Chinese New Year is a major holiday, in China, Taiwan, and other countries with significant Han Chinese populations. Throughout North America, festive Chinese New Years parades have become the norm in many communities. Chinese New Year and Asian New Year are not synonymous. Chinese New Year is the most often recognized holiday, but in culturally diverse Southern California, you will find many other Asian lunar new years celebrations. Among them is the Vietnamese new year, Tet, which draws many celebrants to Westminister’s “Little Saigon” in northern Orange County.
There’s far more to traditional Chinese New Year celebrations than parades and banquets. “Out with the old and in with the new” marks the period before New Year’s day. Homes are cleaned from top to bottom, new clothes are purchased, and old altar decorations are replaced with new ones. Doors and windows are bedecked with red decorations to scare away the nien (a mythical beast reputed to take children from towns and villages). The noise from firecrackers and, more recently, large fireworks displays, also help to keep the nien away.
On New Year’s eve, the entire family gathers at or near the home of the eldest member for a celebratory banquet. New Year’s day marks a new beginning, renewal, and optimism for the future. The food served at this banquet is carefully selected to invoke prosperity, long life, and good fortune during the coming year. Uncut noodles represent longevity. A whole chicken is auspicious. Dumplings, shaped like the Chinese coins of old, invoke wealth. While there are regional differences, the banquet usually concludes with a whole fish. A portion of the fish is saved to be eaten later. The word for fish, yu, sounds the same as the word for abundance in Chinese. What better way to end the meal – and the year – with abundance to take into the future? Oranges, tangerines, kumquats and/or pommelos round out the meal. The color and shape of gold coins, the fruit’s sweetness invokes everyone’s wishes for a sweet new year.
The symbolic purification which began with the house cleaning and new purchases continues on New Years day in many Buddhist or Taoist families. In these households, New Years day is marked with vegetarian meals to cleanse the body. Some families will continue to serve vegetarian cuisine during the New Year period; others might resume eating meat but return to a vegetarian menu on the full moon marking the end of the fifteen day celebration.
Here in Culver City, we are fortunate to have not one but several merchants offering fresh Asian vegetables at the Tuesday afternoon Farmers Market. There’s no need to resort to limp canned bean sprouts and sliced mushrooms if you want to cook Chinese food at home. The home cook can stop at one of Culver City’s farmers markets and pick up ingredients for a quick stir-fry. Served with rice or noodles and fruit for desert, you can have a healthy meal on the table in half an hour or less. Cooks arriving with a long shopping list will not go home empty-handed. There’s plenty of fresh local meat, eggs, vegetables and fruit for a scrumptious multi-course repast.
Whatever their menu, Chinese chefs always start menu planning with the freshest local seasonal produce. Meat, fish, seafood or tofu can share the wok with vegetables. If you don’t have a wok, you can improvise with a large skillet for stir-fries or a Dutch oven for braising and stews. Saucepans will work in a pinch if you are making soup or noodles. A steaming bowl of noodles garnished with some thinly sliced scallions and fragrant sesame oil can suffice for a quick meal. While Chinese kitchens are capable of producing luxurious banquets dishes for special occasions, everyday cooking methods demonstrate that great food can be made by frugal families. Day old rice cooked with bits of egg, a handful of peas and bits of leftover meat or shrimp become fried rice. Chicken and duck feet are served as delicacies at dim sum meals. Oranges are often served for desert. You won’t find a western-style dessert at Chinese restaurants. Sweets, if eaten at all, are served from dim sum carts during the day time. While we have come to expect fortune cookies at the end of our Chinese meals, they are not traditional. The first fortune cookie was made in 1920’s America. It was inspired by Japanese baked goods, not Chinese history or traditions.
The first significant Chinese immigration began in 1849 with the discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill. A rebellion in Taiping had left southeast China in poverty and ruin. When recruiters came seeking laborers for the gold mines and, later, the transcontinental railway, many men emigrated in hope of a better life. When the easily accessible gold was exhausted and the railroad finished, jobs were few and far between for Chinese workers. Many turned to agriculture and, later, the restaurant business to make a living. Slowly but surely, Cantonese cuisine was introduced to – and adopted for – the American palate. The defeated Nationalist forces retreated to Taiwan after the 1949 Communist revolution. The foods of Taiwan and Hong Kong share many of the same ingredients and techniques as Cantonese cuisine. Increased international travel between these regions and the United States brought no significant changes to Chinese restaurant menus in America.
That all changed in the last generation. In 1972, former President Richard Nixon made a historic visit to communist China. With the opening up of relations between our countries, and the success of San Francisco’s groundbreaking Mandarin restaurant, Americanized “Chinese” dishes such as chop suey and egg foo young made way to a more diverse selection of regional specialities. Now, Sichuan kung pao shows up on the menus of Cantonese sea food restaurants. Mongolian lamb can be found on the same banquet table as Beijing noodle soup.
The home cook can make a quick top at one of Culver City’s farmers markets to pick up ingredients for a quick stir-fry. More ambitious shoppers can bring home enough fresh local meat, eggs, vegetables and fruit for a scrumptious multi-course repast.
Just as American regional specialities evolved because of regional strengths and weaknesses, geography, climate and culture has shaped China’s cuisine. New England’s long, cold winters made for a shorter tomato growing season than New York and New Jersey. Year round availability of potatoes and dairy products led to creamy, rich New England clam chowder. Tomato-based Manhattan clam chowder showcases the wonderful tomatoes of this more temperate region.
In mainland China, Canton, with its warmer climate and proximity to the ocean, boasts more seafood and a greater year round variety of fruits and vegetables than northern regional cooking.
It may come to some surprise to Americans who have grown up on fried rice that wheat replaces rices as the dominant grain in the less temperate regions of the country. If you’ve been lucky enough to enjoy Peking duck, you’ve seen the small flour buns which accompany the crisp meat. Like other cuisines at the same latitude, the shorter growing season means that cool weather tolerant brassicas (think Napa cabbage, bok choy, etc.), root vegetables (Chinese turnips are one example) and preserved vegetable such as mustard greens and pickles, are more prominent.
The Beijing region features more beef, pork, and lamb than its southern neighbors. You’ll find cool weather tolerant brassicas (think Napa cabbage, bok choy, etc.), root vegetables (Chinese turnips are one example) and preserved vegetables such as mustard greens and pickles in Mandarin dishes from this region. While spices are used, the dishes tend to be more dry and have less sauce than food from provinces further east. Sichuan’s geographic diversity includes rugged mountains and deep gorges, wide plains and majestic rivers. The region’s characteristic blend of hot, sweet, sour and salty tastes mirrors this diversity. Hot chile peppers, Sichuan peppercorns and other spices make the food of Sichuan and neighboring Hunan province unforgettable. Further north from Beijing, the practically ubiquitous pork gives way to lamb due to the sizable Muslim population in and around Mongolia.
Celebrate the Year of the Rabbit by cooking some traditional Chinese dishes. This week, you can ring in the Chinese New Year with a pork, lamb and fish. Next week, Fresh From the Farm will feature vegetarian recipes from the diverse regions of China. A word of caution, though: it’s best to skip tofu and squid for the next two weeks. The white tofu is reminiscent of death, and squid also has inauspicious associations for this occasion.
Every banquet begins with appetizers. My friend Carol started out her New Years dinner by engaging her guests in a common Northern Chinese tradition: dumpling making. Family members and friends exchange wishes for the new year and catch up on news from the old year while working together. Like all New Year’s eve food, dumplings have a commonly understood significance. Their shape brings to mind ancient Chinese coins; making them for the banquet symbolizes the desire for a prosperous new year.
6 dried black mushrooms
1/2 lb. ground pork
3 c. sliced Napa cabbage
3 green onions, finely chopped
1 T. fresh ginger, minced
1/2 c. chicken broth
1 T. dark Chinese soy sauce
1 T. cornstarch
1/2 t. sugar
1/2 t. white peppercorns
24 potsticker wrappers
(if unavailable, use gyoza wrappers or trim egg roll wrappers into circles)
3 T. peanut oil (vegetable or canola is an acceptable substitute; olive oil cannot withstand the heat of Chinese cooking)
2/3 c. chicken broth
When serving, offer guests rice vinegar and chili oil as condiments
You don’t need a wok to make these delectable appetizers. You can find dried black mushrooms in most well-stocked Asian sections in Southern California supermarkets and at Asian stores. Occasionally, you can find them fresh at the Fungi gourmet mushroom stand.
Soak the black mushrooms (if using dry ones) in warm water to cover for 15 minutes, or until softened. Drain. Wash the fresh mushrooms if you are using them. Trim the stems; discard. Finely chop caps. Place mushrooms and remaining filling ingredients in a bowl. Mix well.
Now you can set up your dumpling assembly station. On the left, place the filling. Next, place the unopened package of wrappers and a small dish of water with a small, clean brush or two. To the right, place a baking sheet and a dry towel or two. Once everything is in place and everyone’s hands are washed, open the wrapper package. Make sure to keep it closed or covered when you are not retrieving a wrapper. You don’t want to have the wrappers dry out.
Step 1. Place a teaspoonful of the filling in the center of the wrapper. With the brush or your finger, brush the edge of the wrapper with water. Fold two opposite edges so that they join at the top. Continue folding and crimping the edges together until the filling is totally encased. Crimp the edges to one side to form a semicircle. Set the potsticker on the baking sheet seam side up. Cover potstickers on the baking sheet with the clean kitchen towel as you work.
Step 2. Place a large frying pan over medium heat. The pan should be large enough to cook a dozen potstickers without touching. When it is very hot, add 1 T. peanut oil. Swirl it in pan to coat sides. Add potstickers one at a time, seam side up. Cook until the bottoms are brown, around 3 or 4 minutes. Reduce heat to low and add 1/3 c. chicken broth. Cover and cook until liquid is absorbed, around 5 or 6 minutes. Place on serving platter. Repeat process with remaining potstickers, add to serving platter.
Step 3. If you have not already done so, pour rice vinegar and chili oil into serving containers. You can use small individual dishes for each diner, if you wish, or else cruets, stoppered bottles or serving bowls with spoons. Sometimes, the rice vinegar will be flavored with several very thin shreds of ginger.
Serve immediately. (Recipe adopted from Martin Yan’s Culinary Journey Through China.)
My first encounter with potstickers was at the elegant Mandarin restaurant in San Francisco’s Ghiradelli Square. I naively generously doused my potsticker with chili oil. My host raised his eyebrows in alarm, knowing I’d need a fire alarm if I ate the chili-covered morsel. Gracious to the last, he removed the incinerary potsticker from my plate and gave me his instead. Don’t forget to caution guests who are new to this cuisine to avoid my mistake. They’ll enjoy the rest of the meal so much more if they can actually taste it!
Stir-Fried Leeks with Lamb
(serves 8 as part of a shared Chinese dinner)
Shoppers at the Tuesday afternoon market are fortunate because local beef, lamb and goat are available at the meat stand near the southwest corner of Main St. and Culver Blvd. This is the season for fresh leeks; I’ve seen beautiful bunches for sale recently. This recipe from the Hunan region of China shows off both ingredients to their best advantage
8 ounces lamb, weighed after it is trimmed and sliced into 1 1/2 by 2 inch slices (author Eileen Yin-Fei Lo recommends leg fillet for this dish. Because uniform slices will ensure even cooking during stir-frying, some chefs will place meat in the freezer for 30 minutes to harden it slightly before cutting.)
2 t. sesame oil
1 t. peanut oil
4 1/2 t. dark soy sauce
1 t. sherry
3/4 t. rice vinegar
1 1/2 t. sugar
1 1/2 t. cornstarch
pinch of finely ground white pepper
Mix marinade ingredients well in a medium-sized bowl. Add lamb slices and marinade in the refrigerator for an hour. Use this time to prepare the leeks and the sauce and to work on other dishes for the meal.
8 ounces leeks, including most of the green part, sliced lengthwise into strips. (Prepare the leeks by thoroughly washing them and trimming both ends. Cut into 1 1/2 inch lengths, then slice the lengths into strips approximately 1/2 inch wide.)
2 1/2 T. peanut oil
1 t. finely minced fresh garlic
4 t. minced fresh ginger
2 t. sherry
1/2 t. salt
1/2 t. sugar
1 t. cornstarch
1/2 t. rice vinegar
1 t. sesame oil
Heat wok over high heat for 1 minute, then add 1 tablespoon of peanut oil. Add leaks, stir-fry with wok’s spatula for 30 seconds, remove and set aside. Wipe off wok and spatula with dry towel. Heat wok over high heat for a minute, then add the remaining peanut oil. Using the spatula, coat the sides of the wok. As soon as a wisp of white smoke appears, add the minced garlic and ginger. Add the lamb and marinade when the garlic has turned brown. Spread the meat along the sides of the wok into a single layer. Cook for one minute. Turn the lamb over, add the 2 teaspoons of sherry around the edge of the wok and stir. Add the reserved leeks and stir again. Stir the sauce in the bowl and then pour it into the leeks and lamb. Mix thoroughly. Turn off the heat. Add the sesame oil, mix well, and remove to serving platter. Serve immediately.
If you do not have a wok, you can try this recipe in a large skillet with deep sides. You may have to cook the lamb in batches, depending upon the surface space of your skillet. The lamb should not be in layers. If cooking in batches, add a teaspoon of sherry to the first batch and then another teaspoon of sherry to the second batch. It’s fairly easy to obtain most of the ingredients in area markets and stores, but I have substituted sherry for China’s Shaoxing wine. If you want to use the wine, do so by all means. But neither the lamb nor the fish in the recipe below will suffer if you don’t. (Recipe adopted from Lo’s The Chinese Banquet Cookbook.)
Steamed Fish with Ginger and Green Onions
Ending the New Year’s eve banquet with a whole fish, head and tale attached, represents a good beginning and a good ending to the year. For the home cook without a fish poacher or restaurant sized steamer, it is best to work with a small fish weighing around 1 1/2lbs. Chef and cookbook author confesses that she will sometimes microwave a small fish for herself (3 minutes in a covered dish). After the adventure of cooking a whole fish on a platter placed in a bamboo steamer in a covered wok, I’m tempted to give the microwave method a try.
1 1 1/2 lb rock cod, snapper, or black bass, cleaned and scaled with head and tale left on
(for those concerned about sustainability issues, the current Monterrey Bay Aquarium seafood watch recommendations are available on line at http://www.montereybayaquarium.org/cr/cr_seafoodwatch/sfw_recommendations.aspx)
6 large, very thin slices of peeled fresh ginger
2 T. sherry
2 T. peanut oil
3 T. soy sauce
1 T. oyster sauce
2 inch piece of peeled fresh ginger, cut in julienne strips
2 green onions, white parts only, thinly sliced lengthwise and cut crosswise into 2 inch strips
1/3 c. fresh cilantro leaves, stems removed
With a sharp knife, make 3 slashes 1 – 1 1/2 inches apart, cutting at an angle, on each side of the fish. Place a ginger slice in each cut. Place fish on plate with rim. Don’t worry if the head and tale are a bit too long. You can curl them up. Drizzle 1 tablespoon of the sherry over the fish. Fill steamer bottom with about 2 inches of water and bring it to a boil over high heat. Place the plate with the fish in a steamer tier and set it over the boiling water. Curl up ends of fish if necessary, cover, and steam for 5 minutes.
Meanwhile, bring peanut oil to a boil over medium heat, and keep it hot until ready to use. Whisk together the remaining sherry, soy sauce and oyster sauce in a small bowl. Set aside.
When the fish is fully cooked, carefully lift the plate out of the steamer. Transfer the fish to a platter and garnish with the ginger, green onions, and cilantro. Drizzle the sauce over the fish and along its edges (so it can reach the underside). Pour the hot oil over the fish and serve immediately.
Katie Malich has attended Chinese New Year parades in both San Francisco and Los Angeles. She has also learned the answer to the perplexing problem of how do you find out when the Asian lunar new year is, anyway. The Asian New Years falls on different days each year because the Chinese calendar is based on the positions of the moon and the sun. Our arithmatic solar calendar contains fixed dates. Our calendar is often referred to as the Gregorian calendar, since it was adopted following a papal bull from Pope Gregory XIII. The cycles of the moon are not taken into account in the fixed Gregorian calendar. The second new moon after the winter solstice marks the beginning of the new year in the Asian lunisolar calendar, which can be any time from late January to late February as measured by our system.
The dates and times of Culver City’s Farmers Markets are far less confusing. The Tuesday market is held from 2 to 7 pm on Main Street between Venice and Culver Blvds, while the Saturday market is held from 7:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. at the northeast corner of the Westfield Culver City parking lot, near Slauson and Hannum.
Editor’s Note- We have been asking Katie Malich to consider writing a cookbook, but had no idea she would pack it all into one column. (Sheh-Sheh!)