It is a time of family celebration, of glorious food, of good wishes and good deeds, of dragons, lions and dogs, of oranges and small red envelopes. It is the start of a new year for Chinese people, 4692, the Year of the Dog.
"New Year is the biggest Chinese holiday," says Nina Simonds, noted chef and cooking teacher who has written a number of books on Chinese food and cooking. "Really, it's the only holiday in China that people take off time to celebrate. For three days, they stop working and just celebrate."
This year the holiday falls on Feb. 10. The date is determined by the lunar calendar, and years are named after a series of 12 symbolic animals. Legend says when it came time for the Supreme Being to leave Earth after a visit, he called on the animals to say farewell to him. Only 12 creatures responded -- rat, ox, tiger, hare, dragon, serpent, horse, sheep, monkey, rooster, dog and pig -- and they were rewarded by having years named after them.
New Year is a cheerful holiday that could make a bright spot in anyone's gray February. It's a time of wrapping up the old and getting ready for the new. Debts from the old year must be settled, and homes get a thorough cleaning. The house is decorated with flowers. Red and pink are considered good-luck colors. "All accounts are settled, and everybody cleans house from top to bottom," Ms. Simonds says. "Everybody makes new clothes."
Food plays an important role in the celebrations, she says. There's a feast, traditionally eaten on New Year's Eve, with traditional dishes and customs that are intended to bring good luck and prosperity in the coming year.
"Dumplings are one of the most traditional New Year's foods," Ms. Simonds says. "First, because when they're cooked or fried they're said to resemble golden ingots, or money. And second because they can be prepared ahead. Some traditional Chinese don't cook on the holiday, because it's considered to be bad luck to throw out garbage, or to cut things."
Even while the dumplings are being prepared, she says, "it's important that you only talk about good things, so you'll have good luck."
Some people enclose a small coin in a dumpling, and the person who finds it is said to be assured of prosperity. "Oranges signify happiness and prosperity," Ms. Simonds says. "You see them used in displays, or used in dishes, like orange beef."
"It's the one festival that unites Chinese people all over the world," says Lillian Kim. "Even though the rest of the time we're strictly Europeans or Americans, when it's Chinese New Year, we're Chinese again." Mrs. Kim is program coordinator for the popular annual Chinese New Year festival sponsored by Grace and St. Peter's Parish, the Chinese congregation and the Chinese Language School.
"It's a homey, togetherness holiday," says James Hom, proprietor of the Cathay Village Inn in Cockeysville, which is supplying some of the food for the Chinese dinner that is part of the Grace and St. Peter's event. "The faraway come home for the new year."
New Year's is also a time to remember ancestors, Mr. Hom says. Families set up a table and decorate it with cantaloupe and incense. Children receive "lay shee." It means "good-luck piece," and it is a small red envelope containing money given by married adults to children in the family.
When it first began, in 1954, the local Chinese festival was quite small. Later it was opened to the public, and that's when it began to sell out. Mrs. Kim jokes that organizers would like to phase the celebration out, but each year when they see the delight in the faces of children in the audience, they realize it's too important to drop.
Food at this year's celebration -- scheduled for Feb. 13 at the Waxter Center and already sold out -- will include chicken dishes, rice, and almond cookies. Two of four entrees will be Cantonese (pork sub gum and sweet-and-sour chicken) and two will be Sichuan style (cashew chicken and General Tso's chicken).
Like many other Chinese festivals, the Baltimore one will include a lion dance -- lions are good-luck symbols, which is why so many buildings in China are adorned with facing lion statues. In larger Chinese communities, it is traditional to have a dragon dance, with a dozen or more people winding and swaying with the long wood and paper dragon image. In San Francisco, which has the largest Chinese population in the United States, New Year has been a community celebration since 1851. This year's celebration there will recognize Asians prominent in arts and entertainment fields.
The dog, whose year it will be, is associated with good fortune and benevolence. Dogs are prominent in Chinese legend; one story is that a dog saved the Chinese from extinction after a flood and famine when it appeared with grain seeds stuck to its coat. People planted the seeds and were saved. The Chinese also believe that dogs can detect and repel evil, which is why statues of dogs also are used to guard the entrances of temples and public buildings.
The Chinese New Year's festivities also celebrate the changing of the season, new life and spring. It is traditional to put up a scroll or plaque in the home to herald the change, Mr. Hom says. "It's always written on red -- red is a good-luck color. And it might say something like 'Season's greetings, bless our family, peace and health four seasons 'round.' " A red tablecloth, a centerpiece of flowers surrounded by oranges and some "good-luck" foods can allow anyone to honor the Chinese New Year celebration. This first recipe is similar to one that will be served at the Baltimore Chinese New Year celebration.
Sub gum gai-ee(sub gum chicken)
Serves 4 to 8 2 boneless chicken breasts (about 3/4 pound)
1 1/4 cup bok choy, cut in 1/2 -inch dice
3/4 cup celery, cut in 1/2 -inch dice
1/4 cup frozen peas
1/4 cup frozen diced carrots
1/8 cup sliced water chestnuts
1/8 cup diced bamboo shoots
1/8 cup diced mushrooms
1 clove garlic, minced
1 tablespoon sherry
2 tablespoons soy sauce
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon Accent or MSG (optional)
4 tablespoons cooking oil
1/4 cup chicken broth
1 teaspoon cornstarch
2 tablespoons cold water
Cut chicken into 3/4 -inch cubes. Heat oil in wok or skillet for about 2 minutes. Add chicken and garlic. Stir fry for about 3 minutes. Add sherry and soy sauce. Stir. Add vegetables. Stir. Cook for about 3 minutes. Add 1/4 cup chicken broth. Cover, bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for 3 minutes. Add seasoning. Mix cornstarch with water and use paste to thicken cooking liquid. Serve with rice.
The next recipe is from Nina Simonds' most recent book, "China Express" (William Morrow and Co., 1993, $25), a contemporary approach to often-complex Chinese cooking that promises to be "faster, fresher, lighter and easier."
Roasted five-spice chicken
1 teaspoon five-spice powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 roasting chicken (about 4 to 5 pounds)
4 slices fresh ginger (about the size of a quarter), smashed lightly with flat side of a heavy knife or cleaver
1/4 cup plum sauce (also called duck sauce) (see note)
1/2 tablespoon soy sauce
Heat oven to 400 degrees. Heat a wok or skillet until very hot. Add five-spice powder and salt and toast over high heat, tossing lightly with a spatula. for 3 minutes. Remove and let cool.
Cut lemon in half. Squeeze juice over outside and the inside of chicken and rub surface with cut edge. Rub five-spice mixture evenly over outside and inside of chicken. Place smashed ginger inside chicken. Arrange chicken, breast-side up, in a roasting pan or on a baking sheet.
Roast the chicken for 45 minutes, until brown and slightly crisp. Then combine plum sauce and soy sauce and brush mixture liberally over the skin; bake for an additional 15 minutes, or until deep golden and crisp. Let cool slightly.
Remove ginger. Carve the breast meat into thin slices and cut up chicken, cutting off wings, cutting away legs and thighs, and splitting them at the joint. Arrange breast slices and chicken pieces on a serving platter and serve.
NOTE: If you can't find plum or duck sauce, Ms. Simonds writes, you can use sweet-and-sour sauce. You can also substitute for the whole chicken 2 to 3 pounds of chicken breasts, thighs or drumsticks. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes at 375 degrees, brush with the plum sauce, and bake for an additional 10 minutes.*
The last recipe is an opportunity to eat another good-luck food: Mandarin oranges. The recipe is from Chun King, the Oriental foods company based in Cambridge. It is developing a new line of products including hot soy sauces and seasoned chow mein noodles to combine with fresh foods for a quick meal.
Serves 4 to 6
FOR THE DRESSING:
3 tablespoons hot honey soy sauce
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar (or red wine vinegar)
2 tablespoons coarse-grained mustard
1 clove garlic, minced
1/3 cup olive oil
FOR THE SALAD:
5 cups green leaf lettuce, torn into bite-sized pieces
1 11-ounce can Mandarin orange segments, drained
1/2 small red onion, thinly sliced
1/3 cup diced ham
1 cup garlic-ginger seasoned chow mein noodles.
Whisk the first four dressing ingredients in a small bowl. Gradually whisk in oil. Set aside. Combine lettuce, Mandarin orange segments and onion in a large bowl. Toss with dressing to coat. Sprinkle with ham. Chill. To serve, top with seasoned noodles to taste.