In feudal times, the Chinese believed that the eve of the New Year marked the Kitchen God’s departure to heaven, in order to report on the household. To welcome the Kitchen God back to the home in the New Year, each family feasted and performed a “spring cleaning.” The spring festival symbolized a fresh start, and the earth’s seasonal return to life.
While chefs and restaurateurs may no longer fear the judgments of the Kitchen God, there’s plenty of activity in the kitchen as they prepare to welcome in the Year of the Horse.
Determined by the Chinese lunar calendar, this year’s holiday falls on Feb. 12. At Jumbo Seafood Restaurant in Chinatown, owner Cathy Leung and manager Danny Woo are planning a special eight- course menu. Eight is a lucky number in Chinese because it sounds like the word for “prosper.”
“We serve special dishes that are auspicious for the New Year,” Woo says. Many foods, like chicken and fish, are made only in their whole form, to represent a year that starts without missing pieces. “We’ll have a steamed live fish and dried oysters (ho xi, which means ‘for all things good’) stewed with a seaweed called faat choy. (It resembles strands of hair but sounds like the words for ‘making riches.’).”
While chef Cheng Hing Kui takes care of the menu at Leung’s restaurant, her mother is at home making the customary foods. “We always have neen goh, which is a chewy rice cake,” Leung says. After her mother makes it, she cuts it into small pieces and pan-fries it. “Every mom does it,” says Leung, “and every mom makes the dishes that symbolize good luck.”
At the neighboring Peach Farm, the manager, Yan Chung, follows those ages-old principles. “For Chinese New Year, we always eat foods with names that sound prosperous,” he says. “Saang choy is the lettuce that lines each plate, and it sounds like ‘growing wealth.’ ” Through the 15 days of the festival, people avoid saying unlucky things.
This is a time for tradition, says Martin Yan, the San Francisco- based celebrity chef of “Yan Can Cook,” the TV show. “The main fare is always the same – a whole fish or a whole chicken – because these are symbolic. The chicken is representative of the phoenix, which has a very special place of honor in Chinese culture.
“A lot of Chinese also eat raw fish, or ‘yu saang,’ which signifies birth, abundance,” Yan says. “Cooking for the holiday is a lot like preparing for Thanksgiving or Christmas, when you serve the same traditional dishes year after year.”
The cookbook author Grace Young wrote “The Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchen” to learn how to make the specialties her mother had always prepared. “The premise of the book was based on recording and preserving the traditions of Chinese New Year, says Young, who grew up in San Francisco.
“I realized that by the time my parents no longer wanted to do a big holiday, I wouldn’t remember how they did it.”
One of Young’s favorite childhood dessert dishes was sesame balls, which her Aunt Lillian taught her to make. Though quite small when first shaped, sesame balls grow to three times their size in hot oil, again a symbol of growing prosperity. The sesame seeds represent fertility.
“The Chinese really believe that what you eat and how you behave in the first two weeks of the holiday can completely influence the outcome of the coming year,” Young says. An abundance of prosperity and health at the table may make the Kitchen God smile upon your house.