With Y2K out of the way, here comes Chinese 4698

We were sharing a meal, this new friend and I, when he uttered words I'd never heard before: "I don't really like to eat."

My heart sank. An overreaction, perhaps. But I never felt quite the same about that friend. I think it's because he didn't understand something that in my life is a source of so much simple, everyday joy.

Yet, was there something wrong with me? Maybe I had this strange reaction because I'm Chinese. I decided to ask an expert.

Nina Simonds, long a student and teacher of Asian cuisines, admittedly is not an objective observer. She's lived in Asia and travels there nearly every year. She's really an honorary Chinese. And I think she's on my side.

"Asians have a passion for food," says Ms. Simonds. "When you go and explore the Chinese culture, you see how important it is." It's "viewed as a wonderful, nurturing, all-encompassing thing."

While she says there are comparisons to be made with the cuisines and cultures of France and elsewhere around the Mediterranean, Simonds has a special fondness for Asia. "People talk about food, share recipes ... it's a springboard to learning about history, art, people, and rituals," she says.

On Saturday Asians all over the world will celebrate a favorite ritual, the Lunar New Year of the Dragon, 4698. It's the most important holiday for most Chinese. While it's a time to gather the family together at home as well as go out and see friends, all visits, of course, will have special foods as a focus of the celebration. And many of the traditional dishes are special because of the way the Chinese language imbues everything with layers of meaning.

For example, when you visit friends, you bring tangerines and oranges as a symbol of your good wishes for abundance. The Cantonese word for tangerine, "gum," is pronounced almost the same way as the word for gold - another symbol of prosperity.

"You always see dumplings" at the new year, recalls Simonds, because "they're said to resemble golden ingots." And for the same reason, "spring rolls are another quintessential New Year's food."

The new year "is the only holiday that some people really take off [from work] and celebrate," Simonds explains. It "marks a clean slate. Usually all debts are settled, houses are cleaned, and people usually buy outfits to greet the new year. Everybody wants to start the year fresh."

Year 4698 may not have quite the same ring as 2000. But "the dragon year is considered especially auspicious," says Simonds. He's the "king of the Chinese zodiac."

So if you were looking for a reason to start over on those New Year resolutions, here's your chance.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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