Sunday, February 18, 2007

Eating. Chinese New Year.

When I was growing up, Chinese New Year meant red-and-gold paper envelopes would be tucked beneath my pillow as I slept, a crisp bill tucked inside. How my parents did this without waking me, I'll never know, but I remember that thrill of excitement when I peeked beneath my pillow in the morning. In the living room there would be bowls of candy - White Rabbit candy, which tasted of sugar and milk and came encased in a sheet of edible rice paper, and little strawberry-flavored hard candies whose red-and-gold (the colors of good fortune, luck, happiness) wrappers crackled invitingly when you reached for one. Or two. I rarely tasted them the rest of the year; they belonged to those January or February days (the Chinese New Year follows the Chinese Lunar calendar and therefore is on a different day each year).

It is hard to remember how we celebrated Chinese New Year when I was growing up; I think I remember dinners at the kitchen table, steamed fish, perhaps, or hot pot. Hot pot is rather like fondue; a pot of broth boils away (either in an electric hot-pot or in a clay soup pot placed on a small butane stove in the middle of the table) as you dip paper-thin slices of beef or pork, or fish and tofu and a wide array of vegetables. The cooked food was fished out of the soup with wire nets and dipped in whatever sauce you wanted, or raw egg (delicious, I promise you) beaten with soy sauce and sesame paste and a scattering of finely chopped green onions. At the end of the meal, the broth had turned into a savory soup.

And then there would be nian gao, a new year's cake, made of sticky rice paste, sweet and chewy. It came in a round foil pan; for breakfast or lunch my mother would slice it, dip the pieces in egg, and fry it. I remember waking up to that savory-sweet smell of frying, sitting down at the table to eat breakfast, burning my tongue a little on the first piece. We haven't really had a new year together as a family since I was in high school; during my college years I would be on the other side of the country and now my parents live an ocean away. Last year we were careening around winding roads across Spain and Portugal during Chinese New Year's; I can't remember what happened the year before.

Now I spend most of my holidays at a friend's house, Thanksgiving and Christmas and New Year's and the 4th of July. Probably Memorial day and Labor day and the occasional St. Patrick's day as well, come to think of it. Their house is big and cozy and always full of family and there is always tons of food, enough for an army. The kids are in the formal dining room, the grownups in the kitchen (conveniently closer to the food), and as soon as you clear your plate someone always tells you to eat more. Chinese New Year is no different; they have their own traditions, different from ours, with deep dishes of braised pork cooked with a curly black, um, fungus that looks disturbingly like hair. There are plates of roast pork, Chinese sausages, blanched green vegetables (I forget what they are called; it will come back to me in a minute), rice and chicken and later, bowls of syrupy soup, hot with fresh ginger, with balls of sticky rice that ooze a black sesame paste, sweet and chewy.

Happy New Year.

1 comment:

Juanita J. Sanchez said...

Now I wish I was Chinese! Or even a good-enough friend of a Chinese New Year Celebrator to be invited. Oh well.

I was reminded of one of my favorite candies, which is only available on Valentine's Day. They are cinnamon gum drops, coated in white sugar and shaped like hearts. I could eat bags and bags of them. YUMMMMMMMMM! And also of my traditional childhood birthday dinner, steak fondue. Another Yum-fest. Hot Pot sounds even better.