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An Auspicious New Year's Menu

Celebrate with a traditional--and flavorful--Chinese feast.

The Chinese Year of the Dog begins on January 29, 2006. Although I've lived in the United States for many years, I still hold to Chinese New Year traditions and host a party each year. After all the hubbub of the Western holidays has faded, it's nice to have one more chance to gather with friends and family to enjoy good company, well-wishing, and--most of all--a delicious feast.


Food is integral to a healthy, happy new year in Chinese tradition, and certain foods are considered especially auspicious: Chicken stands for prosperity and joy, while dumplings represent togetherness and heavenly blessings. Pork and beef symbolize wealth and strength, while vegetables and tofu bring harmony and prosperity. Noodles stand for a long, happy life, while shrimp represents happiness and good fortune. A whole fish symbolizes surplus and prosperity, and sweet rice cake brings safety, good fortune, and a sweet New Year.


I try to include most of those foods in my New Year's celebration. But instead of working in the kitchen for days as my mother did, I enlist the help of guests. They may choose to bring a dish like the ones featured here, or they can pitch in to help make dumplings--a customary social warm-up for the feast to come.


Ways to Greet the New Year

A sampling of Chinese traditions

red-bagHere are traditions I remember from my childhood in China. Try a few of them for good luck.

  • Children should bow to pay respect to elders. In return, give them red bags containing money -- for prosperity in the year ahead.
  • Clean your house and get rid of old, unused items to make room for the new.
  • Pay bills and collect debts.
  • Children should finish homework, wash hair, get a haircut, and have a set of new clothes ready for New Year's Day.
  • Put out a red tablecloth and cushion covers. Hang red and gold banners and lanterns with Chinese good wishes written on them. Display Chinese dragons to ward off evil sprits.
  • Exchange treats and fruit with loved ones. Candies are for a sweet New Year. Melon seeds and candied melon represent growth and prosperity. Oranges and tangerines stand for instant wealth and health.
  • Set off firecrackers to frighten away evil spirits.

Chinese New Year's Feast for Eight

Serve all or part of this menu to celebrate the Year of the Dog. Just make sure you serve an even number of dishes--an odd number is considered bad luck.

New Year's Dumpling Delight

Chicken-Ginseng Soup

Vegetarians' Delight

Orange-Ginger Shrimp Skewers

Lion's Head Meatballs in Spicy Coconut Sauce

Longevity Noodles

Steamed Fish with Ginger-Wine Sauce

New Year's Rice Cake


dumplingsNew Year's Dumpling Delight

Traditionally, the steamer basket is coated with oil to keep the dumplings from sticking. Here is a delightful alternative: Place each dumpling on a thinly sliced carrot "disk". When the dumplings come out of the steamer, each has its own little serving tray. You can make these dumplings ahead and freeze them.


Chili-Garlic Dipping Sauce:
1/2 cup low-sodium soy sauce
2 tablespoons rice vinegar
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 teaspoon sesame oil
2 garlic cloves, minced
2 tablespoons green onion, minced
1 hot red chile, minced
10 ounce ground pork
3 1/2 cups shredded Napa (Chinese) cabbage
1 1/4 cups thinly sliced leek (about 1 large)
3/4 cup minced green onion
1 cup thinly sliced shiitake mushroom caps (about 3 ounces)
1 tablespoon minced peeled fresh ginger
1 tablespoon low-sodium soy sauce
1 tablespoon sake (rice wine) or sherry
1 teaspoon sesame oil
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
40 won ton wrappers
2 large carrots, thinly sliced

To prepare dipping sauce, combine first 7 ingredients. Cover and refrigerate.

To prepare dumplings, combine pork and next 10 ingredients (pork through black pepper) in a large bowl.

Working with 1 won ton wrapper at a time (cover remaining wrappers with a damp towel to keep from drying), spoon about 2 teaspoons pork mixture into center of each wrapper. Moisten edges of wrapper with water; bring 2 opposite corners to center, pinching points to seal. Bring remaining 2 corners to center, pinching points to seal. Pinch 4 edges together to seal. Place dumplings, seam sides up, on carrot slices (cover loosely with a damp towel to keep them from drying).

Arrange half of dumplings in a single layer in a bamboo or vegetable steamer. Steam dumplings, covered, for 10 minutes. Remove dumplings from steamer; place on a platter. Keep warm. Repeat procedure with remaining dumplings. Serve with dipping sauce.

Note: If you don't have a steamer, use a heat-proof plate. Set it on top of a heat-proof bowl placed in the bottom of a pot filled with 2 inches of water. Cover and steam.

Yield: 8 servings (serving size: 5 dumplings and about 2 tablespoons dipping sauce)

Chicken-Ginseng Soup

chicken-soupThe Chinese believe cold drinks are harmful to the digestive system, so soup is served not as a first course, but as a beverage with a meal. Because it's more readily available than fresh ginseng, we tested the recipe with ginseng tea.


2 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 cups chopped onion
2 tablespoons diced peeled fresh ginger
6 garlic cloves, minced
1 pound skinless, boneless chicken breast, cut
  into 1-inch pieces
3 cups water
3 (14 1/2-ounce) cans fat-free, less-sodium chicken broth
3 cups fresh or frozen yellow corn
4 bags ginseng tea or 2 sliced ginseng roots
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon white pepper

Heat the oil in a Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add onion, ginger, and garlic cloves; sauté 2 minutes. Add chicken; sauté 4 minutes. Add water and broth; bring to a boil. Stir in corn and ginseng tea; bring to a boil. Reduce heat; simmer 20 minutes. Sprinkle with salt and pepper.

Yield: 8 servings (serving size: 1 1/2 cups)

Vegetarian's Delight

veg-delightThis is an important dish to serve for Chinese New Year. Many parents encourage their children to eat more of it so they won't fight as much, and thus start the new year in harmony.


Cooking spray
2 teaspoons minced peeled fresh ginger
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 cup diced oyster mushroom caps (about 3 ounces)
1 (8-ounce) package Thai-style flavored baked tofu, julienned
1/2 cup (3-inch) julienne-cut carrot
1/2 cup frozen whole-kernel corn
1/2 cup canned whole water chestnuts
1 tablespoon low-sodium soy sauce
1 1/2 teaspoons rice vinegar
2/3 cup (3-inch) julienne-cut green onions
1 teaspoon dark sesame oil
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1/8 teaspoon salt

Heat a large skillet or wok coated with cooking spray over medium-high heat. Add ginger and garlic cloves; stir-fry 30 seconds. Add mushrooms and tofu; stir-fry 2 minutes. Add carrot, corn, and water chestnuts; stir-fry 1 minute. Stir in soy sauce and vinegar; cook 2 minutes. Stir in green onions, sesame oil, pepper, and salt.

Yield: 8 servings (serving size: 1/2 cup)

Orange-Ginger Shrimp Skewers


shrimpInstead of grilling this recipe in a pan, you can cook the skewers under the broiler.


1/2 cup fresh orange juice (about 2 oranges)
2 tablespoons minced green onions
1 tablespoon minced peeled fresh ginger
1 tablespoon minced fresh cilantro
2 tablespoons rice vinegar
2 tablespoons low-sodium soy sauce
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
2 teaspoons grated orange rind
1 minced hot red chile (optional)
1 pound large shrimp, peeled and deveined
2 oranges, peeled, cut in half and quartered
 Cooking spray

Combine first 9 ingredients in a bowl. Add shrimp; toss to coat. Cover and marinate in refrigerator 15 minutes.

Remove shrimp from dish, reserving marinade. Thread shrimp and orange quarters alternately onto each of 8 (8-inch) skewers.

Heat large grill pan coated with cooking spray over medium-high heat. Cook skewers 4 minutes on each side or until done, basting with reserved marinade.

Yield: 8 servings (serving size: 1 skewer)


Lion's Head Meatballs in Spicy Coconut Sauce

lions-headThese spicy meatballs are called "Lion's Head" because of their large size. Also, lions are believed to ward off evil. You can make the meatballs a day or two ahead, store them covered in the refrigerator, and heat them in the sauce before serving. Decrease the red pepper for a milder flavor.


1/2 cup light coconut milk
1/2 cup soy milk
2 tablespoons minced peeled fresh ginger
2 teaspoons minced hot red chile pepper
1 tablespoon chopped green onions
2 tablespoons Thai fish sauce

1 pound ground round or ground pork
1/3 cup chopped green onions
1/4 cup chopped water chestnuts
2 tablespoons cornstarch
1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon minced peeled fresh ginger
1 tablespoon low-sodium soy sauce
1 tablespoon dark sesame oil
1 teaspoon minced hot red chile pepper
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1/4 cup chopped fresh basil
1 tablespoon grated lemon rind

To prepare sauce, combine first 6 ingredients in a small bowl.

To prepare meatballs, combine ground pork and next 9 ingredients (pork through salt) in a large bowl, and shape mixture into 8 meatballs. Heat 1 tablespoon vegetable oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Add meatballs; cook 7 minutes, browning on all sides. Drain well.

Place sauce in a large saucepan; bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Add meatballs; cover, reduce heat, and simmer 8 minutes. Garnish with basil and rind.

Yield: 8 servings (serving size: 1 meatball and 3 tablespoons sauce)

Longevity Noodles

Use the longest noodles you can find for this recipe; the length represents a wish for a long and happy life. The Chinese show respect for their elders at celebrations by serving them extra long noodles. Remember to serve the elders first.


Peanut Sauce:
2 teaspoons vegetable oil
2 tablespoons minced fresh onion
1 teaspoon grated peeled fresh ginger
1 garlic clove, minced
1/2 cup soy milk
1/4 cup creamy peanut butter
1 teaspoon lemon juice
1 tablespoon dry white wine
1 tablespoon low-sodium soy sauce
2 teaspoons grated peeled fresh ginger
2 teaspoons cornstarch
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
8 ounces skinless, boneless chicken breast, cut into thin strips
8 ounces uncooked thin spaghetti
 Cooking spray
1/2 cup snow peas, trimmed
1/2 cup thinly sliced carrot
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup diagonally sliced green onions

To prepare sauce, heat oil in a small saucepan over medium-high heat. Add onion, 1 teaspoon ginger, and garlic; sauté 5 minutes or until onion is tender. Stir in soy milk, peanut butter, and juice; cook 3 minutes or until peanut butter is completely melted, stirring constantly. Remove from heat; cool completely.

To prepare marinade, combine wine, soy sauce, 2 teaspoons ginger, cornstarch, and 1/2 teaspoon black pepper in a medium bowl. Add chicken; toss to coat. Cover and marinate in refrigerator 30 minutes.

To prepare noodles, cook pasta according to package directions, omitting salt and fat. Drain and rinse. Set aside.

Heat a large nonstick skillet coated with cooking spray over medium-high heat. Add chicken; sauté 2 minutes or until done. Add snow peas and carrot; sauté 4 minutes or until crisp-tender. Stir in peanut sauce, salt, and black pepper. Add noodles; toss well. Sprinkle with green onions.

Yield: 8 servings (serving size: 1/2 cup)


Steamed Fish with Ginger-Wine Sauce

Fish is traditionally the last entrée served before dessert. The Chinese word for fish, 'yu', sounds the same as the word that means 'plenty' or 'more than enough.' Leaving some of the fish at the end of the meal is a wish for the family's prosperity in the new year.


3/4 cup thinly sliced green onions
1/4 cup fresh orange juice
3 tablespoons minced peeled fresh ginger
2 tablespoons sake (rice wine)
1 1/2 tablespoons fish sauce
1 tablespoon finely chopped peeled fresh lemon grass
1/2 teaspoon dark sesame oil
1/2 teaspoon finely chopped hot red chile pepper
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon white pepper
4 (6-ounce) trout fillets
1/4 cup red bell pepper, cut into 1/8-inch strips
6 cilantro sprigs

Combine first 11 ingredients in a 13 x 9-inch baking dish. Marinate fish in refrigerator 2 hours, turning occasionally.

Preheat oven to 350°.

Bake fish mixture (including marinade) at 350° for 17 minutes or until fish flakes easily when tested with a fork. Garnish with bell pepper and cilantro.

Yield: 8 servings


New Year's Rice Cake

rice-cakeYou can find sweet rice flour in Asian markets. This very finely ground flour is an ideal base for Asian pastries.


3 1/2 cups glutinous rice flour (sweet rice flour),

         about 1 pound
1 1/2 cups sugar
1/4 cup dried tart cherries
1/4 cup candied pineapple, chopped
1/4 cup chopped pitted dates
1/4 cup slivered almonds
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 1/2 cups water
1/2 cup canola or vegetable oil
3 large eggs
 Cooking spray

Preheat oven to 375°.

Lightly spoon flour into dry measuring cups; level with a knife. Combine flour and next 6 ingredients (flour through baking powder) in a bowl.

Combine water, oil, and eggs; add to flour mixture, stirring by hand just until moist.

Spoon the batter into a 9-inch round cake pan coated with cooking spray. Bake at 375° for 50 minutes or until a wooden pick inserted in center comes out clean. Cool rice cake for 15 minutes in pan on a wire rack, and remove from pan. Cool completely on wire rack.

Yield: 12 servings (serving size: 1 wedge)

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