I had just swallowed a cool slice of a beautifully layered, translucent tan and cream-colored terrine at a family dinner on our last evening in Hong Kong. It was a little chewy. The Chinese and their fondness for interesting textures, I thought. But what exactly was it? I braced myself.
"Pig's ear!" My cousin announced triumphantly.
As it was close to the Chinese New Year - the Year of the Ox 4695 begins tomorrow - I had been trying to figure out what kinds of delicacies people ate on the biggest holiday on the Chinese lunar calendar. I did not think Pig's Ear Terrine was one of them.
Cousin Rita grinned, thinking my prior knowledge of the food would have turned me off. I raised both eyebrows so she wouldn't be disappointed. But a little pig's ear never hurt anyone.
I put the dubious appetizer aside and quickly turned my attention to the next dish; dark greens topped with a silky saut of dried scallops.
"Is this zhai?" I asked. Rita had said that a certain kind of vegetarian food was eaten on the first day of the New Year, a celebration that can last days or weeks.
"No," she said. "Aaah! You never got to try zhai!"
"Oh, that's OK," I said. When I returned to the US I called my Hong-Kong-born mother in Kansas.
Vegetarian food is traditional on Chinese New Year's day because of the influence of the Buddhists, Mom explained: "My grandmother was a Buddhist. And she would have to eat vegetarian on the first and 15th days of every month."
One traditional New Year's vegetarian dish is fat choy, made with a very fine, hair-like black seaweed. Its name is a homonym for part of the traditional new year's greeting, gung hay fat choy, which means "I wish you good fortune." "But not everyone knows how to cook it," Mom says.
This ias not sounding very much like a big holiday to me, whispered my Kansas-raised carnivore stomach.
I then asked Mom about a special steamed New Year's cake made of rice flour and Chinese brown sugar that we had eaten for dessert in Hong Kong.
"In our house, my grandmother was very strict about this kind of thing," she remembers. "Everything for Chinese New Year had to be made at home. We had a stone grinder, and we would grind sweet rice, and steam it forever, about 10 hours, with sugar. Then we'd cut it into slices and fry it on both sides a little. But I never really liked it."
A tastier detail is that sweets are traditional for Chinese New Year because of the kitchen god. For many Chinese, traditional cultural observances and more contemporary religious beliefs peacefully coexist. Kitchen god, you say? At the end of the year, he flies up to the Jade Emperor in heaven and reports on how good everyone has been. To seal his lips or sweeten his report, you make offerings of sticky, sweet rice.
In Hong Kong, you can buy the sweet New Year's cake in the shape of a fish.
"Oh yes, you must have fish," Mom says, because the word for fish, yu, sounds like the word for abundance. (Part of the beauty and difficulty of Chinese language is that some words are the sort of homonym whose pronunciations differ slightly in tone.)
OK. Fish is all right, but still not exactly what I had in mind.
"On New Year's Eve we wanted to stay up all night," Mom continues. "We would gather all the family members, and have a big meal.
"Later, we would go out, all bundled up, and all the markets would be lit up and open. The kids would be screaming and jumping - it was fun. We would go buy sweets and plum branches. Soon it was 2:30 a.m.
"The next day, you have to have things ready when people come to visit. Special sweets in a lacquer box. Sweet lotus seeds and candy. You make tea and have sweets.
"All the businessmen would take the plum branches and put them in big vases in their front lobbies, hoping that they bloom the next day. It means they will have a good year. And the whole day long, all you hear is firecrackers, the louder the better. So next year your business will be booming!"
"And aren't spring rolls a traditional food, because they look like bars of gold?" I ask.
"Yes," Mom says. "Spring rolls are more of a custom of the interior of China, not so much Hong Kong. But we do eat them because they are like golden bars."
Now, that sounds more like it.
Chinese New Year Spring Rolls
10 dried Chinese mushrooms
2 tablespoons sesame oil
2 cups finely shredded green cabbage
1 small can (1/4 cup) shredded bamboo shoots
1 carrot, coarsely grated
1 stalk celery, diced
2 green onions (scallions) chopped
1/2 pound ground pork
1/4 pound raw shrimp, shelled, and chopped
2 cups fresh bean sprouts
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1 package spring roll skins or lumpia wrappers, thawed, if frozen
Vegetable oil for sauteing/frying
1 egg, beaten
Soak mushrooms in hot water 15 minutes to soften. Drain, discard stems and water, and thinly slice mushroom caps.
In a large skillet heat sesame oil.
Add mushrooms, remaining vegetables (except bean sprouts) pork, and shrimp. Stir-fry mixture until pork and shrimp have have lost their pinkness and vegetables begin to soften. Add bean sprouts, toss and cook another minute or two. Add salt and pepper to taste, and toss lightly.
Pour mixture into large colander to drain and cool.
Peel off a single spring roll wrapper and place it with a corner towards you (so it looks like a baseball diamond). Leave remaining wrappers in package and cover with a damp cloth to keep from drying.
Take about 3 tablespoons of filling and place horizontally into a cylinder shape across the bottom third of the wrapper. Bring the end of the wrapper (the one pointing towards you) over the filling, rolling fairly snugly.
Brush egg wash on edges of remaining sides of wrapper. (This will seal the spring roll when folded.)
Fold left and right sides of the wrapper over the middle or roll. (It will roughly look like an envelope at this point.) Continue rolling fairly tightly toward top and fold top flap or wrapper over to seal.
Place the rolls on a dishtowel-lined tray. If your filling is sufficiently drained, you may cover and refrigerate the spring rolls overnight. Just make sure there are not wet spots on a spring roll before frying, or the roll will burst.
Pour enough vegetable oil in a deep frying pan to completely cover a single layer of spring rolls. (An electric frying pan works well.) Heat oil to 375 degrees F., or hot enough so that when you place an end of a roll into oil, it sizzles.
Fry rolls, a few at a time, turning, until lightly browned (about 4 minutes). Remove with tongs; drain on paper towels and serve immediately, or place in warm oven.
Makes about 18 spring rolls.
You may purchase Chinese mustard, Hoi Sin, or Duck Sauce to accompany the following dipping sauce.
Dipping Sauce for spring rolls
3 tablespoons finely minced fresh ginger
3 cloves garlic, finely minced
1/2 cup soy sauce
2 to 3 tablespoons rice or white vinegar
1 tablespoon sugar
2 teaspoons hot oil or sesame oil
1 green onion (scallion) finely chopped
Whisk together all ingredients and divide into individual bowls for dipping.