Last year at this time I was frantically trying to complete the manuscript for my upcoming cookbook. With the deadline looming I did not have the time to cook a family Chinese New Year dinner. But the book, Phoenix Claws and Jade Trees: Essential Techniques of Authentic Chinese Cooking, is now finished and will be published this fall, so I am back making a Chinese New Year banquet for the family.
When it comes to holiday celebrations, Warren and I are traditionalists. For Thanksgiving, a New England turkey dinner, accompanied by oyster stuffing, pan gravy, mashed potato and orange cranberry sauce, is the undeviating menu. For Christmas a prime rib roast or a ham would be added as we host a larger crowd. Lately though, there’s been grumbling by the family that we should be more modern and innovative with our Christmas dinner. But how does one inject creativity into a classic Christmas dinner? I decided to search for an answer in my Chinese cooking tradition.
My Chinese zodiac sign is the wooden horse, and since this is the year of the wooden horse I’m not surprised I’m starting out the year with a busy schedule. For the first time in a very long while, I did not make a family Chinese New Year dinner at home. But I do have very good reasons for this lapse. First of all I’ve been busy with the manuscript for my upcoming book, which is now due in the spring that I was supposed to have completed last fall. Then I was asked by my very good friends Amy and Romy at Purple Yam restaurant in Brooklyn to help them develop a Chinese New Year menu for their restaurant. And just two weeks before Chinese New Year, through my wonderful friend Wendy Chan, Ron DeSantis at Yale University dining services invited me to put together a home-style Chinese New Year dinner for the students.
Two weeks ago a Chowhound forum user, Gordon Wong, started a discussion thread and he questioned whether mooncake is like fruitcake: often gifted but rarely eaten. I was pleased to read that majority of the responders reported they love mooncake and do eat them. I too am a fan of mooncake. I like them so much that I often wait until after the Mid-Autumn Festival so I can buy more of them at a discount.
For Warren and me Chinese New Year has always meant family and friends. To express our love and affection we do what we do best: offer good food. For many years our Chinese New Year celebration centered on a ten-course banquet. Our nieces would invariably be the focus of the evening. But this year was different. One of our nieces is now living in Singapore and the other one is off in college at Cornell University. Fortunately we live in a Harlem apartment building full of young and lively families. They have become our extended family, so our Chinese New Year tradition continues with them.
Juggling consulting work at Lotus Blue and other freelance consulting gigs, I almost neglected my own family’s reunion dinner for Chinese New Year. But since we were entering the Chinese zodiac’s dragon year it would have been improper not to have a grand celebration to welcome it. Among the flurry of my activities I staged a sumptuous Dragon Chinese New Year banquet for a small group of family and friends.
When you think of a traditional Victorian English Christmas what comes to mind? The most likely images are Scrooge, Father Christmas, Christmas tree, snow and the Christmas goose. This traditional bird shows up in virtually every depiction of a Victorian Christmas dinner. The most common recipes call for onion and apple dressing and spit-roasting over a wood fire. During the nineteenth century, while Queen Victoria was supping on her goose, in the Chinese Qing imperial palace half way around the world one of the most beloved dishes was a stuffed duck dish known as Eight Treasures Hulu Duck. It was an elegant, sumptuous dish made from a deboned duck filled with glutinous rice and studded with eight other ingredients. It would have been a perfect Christmas bird for the Qing Dynasty’s ambassador to Victoria’s Court.