The Year of the Monkey, 4690 in the Chinese lunar calendar, begins this Tuesday. People call it the Spring Festival, a time when houses are swept clean, debts paid, quarrels forgotten, ancestors honored, feasts prepared and the kitchen god propitiated with a sweet offering so he will give a good report of the family when he visits heaven.
Meals are especially varied in Taiwan, where the food reflects the Asian island's population -- a cross-section of every province on the Chinese mainland. Specialties I admired on a recent visit include fried minced shrimp and water chestnut balls, chicken soup with pickled turnips, scallops with seaweed, braised winter melon rolls, oyster rolls, crabs with sticky rice, cucumbers stuffed with minced shellfish and stir-fried shrimp with heads.
Paradoxically, Taiwan is a totally modern country that preserves China's centuries-old culinary heritage and social customs, a legacy most striking in the way the Taiwanese celebrate the Chinese New Year. The thunder of firecrackers and the cacophony of family reunions make New Year's Eve a boisterous occasion. The dishes eaten at this time are sweet and savory dumplings, spring rolls, ham, sausage, clams, fish and congee (rice gruel).
On New Year's Day and for several days after, people visit Taiwan's many temples to receive the gods' blessings, and call on friends and relatives to wish them good luck. Meanwhile, the children collect red envelopes containing "lucky" money from those friends and relatives.
The holiday extends to the 15th day of the New Year, the Lantern Festival. Children parade with colorful lanterns and temples glow with the brilliance of lantern displays. Meanwhile, people gobble food that symbolizes harmony and virtue: glutinous rice balls, served cooked in a sweet soup or filled with either minced pork and vegetables or red beans and sesame paste.
For my hosts in Taipei, the drink of choice with meals was Hua Tiao, a rice wine with a dry, sherrylike taste. They served it warm and spiced with dried plums, which add a tangy, salty edge to the flavor. A custom I found inebriating was kanpeiing. Each person must toast all others and it's bottoms up every time.
Taiwan tea, said to rank with the world's best, is customary with the New Year's sweet rice cake recipe presented below. (A friend gave me the recipe years ago.) Traditional preparation of the tea begins with warming the teapot with boiling water,
discarding the water and then adding tea leaves and fresh boiling water. This water is also discarded, but the leaves are retained. The pot is refilled and left to brew for a few minutes before the tea is ready for drinking.
EASY SWEET CHINESE NEW YEAR CAKE
2 cups brown sugar
2 cups boiling water
6 cups glutinous rice flour *
Combine sugar and water and heat until sugar is dissolved. Add rice flour and mix well. Pour into a greased, 9-inch round cake pan. Place pan in a steamer and steam over medium-high heat 2 hours. Cool and refrigerate 2-3 hours. Slice into pieces that are 3 inches by 1 inch and a 1/4 -inch thick. To store and finish later, arrange cake slices in layers in a plastic container, separating layers with plastic wrap or waxed paper. Refrigerate or freeze. To finish immediately, oil a non-stick skillet. Place pieces apart in a pan. Cook until brown. Turn and brown other side. Serve immediately. Makes 12 servings.
* Glutinous rice flour is also called sweet rice and sticky rice. It is available in Asian markets and specialty groceries.