Chinese New Year tastes

Although the famous Chinatowns of San Francisco and Los Angeles boast the biggest New Year parades, we're going to follow the food.

chinese new year 88 (photo credit: )
chinese new year 88
(photo credit: )
The little red envelopes displayed at my local east Asian market reminded me that the Chinese New Year is coming on January 29. For the Chinese, the red envelope symbolizes good luck. For me, the envelope evokes memories of great eating in the Far East - I received one during my culinary study trip to Taiwan and Hong Kong some 20 years ago. "Where should we go to celebrate the Chinese New Year?" my husband asked the waitress at a local Chinese restaurant a few days ago. Without hesitating a moment, she said "Monterey Park." Nicknamed Little Taipei, Monterey Park is located in the San Gabriel Valley (east of Los Angeles), which has the largest Chinese community in the US. No wonder my friends Charles Perry and Linda Burum, in an article for The Los Angeles Times, dubbed southern California the "Dim Sum Capital" of the US (dim sum are Chinese appetizers). Although the famous Chinatowns of San Francisco and Los Angeles boast the biggest New Year parades, we're going to follow the food. I can't wait to sample New Year treats, like ginger-steamed fish and sweet bean-filled dumplings, and to shop for Chinese ingredients. Fortunately, the principal seasonings of soy sauce, sesame oil, chile paste and the flavoring trio of green onions, garlic and fresh ginger are available at mainstream supermarkets in Los Angeles as well as in Israel. But at Chinese markets I am always awestruck by the mind-boggling array of noodles, sauces and exotic produce. I purchase a few more items on every visit and fantasize that someday I'll end up cooking most of these ingredients. Some traditional foods for the Chinese New Year, according to my friend Nina Simonds, the author of Chinese Seasons (Houghton Mifflin, 1986), are Chinese sausages, hot rice soup with nuts and dried dates and puddings made of rice, turnips and red beans. Also on the menu are whole fish, which symbolize bounty, vegetables carved in coin shape, and tangerines, the New Year's "good fortune" fruit. MANY JEWS are quite familiar with, and have an affinity for, Chinese food. At age 12, my husband's nephew Tamir posted a list entitled "Foods I Like" on the kitchen bulletin board. Topping his list was "any Chinese food." He wanted to make sure his mother knew what to prepare! Delicious Chinese cuisine can be easily prepared in the kosher kitchen. My first culinary mentor, Ruth Sirkis, emphasized this point in Chinese Cooking (in Hebrew, Bayit Va-Gan, 1979): "Chinese food is wonderful food: tasty and colorful, interesting and different, it can be prepared in our kitchens with our equipment... according to the laws of kashrut" (my translation). American Jews joke about an after-Shabbat custom among New York Jews of going out to Chinatown for Chinese food. This wasn't the case in my home in Washington, D.C. - my strictly kosher-observant mother would never have agreed. Still, she liked to learn to prepare new dishes, like author Ruth Grossman's traditional 82-year-old grandmother, who began cooking Chinese food in her later years. In The Kosher-Cookbook Trilogy (Galahad, 1965), Ruth and Bob Grossman wrote: "We thought we'd truly seen everything, until one day Grandma asked us to take her to Chinatown and there, as we stood in a little shop with our mouths open in amazement, Grandma Slipakoff bought two pairs of chopsticks... one fleischig... and one milchig!" As on most festive occasions, whole roasted birds are favorite feast day foods among the Chinese. Walk into any Chinese barbecue shop and the glistening, deep-brown ducks attract your attention. Peking duck is world famous but Chinese cooks have developed other delicious, simpler roast bird recipes. Their technique of glazing poultry with sweetened soy sauce has been adopted around the world. Wishing you "Sun nien fai lok" ("Happy New Year" in Cantonese). HONEY GLAZED ROAST CHICKEN This Chinese-inspired way to roast chicken is popular both in Israel and in the US. The honey-soy glaze gives the bird's skin a good flavor and an appealing mahogany hue. For a festive touch, serve with rice garnished with dried fruit and toasted almonds. 1 large (2.5 to 2.7-kg.) or two 1.4-kg. chickens 3 Tbsp. liquid honey, plus 1 more teaspoon if needed 2 to 4 Tbsp. soy sauce, to taste 2 Tbsp. rice wine or sherry 1 tsp. ground black pepper 2 tsp. ground ginger 1⁄2 tsp. ground cinnamon 1 onion, quartered 4 carrots, quartered 4 thin slices gingerroot (optional) 1⁄2 cup chicken broth or water Position rack in lower third of oven and preheat to 200 C. Mix 3 tablespoons honey, soy sauce, wine, pepper, ground ginger and cinnamon. Reserve 1 tablespoon of mixture in a small cup and cover. Rub chicken inside and out with remaining honey mixture. Put onion and carrot in roasting pan. Put rack on top. Set chicken on rack. Pound gingerroot slices with back of a knife and put them inside chicken. Roast chicken 15 minutes. Add 2 tablespoons hot water to pan juices. Reduce oven temperature to 175 C. Roast chicken 30 minutes. Baste it and cover with foil. Roast large chicken 11⁄2 hours more (smaller ones 45 minutes more), basting every 30 minutes and adding tablespoons of water to pan as needed; roast until juices that run from thickest part of thigh, when pierced with a skewer, are clear. Remove vegetables. Add 1/2 cup broth to juices and bring to a simmer, scraping. Strain juices into a saucepan. Skim off fat. Add remaining honey mixture and bring to a simmer. Taste and adjust seasoning. Add remaining honey if you like. Carve chicken and if you like, serve with the roasted vegetables. Makes 6 servings. Faye Levy's latest book is Feast from the Mideast (HarperCollins).