Dragon Delights

Chinese New Year's celebration is a tasty family feast stuffed with symbolism

February 02, 2000|By Jeannette Belliveau | Jeannette Belliveau,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Every Lunar New Year for most of the past 4,698 years, costume dragons have danced through China's cities and villages. They weave through smoky streets, past balconies dangling strings of firecrackers, noisily popping to drive evil spirits away.

For far longer than just two millenniums, the Chinese have tried, through good times and bad, to thoroughly clean house, pay off all debts, gather with family members -- no matter how scattered -- and usher in the New Year at tables groaning with a feast of symbolic dishes.

"The Chinese New Year's Eve dinner is the most important family occasion of the year," comparable to Christmas in the West, says Lillian Lee Kim, director of the Chinese Language School of Grace and St. Peter's Church on Park Avenue.

The 100 million Chinese who live outside of China, particularly older emigrants, will welcome the auspicious Year of the Dragon on Saturday in homes and Chinatowns around the world.

Because the Chinese come from a land with immensely fertile river basins and also a convulsive history, where periodic famines forced people to eat all parts of every animal ("all of the duck except the quack"), it is no wonder that food carries enormous symbolism in Chinese culture.

Families will eat foods that are round, without sharp edges, thus symbolizing harmony. They will eat long noodles, not short ones, to symbolize longevity. Red foods represent good luck, and green ones prosperity. Many foods, including goose and chicken, will be served because their Chinese names sound similar to the words for "good luck, longevity, happiness and prosperity," Kim says.

Liju Fan, who teaches Chinese and Japanese cooking in Howard County, grew up in Taiwan. Her mother grew up in Hangzhou in East China, and her father was from Hebei, a northerly province near Beijing -- significant, because New Year traditions vary around the vast country. "My father would say, 'Let's make dumplings for New Year's Eve.' My mother would make dumplings and also sausages and smoked pork, and a sticky rice cake, nin gao."

Chinese families "have a picture of the Kitchen God, or god of the stove," Fan adds. "The Chinese used to believe the Kitchen God watches over you, and before New Year, he will have to report truly what he sees, whether the family members are nice to one another and kind to people outside the family, because everything happens around the kitchen."

Traditionally, some people put a sweet rice cake "to the mouth of the picture of the god, so he will report something sweet to the highest authority, the main God. Basically, it's bribing," she says with a laugh.

"It was important always to have a whole fish at the end of New Year's Eve dinner," she says. "The head and the tail are left on, signifying the continuity of life. But you are not supposed to finish the fish, because fish in Chinese Mandarin, yu, sounds exactly like something you can keep, a good leftover."

Also, leftovers are important because Chinese people are not supposed to use knives or anything sharp, which would "cut" good luck, on New Year's Day.

"My grandmother would serve 10 dishes on New Year's Eve," recalls Ming Sun, 36, pastor of the Chinese Bible Church of Howard County, who grew up in Nanjing in East China. "They just about covered the table. That means you are really prosperous, to have so many dishes. She had all the names for the dishes -- names that sound like you are calling for prosperity or happiness."

"The dragon is the luckiest of the 12 heavenly creatures. He's strong, and he signifies a really good year," says James Hom, manager of the Pacific Rim Restaurant in Cockeysville.

Indeed, many mainland and overseas Chinese will seek to marry, have children or start businesses in this auspicious year.

Kim explains that the traditional Chinese calendar employs 12 animals used cyclically to record years, with one legend explaining that just before dying, "Buddha summoned all the animals to appear before him and to pay homage to him. Twelve animals were the first to heed his command.

"With Chinese families," she says, "the dragon is the most popular of all as he symbolizes imperial power, vigilance, energy, health, bravery, goodness and strength."

On Sunday (the day after New Year's), in Bolton Hill, Kim will coordinate a New Year's feast for 200, a tradition of nearly 50 years' duration.

"We will serve a chicken dish, probably General Tso's chicken, because chicken is very popular among children, and because the word for chicken, gai, is the same as that for good luck and good fortune," she says. "Sweet and sour foods are always a favorite."

Pacific Rim, along with the Golden Town Inn in Towson, will donate 200 servings of one of the entrees served at Grace and St. Peter's Church.

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