The Chinese New Year's Eve feast Ching-He Huang planned for her upcoming Cooking Channel special is less a menu than what she calls a blueprint. It's a sensible approach to the task of transcribing a storied tradition like a Chinese N.Y.E. dinner. After all, Huang faced a range of possible interpretations -- varying first in region then among families -- for each precept that guides a particular dish. Turn the page for her suggestions for how to prepare your own feast this Saturday evening.
"It was tricky because we wanted to make sure there was something for everyone. At the end of the day, if I thought about it too much, I would just not do it," she said.
Huang focused instead on capturing the spirit of the holiday with dishes that are fairly simple to make, but lost none of the symbolism. Covering as much ground as she has in her international upbringing, Huang's sense of Chinese New Year tradition is conversely rooted in happy memories of Pai He, Taiwan. She recalled waiting on the cart attached to the back of her grandfather's moped, when Huang was four or five, as her grandmother spent hours at the local market in pursuit of the best ingredients.
As much culinary symbolism as Chinese New Year can hold, she learned while watching her maternal grandparents painstakingly prepare for the holiday feast that none is as potent as its power to bring family together. This early lesson instilled an appreciation of the rituals as more reflective of an ideological frame than a set of exacting rules. While she can speak at length about the rituals, the holiday at its essence remains for Huang about family and personal reflection.
"It's my favorite time of the year, because you look back and you think about what you'd want your next year to be. It's a time when you prepare for your best. It's a chance to regroup. That's why I think the food and everything associated with Chinese New Year is so special," she explained.
For your own Chinese New Year's Eve celebration on Saturday, Feb. 9, Huang shared a range of tips on translating some of the traditional tenets tied to the holiday, including:
On the outlook
Ching-He Huang: "It's a time when you prepare for your best. So clear out everything. Spruce up the house. Get the most amazing flowers. Dress your best. Live the next year how you want it to be. It's about bringing together all of the traditions in order to help you realize that."
On the decorations
CHH: "You get orchids because it symbolizes beauty and fertility; gladiolas because it symbolizes strength and rising above the ranks; mandarin oranges because it symbolizes bounty and plentitude. Everything is gold and red. Red is so auspicious and a lucky color; and gold because you want prosperity in the new year."
Turn the page for a list of Huang's ideas on Chinese New Year's Eve feast essentials.
On the feast
Fish -- "In Chinese, we say nian nian you yu, which means every year we wish to have abundance. Yu is also a homonym for yu, as in fish. So I have a dish I call the Abundance Sea Bass and quite simply it's steamed, dressed with a little bit of Shaoxing rice wine, and stuffed with ginger. Just before steaming, I prepare a stir-fry of Chinese ingredients. We've got some salted lardons, shiitake mushroom, and chestnuts, which are stir-fried with soy sauce (dark and light) and sesame oil to bring it some flavor. Then just before serving, you pour it all over the top and you've got the sweetness of the sea bass and the savoriness of the stir-fry."
Dumplings -- "I have Golden Fried Pork and Prawn Dumplings. You've got to have dumplings on Chinese New Year, which symbolizes wealth. We make a great filling. You stuff the ingredients into some golden wonton wrappers -- which you can buy -- so it's a really easy thing to do and then you just fry them before your guests are ready to tuck in so they are nice and piping hot. What's great about dumplings is that you can make them in advance. You can actually freeze them and fry them frozen."
Poultry (typically chicken) -- "I've also got a soy-glazed roasted duck, which symbolizes unity and completeness. And there is the golden tone again because it symbolizes wealth. The soy-glazed, citrus-spiced duck is very simple to do and stress-free because you can have that in the oven while your fish steaming."
Shrimp -- "There is a delicious New Year shrimp salad. You've got to have shrimp because in Cantonese tradition xia sounds like ha. It sounds like laughter and happiness. In that spirit, I've made a really simple cold shrimp salad with soy sauce, sesame oil, and rice vinegar dressing with a little bit of chili and cilantro."
Noodles -- "You've got to have noodles as they symbolize longevity. Traditionally, we had on the farm was long life thin misua, which are very thin wheat flour noodles. I make a Taiwanese cold noodle salad, which also uses wheat flour noodles. I go for a slightly thicker one and then grated carrots, grated cucumber, and bean sprouts, just lightly blanched. I create a very thin golden egg crepe, just fold it on itself and slice into strips, and top it off with some shichimi pepper. That's served with traditional Taiwanese liang mian (cold noodle) dressing of black sesame [paste] with some chili sauce and soy sauce. That gets dressed at the table and the guests help themselves."
Vegetables (often mustard greens) -- "You must have vegetables as well. The stir-fried vegetables as in cai from gong xi fa cai to wish you prosperity and health. I do a rainbow mix of stir-fried vegetables instead of going for the traditional gai lan or bok choy. I use red cabbage together with some red and yellow peppers, spring onions, and carrots. It's really vibrant and with the usual Chinese seasonings in there."
Hot Pot -- "I also feature a hot pot on the show, because that's another traditional Chinese New Year way of feasting. Just set up an electric burner in the middle of a table and get the freshest ingredients. You can get all the traditional foods, like uncut mung bean noodles, giant tiger shrimp, fish balls, meatballs, dumplings, even wontons -- representing Chinese-style money bags, and niangao (sticky rice cake)."
For more culinary pointers, Ching's Chinese New Year will be airing this Sunday, February 10 at 5 p.m. (PST) on Cooking Channel.
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