Greet the Chinese New Year with festive, traditional foods

By , Food editor of The Christian Science Monitor

A year ago I was in China, caught up in the excitement of festive preparations for one of the most important of the Chinese national holidays, the start of the Lunar New Year.

This year it is Sunday, Feb. 13, introducing the Chinese year 4681, the Year of the Boar, or Pig.

For at least five days before the festival, Taipei is alive with preholiday activities.

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Butchers expect a flourishing business in pork, for New Year without at least one traditional pork dish is almost unthinkable.

Red and gold paper banners float from buildings, and an atmosphere of holiday excitement is everywhere.

Trains and buses are crowded with adults and children going home for the holidays. Stores and market stalls are chock-full of merchandise and special holiday food.

The festival is not all merrymaking, for it's the time to pay all debts and to forget family feuds. Houses are cleaned until they sparkle, and everyone buys new clothes.

If at all possible, people return to their family home or the home of the oldest relative during New Year Week, so many offices and businesses are closed.

There are firecrackers and colorful parades, the famous dragon dances and the Dance of the Eight Immortal Generals in Taipei National Park.

Last year there were special displays at Taipei's famous National Museum on Lunar Day, with ancient Chinese art dating back to the Tang Dynasty.

The Chung Hua Children's Museum invited children to come learn how to make and eat Tang Tuan, or sweet rice balls.

In the street markets, women were buying branches with buds of the flowering plum and Nien Kao, or New Year cakes, which come in various colors and can be either sweet or salty.

Judy Chiu, who was brought up in Taiwan, told me of the many foods her mother would make ahead so that little except heating and serving were necessary on the New Year day.

Large pots of fish, chicken, and meat are cooked because for five days there is no cooking, and no knives, scissors, or cleavers are used.

Presents, often gifts of food, are readied and delivered, for New Year is a gift-giving time.

With her husband, Ivan, Mrs. Chiu now has a Boston restaurant, Chiu's Garden. She observes some of the traditional New Year customs, such as the gifts in red envelopes for her children and for the children of friends.

Although she doesn't cook foods ahead as her mother did, her daughters make New Year's Dumplings, traditional because they are round, smooth, and full, therefore symbolic of good fortune.

Made of glutinous rice powder and water, with a filling of sweet bean paste, the small dumplings are smooth and satiny.

They are dropped in boiling hot water over high heat and cooked until they spin and float on the top, then eaten in the sweetened soup on the 15th day of the New Year.

Fire pots and hot pots are also traditional ways of serving food when families and friends are together at this time.

As a visitor I found the city somewhat deserted on New Year's Day, so I was pleased to be invited to dinner by an interesting professor, Mrs. Lilian Chao. It was a festive occasion.

At her small, attractive, Japanese-style house, former pupils came by to see her, many now grown and some with their children, others with friends or relatives.

I had heard that children are supposed to be cheerful and say pleasant things to relatives and friends on this day, and here was a perfect example.

The doorbell kept ringing and as guests arrived there was the kind of happy chatter of people who don't see each other frequently, and there was the surprise of children who had grown taller since previous meetings.

The children greeted Mrs. Chao with a polite kowtow and received a small gift wrapped in red paper from the pocket of her dress, a typical Chinese New Year custom.

At noon we all gathered around the fire pot, or hot pot, which looks like a giant bowl with a chimney in the center.

As the broth was bubbling, each person dipped meat slices, shredded cabbage, noodles, and other foods into the broth to cook, and into delicious sauces.

The steaming broth tasted of the textures and flavors of the meat and mushrooms, the slippery transparency of the noodles contrasting with the crisp winter cabbage and lotus root.

An infinite variety of aromas filled the room of the little bungalow, and I felt a part of this happy family of a much-loved teacher, with her pupils and students of two generations around her.

The children dressed in their Sunday best were eager and adept with their chopsticks, and Mrs. Chao and her old friend and houseman were frequently replenishing foods and joining in the merriment as well.

Hot pot is an important dish, not only because of its many flavors, but because of its symbolic meanings, for the Chinese word ''roundness'' - as in the shape of the pot and the circle in which diners sit - means completeness and abundance.

The whole experience of eating around a fire pot is an event that can last for hours with good friends and good conversation.

Mrs. Chao gave me a copy of her cookbook, a red spiral book in English, called ''The Kitchen God, A Chinese Cookbook,'' written years ago in Peking, she told me modestly.

This year, Chinese the world over will put aside the week of the 13th for special observances and celebrations, some dating back thousands of years.

So find a festive, lacquer-red tablecloth and celebrate the Lunar New Year by cooking a Chinese dish for the occasion. Here is Lilian Chao's recipe from her cookbook. Mongolian Firepot 1/2 pound fresh spinach 1/2 pound Chinese cabbage hearts 1/4 pound button mushrooms 2 ounces bean threads 1/2 cup scallops 1 small fish with few bones, cut into slices 1/2 pound pork flank, sliced and boiled in salt water 1/2 pound fresh shucked oysters 6 cups chicken broth

Cut vegetables, meat, and fish in 2-inch slices or 2-inch lengths. Wash oysters and use whole. Boil pork in salt water with 1/2 teaspoon allspice, then cut in thin slices.

Soften bean thread in hot water to cover, 10 minutes.

To serve, place a large pot over a charcoal fire, hot plate, electric stove, or electric wok. Put chicken stock into the pot and add all ingredients a few at a time, except the meat and fish. Keep the pot boiling throughout the meal.

Each person takes a slice of meat or fish, with his chopsticks; dips it into the boiling broth to cook it, then into dipping sauce before eating it. Everyone helps himself to vegetables as they are done and dips them into the sauce also.

When the solid food is eaten, the soup is enjoyed as a delicious ending to the meal. Dipping Sauce 1 tablespoon soy sauce 1 tablespoon sugar 1 tablespoon vinegar 1/2 teaspoon sesame oil 1 teaspoon chopped spring onions 1 teaspoon minced ginger 1/2 teaspoon shrimp oil 1 teaspoon red bean curd 1/4 teaspoon red pepper oil This sauce is for one person. It should be mixed individually according to taste. If some ingredients are not available, the first three ingredients will be enough.

Each person is given a small bowl about 3 inches in diameter in which to mix sauces according to his own taste.This is the first in a three-part series on food in Taiwan. Subsequent articles will appear on the Wednesday food pages.

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