Arizona-born chef and London restaurateur who hosts a Chinese cooking show on the BBC, navigates the traditional New Year menu in his book Foolproof Chinese Cookery.

While Chinese cuisine beyond your neighborhood restaurant is a mystery to many, Hom breaks it down into layman’s terms.

For the New Year Feast, fish and chicken are cooked and served whole and represent completeness, unity and togetherness.

Noodles are prepared uncut, as they symbolize a long life. Gingko nuts will be used in dishes as they promise silver coins and lotus seeds will bring male children to the family.

Dried bean curd and black moss seaweed represent wealth and happiness. Since it is white, the color of death, fresh bean curd or tofu is not eaten at the new year since it is believed to bring death and misfortune to the family.

Hom acknowledges that many of the authentic Chinese dishes can be tough for the home cook to replicate as many of the ingredients are not readily available

If take out is your thing, Hom suggests a mixed platter of spare ribs, chicken, vegetable spring rolls and sesame shrimp or stir fried bok choy for a prosperous year.

For the cleansing of sins and problems, a spicy pork dish, such as kung pao pork is prescribed. Fried rice, with egg, will bring abundance, and pan-seared noodles, left uncut, will bring longevity. Peking duck brings fidelity and sweet and sour pork an abundance of grandchildren.

Buddha’s Delight, also on area menus as vegetarian’s delight, is a popular dish loaded with New Year’s symbolism. Buddhists believe that no animal or fish should be killed on the first day of the new year. Look for this dish at Golden Palace, Milford; Jay House Asian Cuisine, Londonderry; New Happy Garden, Manchester, and Lilac Blossom, Nashua.

In Manchester, Peking Garden at 967 Elm Street will be offering a special New Year’s menu of whole 1½ pound fish steamed with scallions and ginger ($18.95), Shanghai bok choy with garlic ($8.95).

Serve this up with barbecue spare ribs ($6.95), crispy duck with the bone ($14.95) and scallion pancakes ($2.95) and vegetarian delight ($7.95) and you are on your way to a year filled with unity, prosperity and courage.

Eat and be fortunate. This is much better than what you had planned at the beginning of the month.

If you feel like heating up the wok and making your own meal, markets such as Merlion Asian Market in Nashua and Saigon Asian Market in Manchester can supply you with everything you need.

At Saigon Asian Market, whole fish ($1.99-$4.99/lb.) can be had, along with dozens of choices of noodles, vegetables and spices. A ten pack of chopsticks will set you back a dollar.

At this time of year, Asian markets will have gold bars filled with sweets and stamped with the symbol for the year of the dog. Under communist rule since 1949, the Chinese were not allowed to buy gold until 2003. Now gold bars are part of the New Year’s celebration.

To finish off your meal, serve an artfully arranged platter of sweet preserved squash, kumquats, and water chestnuts, lotus seeds, pieces of coconut and ginger. Or opt for the brightly colored coconut strips and sticky sesame cookies. A sweet green bean cake, wrapped in a golden box resembling a gold bar, would be a showstopper.

There is an old Chinese proverb that says food is heaven. With that in mind, take control of your destiny and instead of depriving yourself, eat up. Gung hay fat choy, meaning, best wishes, have a prosperous and good new year.

Comments? Thoughts? Discuss this article and more at hippoflea.com  



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