From My Wok to Yours - Taking the Mystery Out of Everyday Dining and Meals!!

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Year of the Rabbit, Hare, Jumping Thing...


So now we enter into the Year of the Rabbit... until some astronomer or astrophysicist-whatever decides that in the last 2 millenia, the stars have changed their alignment and now we have to add another animal, maybe the capybara to the calendar...

but I digress...

China, with its five thousand years of recorded history, has many traditions and festivals. People of Chinese heritage, no matter where they live, follow these traditions and observe their special festive occasions. Although January 1st is the recognized legal New Year holiday in the United States, the Lunar Chinese New Year or Ying Li Shing Nian, which generally falls between the end of January and the beginning of February, is the one that is traditionally celebrated. It is the most popular and important of all Chinese festivals. Most people will celebrate this happy holiday starting the first day to the fifteenth of the first Chinese lunar month. Deeds that are honorable and good are mentioned and emphasized during this holiday.


New Year's celebration started with a grand feast on New Year's eve, called Tuan Nian when all family members would gather for this happy occasion. On this evening before the New Year's day, children were allowed to stay up and enjoy the last hours of the old year, a custom called Shou Swei, literally meaning 'guiding the year out.' This, according to the old beliefs, would bring long life to their parents.

For the New Year, besides chicken, duck, pork, and fish, there were also pastries specially prepared for this festival. They were and still are called Nian Gao or 'New Year Cakes.' Those made of sweet rice were a must.

All the food and fruit displayed and served at a New Year's celebration have their own special significance. Red is the dominant color. It symbolizes life and happiness. Of course, there are a wide assortment of other colors on display, too. Tangerines are as important as the New Year Cake.

When we visit our relatives to wish them a Happy New Year, we have to bring along a Nian Gao or New Year Cake because it leads to the expression Nian Nian Gao Sun which means 'May your family be prosperous and successful every year.' We also bring along two tangerines, because they are called Gum which in Cantonese also sounds like the word for gold. They are, therefore, a good omen.

The pomegranate, which is sometimes misnamed a Chinese apple, symbolizes fertility with its many seeds. Lotus root symbolizes long life and strong family ties because even after it is cut with a knife, there can be many attached strings between the two cut pieces. Peanuts, because they grow and propagate underground and have long roots, are known as long life fruit. Water melon seeds, which people crack and eat as they sip tea, signify the expression: 'May what you say be harmonious and pleasant.' All of these can be found at New Year celebrations, too.

In Northern China, the most popular food enjoyed by rich and poor alike is jaotze or dumplings. These have a shrimp, beef, or pork stuffing cooked in a wheat dough-skin wrapping. Often the meats are used in combination and with a vegetable such as Chinese cabbage.

I didn't get a chance to celebrate in my regular gastronomical way, enjoying someone else's kitchen, so I decided that today was as good a day as any to make it up.

It is still cold.  Last week's freak weather decided to rear its ugly head again, even though I had canceled my order of winter weather. 

Consequently, I decided I didn't want to drive anywhere, so delivery it would be.  Chinese food, delivered.  The idea kind of makes me shudder even now, after having eaten.

I decided to choose Phoenix Cafe, which I had tried before and not enjoyed. 

Last time I ordered their lunch special of Kung Pao Chicken with hot & sour soup, an egg roll and steamed white rice, since they don't have brown rice.  The dish was bland, overly saucy, and the pieces of chicken seemed to be little more than knuckles and bits of cartilage.  The only good thing about the meal was the fact that the hot and sour soup was indeed hot (temperature-wise.)

Thankfully, when they gentleman delivered this first order, I was smart enough to ask them for their "authentic Chinese" menu, which they were more than happy to provide.  The difference in offerings was like night and day.  Rice noodle soup, duck feet, fish balls, you name it... it was all available.  But I was not in the mood to really go out on a limb, given that I was going to be lunching in my office.

So it was with a bit of trepidation that I decided to give them another try, because I REALLY did not want to drive, much less step foot out in the cold, and I was craving Chinese food.  So I ordered their crispy duck.

And duck, I did get.  Half of a duck, with steamed rice and duck sauce.  (I will leave all the inappropriate jokes for everyone else to come up with...)

The duck was well cooked, tasty, and filling.  The pieces were cut into HUGE chunks that required the use of more than 2 fingers on both hands... always a good sign.

So, I may give them a second chance.  No promises, may not be soon, but maybe. 

Phoenix Chinese Cafe on Urbanspoon


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