SAN FRANCISCO – Have your luck and eat it, too.
That’s the philosophy behind traditional Chinese New Year’s dishes, which are loaded with symbolic meaning auguring prosperity for the coming year.
Want to live long? Eat long noodles – just be sure not to cut them.
Need a bit more in the bank? Serve fish, the Chinese name for which sounds like the word for surplus.
And don’t forget dumplings, which also symbolize prosperity and are traditionally eaten late on the eve of the New Year.
The Year of the Rabbit starts with the big “reunion dinner” on New Year’s Eve – Feb. 2 this year – a meal reserved for family and resonant with culinary customs.
Carolyn Jung, a San Francisco Bay food writer who blogs at www.foodgal.com, remembers sitting at the table as the youngest of her family, and only girl, helping her mom fold dumplings by hand and “waiting eagerly for her to pan fry them or boil them so that we could dig in.”
Chinese New Year is celebrated in many parts of the world that have sizable populations of Chinese immigrants, and other Asian cultures have similar celebrations. With so many people involved, the customs aren’t uniform, though the hope for a prosperous new year is a constant.
The festival lasts 15 days, with some days set aside for visiting and other rituals. It wraps up with a Lantern Festival on the final night.
For Patricia Tanumihardja, who grew up in Singapore and is of Chinese and Indonesian descent, the holiday means eating pineapple tarts, which can take different forms but generally call for a luscious pineapple jam stuffed into flaky pastry.
“Every year that was the one thing I wanted to eat,” says Tanumihardja, author of “The Asian Grandmothers Cookbook.”
This is the time when luxury ingredients such as shrimp or abalone shine and fish is served whole to symbolize plenty. Serving whole poultry also is a sign of family unity and Tanumihardja sometimes makes a whole braised duck for a holiday meal.
In Singapore, a raw fish salad is served in restaurants with the ingredients kept separate on a large plate or tray. Before they eat, diners stand and toss the salad as high as they can saying auspicious words like “Every year we’ll have prosperity.”
As a kid, Jung saw Chinese New Year as mostly about the food – and the red envelopes filled with crisp dollar bills that are handed out to children. She spent the money and kept the brightly decorated envelopes, keeping them neatly stowed away in a drawer.
As she grew up, the holiday became more about family. These days she often makes her mom’s tomato beef chow mein, a blend of east and west cooking styles typical in Chinese-American kitchens.
“I remember so many times peeking over her shoulder as she crisped up the noodles in the pan,” says Jung, who would sneak noodles right out of the pan until she was shooed away.
Jung’s mother passed away some years ago, and a lot of her recipes are gone, “but this was one that I did get her to write down.”
The recipe isn’t strictly orthodox New Year’s fare, but the noodles symbolize the traditional wish for long life.
And making a dish in memory of her mother fits Jung’s grown-up perspective on the holiday.
“As I get older and the family gets larger with significant others and kids and people moving away, it’s one of the holidays where we really make an effort to gather and to see each other and catch up.”
And those red envelopes come in handy, too. These days she fills them with crisp bills of her own and gives them away to her nieces.