January 26th marked the new lunar year. Some people refer to this as “Chinese new year”, but really, so many cultures celebrate this that I feel it’s more fair and inclusive to refer to it as the lunar new year – the “other” new year, January 1st, marks the beginning of the solar year. It’s all very interesting if you feel like reading up on it 🙂
In any case, the tradition dictates that on the lunar new year’s eve, one must feast and feast and feast. But not just any feast; one must feast upon certain dishes in order to foretell a prosperous new year. Or something like that. (And on new year’s day, one must eat vegetarian; I don’t buy into that though!)
This year, I offered to create the feast for my family. The problem with this is that I’m jhuk sing to the highest power. That means I was born here, but it also has a snide connotation about my actual knowledge of Chinese culture. It’s next to nil. I’ve admitted I don’t like tofu or rice that much, and I’ve also admitted that my non-Asian boyfriend has better chopstick skillz than I do (I blame that on my parents’ indulgence of a child who was left-handed; they found it hard enough to try to make me use my right hand, but it was even worse with chopsticks. I never picked up the proper way to use them and continue, to this day, to use the “scissor method” – other Asian-Americans with this problem, holla!).
So I made up a bunch of traditional, “proper” foods and brought that to the table anyway.
First up is a whole steamed fish. The reasoning behind eating fish is that the Chinese word for fish (yue) is a homonym for the word for, um, I think it’s prosperity. Not only are you meant to eat fish, you’re meant to leave a little behind, to show that you have yue but also you have so much, you’re giving it away/throwing it away/whatever. Of course,… well, let’s just say that didn’t happen this year despite my protestations.
The actual wow factor to this isn’t the steaming of a fish. I mean, you’re boiling water and putting a fish on top of it, it’s really not rocket science. The WOW part is my forcing myself to overcome that little part of me that hates crowds, trekking, via public transportation, to the Asian-dominated commercial area of my county (named Flushing), to the Chinese supermarket on what has to be the busiest day of its year, fighting through the crowds and forcing myself not to reach out and punch anyone (including the intense urge to B*TCH SLAP the woman who pushed me, causing me to drop a glass bottle – which did not break – who then turned to look at ME like I was the stupid one), managing to grab the things I needed, including… a live fish. I mean, this fish was swimming still! Wait, back up…
The workers at these Chinese markets mostly don’t speak English and don’t have any patience for someone like me, who barely speaks Chinese. The telephone conversation with FeistyMom the night before had gone like this:
“Mom, what’s that fish called that you usually buy to steam? Bass but what kind?”
“I don’t – I need the English name?”
“MM mumble mumble I don’t remember it.”
“Um, okay, thanks.”
So I found myself staring at a wall of fishtanks with swimming, splashing fish, and the guy glaring at me. I watched a few other people, trying to detemine what was the “normal” fish, but no one bought the one *I* thought was what she used to buy. So finally, I pointed at the tank and said in timid Chinese, “What’s that fish called?” and the man said…
“Lao yue” – actually he barked it – and turned to help someone else. I yelled out in frustration “I WANT ONE OF THOSE” in Cantonese before he could help yet another person before me, and he shrugged and flipped one out of the tank, using a net, into a plastic bin in front of him.
Then he took a wooden stick and hit it.
But it still flopped around with its gills wide open, gasping as it died. I jumped back a little and he hit it again. I almost passed out. I’m not cut out for the amount of carnivorism in which I engage, I know this, but I do it anyway. He tossed the stunned fish into a baggie, slid it down to another man who passed it behind the counter where someone else scaled and removed its organs really quickly. Total price for the just-under 2lbs. fish: $9.73.
Of course, I had to hold it away from me with two little fingers for the rest of the time there. I was so grossed out by the bloodiness and the, well, dead fish!
(At least it was dead. I remember as a child, my parents took us grocery shopping and they had filled the car with bags, and I was sitting in the back of the car, my dad & mom were in another store for a moment, and all of a sudden, the bag in the front seat started moving! I started screaming and when my mom came back, she said the fish must have been just stunned earlier and she tried to hide it under her seat but I could hear the rustling. Shudder.)
Anyway, the fish in English is called striped bass, in case you’re interested. I basically put ginger and scallions inside and scattered on top a little bit (not all of it though!), then steamed it for about 10 minutes. Once it was done, I put fresh ginger and scallions all on top, then boiled oil (yes, boiled – this was the weirdest thing to me, according to my mom’s instructions, you put oil in a small pot and turn on the heat to high. It has to be smoking for a few minutes – SCREAMING HOT OIL HERE PEOPLE, not for the faint of heart!!! – before it’s ready), and poured it on top of each little crevice to finish it off.
The fish was delicious. Obviously very fresh, and cooked to just the right doneness, not a moment sooner.
Here’s a plate of BBQ ribs I brought over. This was another slow cooker recipe, but it didn’t turn out properly – some parts were super succulent and juicy, while other bits were dry and sorely needed the sauce I’d made to go with it. Ah well, can’t win them all.
Sauteed bean sprouts, which impressed my mother for some reason.
Dumplings bought from Korean Chinese Dumplings. The symbolism behind the dumplings is that they are shaped like taels, or are supposed to be (I’m not entirely sure what taels look like and I know for sure not all dumplings are shaped like what I believe to be taels – the little golden hat looking things?), so it’s like having money on the table.
The third and last thing I opted to make was noodles. Noodles always symbolise longevity (because they’re long, you see), but I can’t make Chinese style noodles for the life of me, and not for lack of trying. So I opted to make spaghetti with gravy which turned out to be a good thing since that’s what the kids mostly ate, and what my brother-in-law stuck to (and fish). You can see it in the first photo – two pounds of spaghetti and a big bowl of red sauce next to it.
dumplings (to represent money)
noodles (to represent longevity)
fish (to represent prosperity)
All done in my own Yvo-style, cuz I wouldn’t do it any other way 😉