Chinese New Year. Dining out in America

New Year's for the Chinese is a time of special family reunions, much like Thanksgiving in the United States. Although there can be rather extravagant dishes for some of today's New Year parties, none come close to those of ancient Chinese history when imperial banquets could last for days.

Dozens of courses and literally hundreds of dishes were served, especially in the Ching Dynasty - from 1644 to 1911.

``In the Chinese version of the current movie `The Last Emperor,' the Imperial Banqueting Court of the Manchus presents 400 different dishes to his royal highness so that he may choose the two or three that suit his fancy,'' says Sally Ling at her Boston restaurant, explaining some of the thousand-year-old customs of the holiday.

Celebrations begin today for the start of the Year of the Dragon - the year 4686 - according to the ancient Chinese lunar calendar.

All across the United States, there will be special parties at Chinese restaurants, firecrackers, and colorful parades with lion dancers, concerts, lectures, and exhibits - all in honor of China's heritage.

New Year's is the oldest holiday, and the occasion is also honored with gift-giving. Red and gold are dominant colors. Streamers and pennants are everywhere, many with the words ``Gung Hei Fat Choi,'' which means Happy New Year.

Ancient customs are renewed. Many families both here and in China will meet with a restaurant chef to plan a special menu following ancient rules - such as having soup in the middle of the meal, a whole fish at the end, and foods with honey to symbolize sweetness.

``Only positive words with happy implications are used,'' Ms. Ling explains, ``and even the names of banquet dishes go along in the same spirit. There are names echoing unity, of family reunion and goodwill, such as `Harmonious Home,' `Abundant Success,' `Fistful of Gold,' or `Soup of Eight Treasures.'

``You will always find a whole fish at every New Year table anywhere in China,'' Ling says. ``The pronunciation of the Chinese word for `fish' and the word for `prosperity' is identical, and implies `more-than-you-need' or `plenty' - a good New Year thought. Noodles are always included, too, because they symbolize long life.''

``It is traditional for families to cook many dishes that can be prepared ahead, because for many years there was no refrigeration in China. The art of preserving foods by salting, drying, or curing was most important, especially before holiday times when there would be so many relatives coming home.

``One of the dishes on my menu is lamb p^at'e,'' Ling continues, ``which is cold pressed lamb in aspic, a classic Chinese recipe from the northern provinces of China.

``Although Peking Duck is perhaps the favorite dish here at my restaurant, lobster is equally popular, because we are on the seacoast. It is prepared several ways by master chef C.K. Sau, who comes from a three-generation family of chefs and has worked in Milan, Paris, and Hong Kong.''

The restaurant menu lists C.K.'s lobster saut'eed Szechwan style, saut'eed with ginger and scallions, and steamed with ginger and wine sauce. A special lobster dinner menu is served with other classic Chinese dishes.

Ling was recently an instructor of Chinese cuisine as a member of the Master Chefs of Boston seminar series on the Boston University Culinary Arts Program.

Trips to Hong Kong or other parts of China every year keep this restaurateur alert to culinary and cultural activities.

Although she says most ingredients are available here in the US, she sometimes buys abroad certain things of better quality, such as sea cucumber, abalone, and Chinese mushrooms.

Here is a recipe adapted from Sally Ling's Chinese cuisine:

Saut'eed Chicken, Shanghai Style 1/2 pound white chicken meat 3 cups vegetable oil

Marinade (Group A) 1 egg white 1/4 teaspoon salt 1 teaspoon cornstarch 1 teaspoon vegetable oil

Seasoning Sauce (Group B) 1 teaspoon rice wine 3 teaspoons ketchup 1 1/2 teaspoons sugar 1/4 teaspoon salt 4 tablespoons water Juice of 1/2 fresh lemon

Thickening (Group C) 1 teaspoon cornstarch 3 teaspoons water

Seasonings (Group D) 2 tablespoons vegetable oil 1/3 cup chopped onion 1 teaspoon minced ginger root 1 teaspoon hot pepper sauce (optional)

Slice chicken into 1-by-2-inch pieces.

Combine Group A and stir until well blended. Add chicken, stir until well coated, and marinate about 20 minutes or so.

Heat 3 cups oil in wok to about 250 degrees F. Add chicken and stir-fry until not quite done. Pour into bowl and drain off oil.

In bowl, combine seasoning sauce, Group B, and stir until sugar is dissolved. In small bowl, mix cornstarch and water to a smooth paste.

Heat 2 tablespoons oil in wok. Add onion, ginger, and hot sauce; stir-fry about 2 minutes.

Add Group B, stirring constantly. Add cornstarch paste and stir thoroughly until well blended.

Serves 2 to 4.

Sally Ling's Boston waterfront restaurant on Commercial Street is elegant, with lovely subtle colors, fine Chinese art, fresh flowers, and formal service.

The sister restaurant at Newton Center is more casual, but both menus include selections of fine dishes from major regions of China as well as some of Ling's own dishes.

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