Next week Tsao Wang, the Kitchen God who hangs near the stove in traditional Chinese households all year, will symbolically leave for heaven to make a report to the Jade Emperor.
Purists will place incense, candles and food in front of his image in reverence. They may smear his mouth with honey in the hope that he will say sweet things about the family's behavior or dot his lips with wine so that he may forget the misdeeds of the family.
Then the brightly colored image is taken to the yard and symbolically burned as he ascends to the heavens in smoke, often with a paper ladder to aid his climb.
Food and kitchen symbolism is an integral part of Chinese New Year, celebrated this year on Feb. 15 as the year 4689 (the Year of the Sheep) on the ancient lunar calendar.
Many second- and third-generation Chinese-Americans in Baltimore and elsewhere in America may no longer burn or pay tribute to the Kitchen God, but still plan their New Year's Eve meal with symbolic foods of their ancestors that are supposed to encourage good fortune during the year.
In fact, superstition also rules the holiday food preparation. All food must be bought and prepared quickly because as the clock strikes 12 on New Year's Eve no one may use a knife or any cutting instrument for two days or they risk cutting away good luck for the year.
The recipes may vary, but the New Year's meal must contain certain essentials. Like a turkey at Thanksgiving, no authentic Chinese New Year celebration would be complete without a whole fish (including tail and head) and a whole chicken (including feet and head) -- whole foods that represent the continuity of life and togetherness of the family.
"Once a year we become Chinese again and eat all the things that we wouldn't eat otherwise," says Lillian Lee Kim, director of the Chinese Language School at Grace and St. Peter's Church in Baltimore. She was born in China but came to America at age 3.
The New Year's menu always includes foods that represent good health, good luck and longevity.
For example, fat choy (which means good fortune) is also the name of a black hairlike sea vegetable that is an important ingredient in many New Year's soups. Many children, like Mrs. Kim's brothers, were squeamish about eating it and made jokes that it looked like their sister's hair after it was curled.
Besides foods that seem strange outside of their homeland, this is also the time to enjoy foods that families consider special, such as the fancy mushrooms that symbolize opportunities.
"The New Year's soup always had black mushrooms in it," Mrs. Kim says. "We couldn't afford to have them often when I was a child so we considered them a delicacy. Fresh oysters were often put into the soup after it was cooked."
Other foods that are high in sugar and fat are served as a celebration of the sweetness and richness of life.
"Anything that is sweet is a symbol of the good life," says Catherine M. Chin, a registered dietitian in Baltimore who was born here but still preserves the New Year traditions.
One of the most popular sweet pastries is a sticky rice dessert known as the eight treasures pudding, a reference to the eight treasures in Buddhism that guard and enrich one's life. The cake is filled with sweet red bean paste and eight kinds of preserved fruits such as cherries, dates and raisins.
"It is high in calories and very rich. A little bit of it goes a long way if you are watching calories," according to Mrs. Chin. "This holiday is like Christmas or Thanksgiving. Everything is rich and high in calories. You think about cutting back after the holiday is over."
The renowned Chinese respect for ancestors is also reflected in this family-oriented dinner. When the table is set, the members of the family who have passed away are considered to be present and a place is set for them at the feast table.
"Young children respect their elders and make it a point to come and greet their grandparents," Mrs. Chin says. "New Year's is a happy occasion and nobody is supposed to be sad. The children all receive good luck money in a red envelope given by their parents or grandparents. It is very important for the family to gather in one place so that they can usher in the New Year together."
The following is a menu for a Chinese New Year's celebration with some changes made to fit the American palate. Since many people are squeamish about whole fish, we have substituted a dish using fish fillets. The adaptation of the Chinese soup contains the symbolic mushrooms but does not contain the unfamiliar fat choy. And the eight treasures pudding has been slightly altered to fit American tastes.
When the clock strikes midnight, be sure to wish your dinner guests "Gung hoy fat choy," or "May you prosper in the New Year!"
Jade white sliced fish
Makes 4 servings.
From "China the Beautiful Cookbook" (Knapp Press, $39.95).
8 ounces firm fish fillets, such as wahoo or swordfish
1 egg white, well beaten
3 tablespoons cornstarch or soy flour
2 cups oil for deep frying
6 thin slices fresh ginger
1 hot red pepper, fresh or canned
2 green onions, white parts only
1 clove garlic
2 to 3 lettuce leaves
1/2 cup fish stock or bottled clam juice
1 teaspoon rice wine or dry sherry
1 teaspoon sugar
salt and white pepper, to taste
Cut fish into thin slices and place in bowl with egg white. Mix well, then coat each slice lightly on both sides with cornstarch or soy flour.
Heat oil in wok or very large frying pan until it reaches the smoking point. Then reduce the heat to medium high and fry the fish, a few pieces at a time until just cooked through and still white. Remove fish and drain well.
To prepare sauce, cut ginger into decorative shapes, slice red pepper and onions diagonally and chop garlic. Chop lettuce leaves into 1-inch squares. Mix together fish stock, cornstarch, wine, sugar, salt and pepper. (If using clam juice, omit salt; it is already salty.)
Drain off the oil from wok and wipe it out. Return about 2 tablespoons oil and stir-fry ginger, red pepper, onions and garlic for 1 minute over moderate heat. Add the remaining premixed sauce ingredients and bring to boil. Add the lettuce squares and the fish and simmer gently, stirring to mix evenly. The sauce should thicken and become clear. Heat through. Serve immediately.
Triple blessing mushroom soup
Makes 6 servings.
8 dried black mushrooms (about 1 ounce)
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 shallots, finely chopped
4 ounces fresh white mushrooms, sliced
4 ounces oyster mushrooms, sliced
1 cup half-and-half (or 1/2 cup milk and 1/2 cup cream)
4 cups chicken broth, fresh or canned
1 tablespoon oyster sauce
fresh oyster or enoki mushrooms for garnish
cilantro leaves for garnish
In small bowl, soak black mushrooms in hot water to cover for 30 minutes. Drain, reserving liquid. Cut off and discard stems; thinly slice caps. Set aside.
Meanwhile, in a wok or saucepan, heat oil and stir fry shallots for 5 minutes, or until soft.
Add black mushroom slices, fresh mushrooms and oyster mushrooms. Stir-fry on medium for 5 minutes, or until mushrooms are soft and liquid has evaporated. Add half-and-half, broth and oyster sauce. Add the reserved mushroom soaking water, holding back the residue at the
bottom, which may contain grit. Heat to boiling. In blender or food processor, blend soup until smooth. Return to wok or saucepan; heat through. Garnish with additional sliced mushrooms and cilantro.
Eight-treasure rice pudding
Makes 8 servings.
From "Chinese Cooking: Step-by-Step Techniques" (Random House, 1984).
12 ounces white glutinous rice
1 pint water
6 dried Chinese red dates
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
10 ounces canned red bean paste
2 tablespoons peanut or corn oil
1/4 cup lard
3 tablespoons sugar
1 glace cherry
18 small candied orange peel
18 golden raisins
18 black raisins
4 ounces maple syrup
Wash the glutinous rice 3 or 4 times, or until the water is no longer milky. rain and put into a baking pan or a heat-proof plate. Add the water. Steam in a wok or steamer for about 25 minutes.
Meanwhile, soak the dates in hot water for 15 minutes, then slit open and remove the pits, leaving the dates whole.
To prepare the red bean paste: Add the flour to the bean paste and blend well. Heat a wok or frying pan over moderate heat, add the oil and then the bean paste. Cook for about 5 minutes, turning and stirring all the time to prevent it from sticking. This thickens sufficiently to keep it from leaking through the rice during steaming. Remove and leave to cool.
Well grease a 4-cup glass heatproof bowl with some of the lard. Blend the remaining lard and the sugar in the cooked rice.
Form a decorative pattern in the bottom of the bowl with the dried fruits. Put the cherry in the center. Make a ring of 6 triangles around it with the orange peel. Make 6 lines, alternating golden and black raisins, to go up the sides of the bowl between the orange peel. Place 1 red date between the lines of the raisins.
Gently but firmly press 1 fairly thick layer of rice on the bottom and sides of the bowl to cover the dried fruits without disturbing the pattern. Put the red bean paste in the center. Cover with the remaining rice, pressing down to make the surface flat and even. There should be about 1 inch between the rice level and the rim of the bowl.
Put the bowl inside the wok or steamer and steam for about 1 1/4 hours. Check the water level periodically, adding more if needed.
About 15 minutes before the rice pudding is ready, prepare the syrup. Bring the maple syrup to a boil in a saucepan and pour into a warm bowl.
Remove the bowl from the steamer or wok and invert the pudding onto a warm plate so that the decorative pattern is on top. Pour the syrup over it and serve hot.
New Year's fest
Want a taste of the Chinese New Year without leaving Maryland?
The congregation of Grace and St. Peter's Church and the Chinese Language School will celebrate the Lunar New Year from 12:30 to 2:30 p.m. Feb. 10 at the Waxter Center for Senior Citizens, 861 Park Ave.
The free event, which is open to the public, will feature the traditional dragon-lion dance, Chinese folk songs, a fashion show of Chinese historic gowns, a Tai Chi and learning Chinese demonstration.
A Chinese New Year dinner will begin at 6 p.m. at the church, but reservations are sold out.
Where to get Asian food
If you are putting together a New Year's feast, you can find the ingredients you need at several local Asian stores.
*Asia Food, 5224 York Road, Baltimore, is one of the largest and most comprehensive of all the stores, offering Chinese, Thai and Philippine foods as well as Asian cooking equipment. Call 323-8738. Hours are 9 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. Mondays to Saturdays and 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sundays.
*Big Boy's Worldwide Food Market, 218 N. Paca St., Baltimore, carries foods from Asia as well as Latin America, Africa and India. Call 685-4080. Hours are 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Mondays and Tuesdays and 9 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. Wednesdays to Saturdays.
*Brown's Oriental Grocery, 3537 Fort Meade Road, Laurel (in the Brockridge Shopping Center), sells a variety of Asian products from Korea, Japan and China. Call 792-8990. Hours are 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesdays to Saturdays.
*New Asia Food, 3000 Greenmount Ave., Baltimore, offers a good selection of Chinese foods. Call 889-6618. Hours are 9 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. Mondays to Saturdays and 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sundays.