Oakland residents feast on traditional Chinese New Year’s dishes
on February 5, 2016
Being Chinese, one does not simply eat. Eating is a favorite cultural pastime, and has a process to it that is treated with such reverence that the Chinese say, “Dining comes before the Emperor does.” This respect for delectables escalates with the arrival of the Lunar New Year, which begins with the second new moon after the winter solstice. The holidays—much like a combination of Thanksgiving and Christmas when families reunite—start when the moon is but a sliver in the sky, and ends when it hangs ripe some 15 days later. This year’s New Year Day falls on February 8, and the family preparations for the New Year dinner, a beast of a feast, have begun a week ahead. Anticipation builds up until it is nearly unbearable for the younger ones, who knew from scolding grandmothers that sneaking tidbits would somehow “bring the family bad luck next year!”
A big earthen jar that takes the place of honor in the center of the table. It usually isn’t a fancy piece of pottery, and there are no labels indicating the contents within, but the enticing smell could only mean an invitation to the deities watching from afar. Named “Buddha Jumps Over the Wall,” this stew is a wonderful concoction of fried spareribs, garlic, shitake mushrooms, quail eggs, sweet chestnut, bokchoy, fried taro and fancy seafood (giant abalone, scallops and sea cucumber); it is prepared many days in advance as the dried ingredients take time to soften in water, the frying cannot be overdone and the seafood has to be so fresh it wriggles. Its curious name? Inspired by Buddha himself in many Chinese stories, where the vegan divinity simply had to jump over the wall to taste for himself the dish that smelled so heavenly.
For dessert: sweet, sticky rice cakes that glue your jaws together but leave you unclamping them hurriedly to reach for the next piece. Dessert is often the same each year, but it would be a grave mistake to think this trend bland; rice cakes come in different flavors including red bean, brown sugar and sweet potato. They can be regular squares, but some are shaped like turtles to bring you the animal’s longevity.
“One dish we cannot do without would be fish,” said Chris Xie, a self-proclaimed Chinese food connoisseur who lives in Oakland. “The word for fish [in Chinese] means having something extra for next year,” said Xie.
For Jenny Ong, the Executive Director of the Oakland Chinatown Chamber of Commerce, the dish that anchors the Lunar New Year eve dinner would be “Jai,” the Cantonese and vegetarian version of Buddha’s favorite dish. Jai is made of 18 different vegetables and tofu, all thrown together and stewed until everything is a gooey, aromatic mess. “It’s absolutely my favorite thing about Chinese New Year,” said Ong.
For the chefs of Oakland’s Peony Seafood Restaurant, as well as for home cooks, it all begins with a mad forage for ingredients, when the master chef heads out with a grocery list clutched in hand, hoping that plowing through the list will take up only one day—although knowing that’s impossible. Lunar New Year shopping takes days and is not complete without frantic last-minute dashes for something one has forgotten, something tiny perhaps, yet explodes with flavor that cannot be missed in the meal. “Like dried scallops—they are small and look unremarkable but will spruce up any broth you throw these into,” Xie said.
“Our chefs are very tense when the holidays arrive. All our tables are booked for Chinese New Year,” said Peony’s manager Stephen Chen, rapping the large tanks that hold live fish and crabs to check if the seafood is fresh and moving about. The demand for dried goods peaks around the same time, and everyone knows that shiitake mushrooms have to be stocked up early if the cook is looking for the top-notch dried ones that are as big as one’s hands. The same goes for dried abalone—prices rocket as the new year draws closer.
Most dishes have puns for names, inviting people to dig into luck, into prosperity, wealth and good health. As a family gathers around a round table—considered the best shape for reunions as the word itself (tuan-yuan) means “gathering ‘round” in Chinese—the pun games begin. Fish is an old favorite, cooked and served whole. The Chinese character for fish is pronounced the same way as “excessiveness,” and serving a whole fish is meant to bring a year so promising that there will be an abundance of everything. (To cook the fish in chunks would cut off the promise of a fruitful year.)
Fat dumplings resemble the gold ingots used as ancient currency and would leave you a “wealthy somebody” after a bellyful; Chinese mustard greens are dubbed the “longevity vegetable,” and children are cautioned not to snap the stalks into two before putting them in their mouths, or one’s chance at a long life would be terminated.
The list continues, and the Lunar New Year wordplay is alive in every dialect across the Chinese-speaking world. The pronunciation of black moss (fat-choy in Cantonese) is identical to “getting wealthy.” Daikon is pronounced “tsai-tou” in Chinese—sounding just like the good omens the vegetable is entrusted to bring in. A whole chicken whose name represents “whole family” in Hokkien, and sticky rice cake, ensure every step one takes brings them to a higher level in life. Even the seemingly innocent platter of fruit is carefully selected: Oranges and kumquat are auspicious New Year symbols, both sounding like “Ji,” or prosperousness, and the Hokkien pronunciation of pineapples (ong-lai) practically means inviting good luck to come rolling in. Some take things further and place tiny orange trees around the house, with fat little oranges hanging off the tree like ornaments—the way the branches dip because of the weight seems like a promising start to another year.
Numbers are also linked with varying degrees of good and bad fortune in Chinese culture, so it would be best to start the meal with an even eight or 10 dishes, the two numbers indicating “to accumulate great wealth” or “perfection.” Traditionally, even numbers are “well-rounded,” and therefore signify better luck or a sense of completion. The only exception would be the number four, as it sounds like “death” in Chinese.
The Chinese people have a long history of being superstitious, and the puns and word-play that Chinese New Year—their biggest holiday —revolves around stems from the same branch of cultural superstition. “We have whole chicken that represents the gathering of the whole family, and this is something my parents have always done every year. I’m the second generation in the U.S. but I try to follow the old customs,” said Ong. “It is ingrained in all of us that it’s important to follow the tradition, and this is also something I’d like to imprint upon future generations.”
“Chinese New Year is probably the only time of the year when the entire family gets to sit down together and share a delicious meal; it unites us once again. Even if some of us do have to work during the holiday, you simply have to make time for this particular dinner … I can’t wait for the fish we’re having this year,” said Iris Zhao, who works at Peony as a server.
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