Next week Tsao Wang, the Kitchen God who hangs near the stove in traditional Chinese households all year, will symbolically leave for heaven to make a report to the Jade Emperor.
Purists will place incense, candles and food in front of his image in reverence. They may smear his mouth with honey in the hope that he will say sweet things about the family's behavior or dot his lips with wine so that he may forget the misdeeds of the family.
Then the brightly colored image is taken to the yard and symbolically burned as he ascends to the heavens in smoke, often with a paper ladder to aid his climb.
Food and kitchen symbolism is an integral part of Chinese New Year, celebrated this year on Feb. 15 as the year 4689 (the Year of the Sheep) on the ancient lunar calendar.
Many second- and third-generation Chinese-Americans in Baltimore and elsewhere in America may no longer burn or pay tribute to the Kitchen God, but still plan their New Year's Eve meal with symbolic foods of their ancestors that are supposed to encourage good fortune during the year.
In fact, superstition also rules the holiday food preparation. All food must be bought and prepared quickly because as the clock strikes 12 on New Year's Eve no one may use a knife or any cutting instrument for two days or they risk cutting away good luck for the year.
The recipes may vary, but the New Year's meal must contain certain essentials. Like a turkey at Thanksgiving, no authentic Chinese New Year celebration would be complete without a whole fish (including tail and head) and a whole chicken (including feet and head) -- whole foods that represent the continuity of life and togetherness of the family.
"Once a year we become Chinese again and eat all the things that we wouldn't eat otherwise," says Lillian Lee Kim, director of the Chinese Language School at Grace and St. Peter's Church in Baltimore. She was born in China but came to America at age 3.
The New Year's menu always includes foods that represent good health, good luck and longevity.
For example, fat choy (which means good fortune) is also the name of a black hairlike sea vegetable that is an important ingredient in many New Year's soups. Many children, like Mrs. Kim's brothers, were squeamish about eating it and made jokes that it looked like their sister's hair after it was curled.
Besides foods that seem strange outside of their homeland, this is also the time to enjoy foods that families consider special, such as the fancy mushrooms that symbolize opportunities.
"The New Year's soup always had black mushrooms in it," Mrs. Kim says. "We couldn't afford to have them often when I was a child so we considered them a delicacy. Fresh oysters were often put into the soup after it was cooked."
Other foods that are high in sugar and fat are served as a celebration of the sweetness and richness of life.
"Anything that is sweet is a symbol of the good life," says Catherine M. Chin, a registered dietitian in Baltimore who was born here but still preserves the New Year traditions.
One of the most popular sweet pastries is a sticky rice dessert known as the eight treasures pudding, a reference to the eight treasures in Buddhism that guard and enrich one's life. The cake is filled with sweet red bean paste and eight kinds of preserved fruits such as cherries, dates and raisins.
"It is high in calories and very rich. A little bit of it goes a long way if you are watching calories," according to Mrs. Chin. "This holiday is like Christmas or Thanksgiving. Everything is rich and high in calories. You think about cutting back after the holiday is over."
The renowned Chinese respect for ancestors is also reflected in this family-oriented dinner. When the table is set, the members of the family who have passed away are considered to be present and a place is set for them at the feast table.
"Young children respect their elders and make it a point to come and greet their grandparents," Mrs. Chin says. "New Year's is a happy occasion and nobody is supposed to be sad. The children all receive good luck money in a red envelope given by their parents or grandparents. It is very important for the family to gather in one place so that they can usher in the New Year together."
The following is a menu for a Chinese New Year's celebration with some changes made to fit the American palate. Since many people are squeamish about whole fish, we have substituted a dish using fish fillets. The adaptation of the Chinese soup contains the symbolic mushrooms but does not contain the unfamiliar fat choy. And the eight treasures pudding has been slightly altered to fit American tastes.
When the clock strikes midnight, be sure to wish your dinner guests "Gung hoy fat choy," or "May you prosper in the New Year!"
Jade white sliced fish
Makes 4 servings.
From "China the Beautiful Cookbook" (Knapp Press, $39.95).
8 ounces firm fish fillets, such as wahoo or swordfish
1 egg white, well beaten
3 tablespoons cornstarch or soy flour
2 cups oil for deep frying