Celebrate the Chinese New Year with a special seafood dish

Chinese New Year, the year of the Tiger according to the lunar calendar, began Sunday, Feb. 9. Now we are in the year of 4684, if you're counting the Chinese way. New Year festivities, originally celebrated for two full months in China, usually go on for a week or two today in both that country and others. For the Chinese it is a time for firecrackers, parades, exchanging gifts, visiting friends, and, of course, the eating of special Chinese foods.

Americans who like Chinese food and culture also like to celebrate. In the Chinese areas of many American cities the shops are decorated with red and gold banners, flags, and pennants. People give gifts wrapped in bright red paper. There are special art and music exhibits and colorful dances.

The New Year is the most familiar Chinese holiday to Americans and the most important one for the Chinese. It symbolizes newness, rebirth, and regeneration.

In ``The Chinese Banquet Cookbook'' (Crown Publishers, $17.95), author Eileen Yin-Fei Lo tells about the customs and foods of the holiday. Ms. Lo was born in Canton, China, and came to the United States in 1959. She has taught Chinese cooking in New York City and is a well-known food journalist and consultant on Chinese food.

During a visit to Boston, Ms. Lo explained to me that ``on New Year's, Buddhists, like my grandmother, would eat only vegetables, and this is the reason she would not come to my mother's house on that day.

``My mother, a modern woman, observed the holiday in her own way. She would not prepare a complete vegetarian meal, but she would have at least one vegetables-only dish and would observe in other ways.

``Mother would hang a scallion over the door as a symbol of spring and she would cook scallions because they were hollow and represented wisdom. She would also serve a clam dish of some kind for they are traditional on this day.

``There would be oranges and tangerines and foods made with honey, all of which said to us and to our guests that there would be sweetness in our lives. There would also be pork and lop cheung sausages.''

Miss Lo's recipe for clams is easy to make and a surprise to Westerners who might think it sounds strange to cook clams in their shells in a wok. They are delicious.

Even if your Chinese technique is limited you may want to add a little color to your table this week by thinking about this ancient celebration. Get out any Oriental dishes you may have or a colorful cloth or perhaps some straw or bamboo placemats. Add some red to the table because that is the color associated with Chinese New Year. Clams With Black Beans (See Jop Shau Hin) 3 medium clams, scrubbed 3 tablespoons peanut oil 1 teaspoon shredded ginger 1 tablespoon shredded garlic 2 tablespoons fermented black beans Sauce 1-1/2 tablespoons oyster sauce 1 teaspoon dark soy sauce 1 teaspoon sesame oil 3/4 teaspoon sugar 1 tablespoon cornstarch Pinch of white pepper 5 ounces chicken broth 2 tablespoons finely shredded scallions, white part

Place clams in 8 cups boiling water, return water to boil, about 5 minutes. Stir with spatula until clams open and remove as they open and set aside.

Combine sauce ingredients except scallions and set aside. Wash black beans twice and drain well.

Clean wok and heat over high heat for 40 seconds. Add peanut oil and spread to coat wok, then add ginger, garlic, and black beans. Stir until garlic browns, then add clams in shells. Cook, stirring, 2 minutes. Make a well in center of wok and pour in sauce. Stir thoroughly and continually until sauce thickens. Make sure all clams are coated with sauce. Place clams in serving dish and sprinkle with scallions. Serve immediately. Phillis Hanes is the Monitor's food editor.

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