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Monday, Feb. 7, 2005 Noon ET

What's Cooking: Chinese New Year Special

Grace Young
Chinese culinary expert and author
Monday, February 7, 2005; 12:00 PM

Wed., Feb. 9, is an important day in the lunar calendar, observed by many countries throughout Asia. It is New Year's Day, marking the beginning of the Year of the Rooster (4703 on the lunar calendar). Although it varies by country, the celebration, which includes New Year's Eve (Tues, Feb. 8), encompasses centuries-old traditions that affect the household, the family and the kitchen. Food plays an important part in the festivities, no matter where New Year's is celebrated.

Chinese culinary expert Grace Young will be online to take your questions and comments about the Lunar New Year, and its many food traditions. Author of "The Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchen," Young is on tour promoting her most recent title, "The Breath of a Wok," and teaching Chinese New Year cooking classes at Sur La Table locations around the country.

Kim O'Donnel (Craig Cola - washingtonpost.com)

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The transcript follows.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.


washingtonpost.com: Welcome, Grace, and thanks for coming online to discuss all things Chinese New Year. With the New Year just a few days away, what kinds of preparations are typical for the last 48 hours before the festivities?

Grace Young: Hi Kim,
First of all "Gung Hay Fat Choy," or Happy Chinese New Year as it is said in Cantonese. This is the 4703 on the lunar calendar and I wish everyone good health and happiness in this year of the rooster.
The most important meal of the entire year for the Chinese is New Year's eve, which begins tomorrow, Feb 8th. My family always had between 8 to 9 courses. The number eight sounds like the word for prosperity and the number nine means infinity.
Typically most families like to cook a chicken (naturally for the year of the rooster) but also because a chicken symbolizes the wholeness of life. Fish is also very popular as the word for fish in Cantonese also sounds like the word for wish---so it's said that your wishes come true. A sweet and sour dish is sometimes served because sour sounds like the word for grandchild and when a family is growing this is seen as a great blessing in Chinese culture. The word for shrimp "ha" in Cantonese sounds like laughter so eating shrimp means the year ahead will be happy. There are lots of other foods which are traditionally eaten---but no matter the food is must have meaning in order to be included in the meal.


McLean, Va.: I am really excited about Chinese New Year, and plan to cook with my new Joyce Chen bamboo steamer. I'm kinda nervous about it though. What is the proper way to cook with it, ie pot type, how much water, etc. Thanks!

Grace Young: A bamboo steamer is wonderful and shows the great genius and versatility of the wok. I assume your bamboo steamer has its own lid. These bamboo lids are brilliant because as the food steams unlike a metal lid where the condensed water drips back onto the food, the bamboo lid absorbs excess moisture.
Before using a new steamer soak it in cold water for several hours. Wash the steamers with hot water, never using detergent. And air-dry the steamer before using.
Bamboo steamers come in all different sizes. If you have a 14-inch wok a 12 inch steamer is excellent. Fill the wok with about 3/4 inch depth of water. Bring the water to a boil. Put the covered steamer containing the food to be steamed into the wok. If you're steaming dumplings you can line the steamer with a leaf or two of napa cabbage or cheese cloth so that the dumplings won't stick to the steamer. Or if you're steaming a whole fish, the fish would be in a heatproof plate set inside the steamer. Hope these answers help you to get started with your steamer.


Arlington, Va.: Curious: what will you be eating tomorrow night? Will you be cooking or will someone else? Thanks!;

Grace Young: I'll be cooking tomorrow night. I'm actually cheating as I have to leave for Portland, OR the following day. I have a wok exhibition opening at the Portland Classical Chinese Garden and so I'm making my New Year's dinner very simple. I'm just making "jiao-zi" the famous boiled dumplings eaten in Northern China. While doing my new book, The Breath of a Wok, I met with Amy Tan and her sisters who taught me how to make the dumplings. In northern China the dumplings are made because they are said to resemble ancient Chinese coins and therefore symbolize prosperity. They are typically cooked between midnight and 2 am New Year's eve, so it is believed that you bring your wealth from the previous year into the new year. Some families like to place a coin in one of the dumplings (sort of like the tradition of the king's cake) and who ever receives the dumpling with the coin will receive extra good fortune in the coming year. I don't do that, as I'm not interested in dealing with anyone choking at the dinner table. Anyway, the dumplings are very fun to make. It's typical to gather a group of friends or familiy and to share in the duties. Some people make the filling while others make the dough and roll it out. And as soon as a good number of dumplings are wrapped they are immediately boiled or fried. As soon as they're ready, all dumpling making stops. You eat them with a tangy ginger sauce and drink wine or beer until there are no more dumplings---and then you go back to making more dumplings. It's really fun.


washingtonpost.com: Grace, you briefly mentioned to me last week that it's typical for families to give the house a thorough cleaning before New Year's Day. Can you elaborate on that, especially in regards to the kitchen? And if there anything special one must do with the Kitchen God at this time of year as well?

Grace Young: Yes, the Chinese like to give the entire house a thorough cleaning before New Year's day. On New Year's day no one would sweep or vacuum their house as the fear is that you are sweeping away your good fortune. It's also important to clean the house to impress the Kitchen God. In old fashioned Chinese households there is a Kitchen God that has an altar behind the stove. The Chinese believe that the kitchen is the center of every household. So you clean the house and of course the kitchen to impress the Kitchen God with the order of your home. He in turn when he ascends to heaven to report on your household to the Jade Emperor will then give a favorable report and the Jade Emperor will ensure your blessings for the coming year. In addition to cleaning your home, people typically bribe the Kitchen God with offerings of food.
Oranges and tangerines which are sweet to sweeten his words, wine to make him a little drunk so he's less likely to say any bad things, or cooked food to simpliy bribe him.


Glover Park, Md.: I am hosting a Chinese New Year's Party for friends and preparing several traditional dishes - but to not have time to make dumplings. Is there a grocery store or restaurant in the Washington, DC area that will make a party platter of dumplings that I could buy?


washingtonpost.com: Grace is based in New York, but perhaps she has ideas on shortcuts for dumplings?

Grace Young: Unfortunately, I'm not familiar with the stores in the Washington area. But if you go to any Asian market frozen dumplings are quite common these days.
THere is nothing that compares with the taste of a freshly made dumpling, but I guess that is an option. Or if you have a favorite dim sum restaurant, maybe they can make some dumplings for you. Good luck.


Washington, D.C.: What would you recommend for someone cooking Chinese New Year's Eve for the first time? It's a workday, so I've got tonight to do shopping, but it will be four of us friends, and they are willing to share the work load. Thanks for any advice.

Grace Young: The Chinese love serving lettuce because the word for lettuce "saang choy" sounds like growing fortunes. I would stir-fry garlic lettuce. It's simple. I use hearts of romaine, about 1 pound. Swirl about 2 tablespoons vegetable oil into your hot wok, add 5 cloves of crushed garlic and cook 10 seconds. THe add the romaine that's been cut into 1-inch pieces crosswise. (Note the lettuce must be very dry---place them in a salad spinner) If the lettuce is wet, it will turn your stir-fry into braise rather than a stir-fry. Then stir-fry 1 to 2 minutes til the lettuce starts to wilt. Stir in 1/2 teaspoon salt, 3/4 teaspoon sugar, 1 tablespoon soy sauce and 1 tablespoon dry sherry or rice wine. Stir-fry until the lettuce is just tender crisp. Remove from heat and add about a teaspon of roasted or toasted sesame oil.
I don't have the time to give you more recipes, but I would also steam a whole fish, make sweet and sour chicken and serve rice. If you had time I would also deep fry spring rolls as an appetizer. The shape of the spring rolls resembles ancient silver ingots and so represents wealth. Good luck.


Washington, DC: What sort of meal would you recommend I could make, since I'll be home alone? I'd love a whole chicken or whole fish, but for a single girl, it's just not practical!;

Grace Young: I have a sweet and sour chickenr reicpe that's super simple and is totally different from what is typically served in Chinese restaurants.
Cut a lemon into 8 wedges. Stir fry the wedges with 3 thick slices of ginger in 1 tablespoon of oil til golden. Remove from the wok.
Without addition additional oil place 1 pound of boneless chicken breasts skin side down and brown on med to med high heat 2 to 3 minutes per side. THen return the lemon and ginger to the wok. Add 1 tablespoon soy sauce, 1 tablespoon dry sherry and 1 tablespoon honey. Cover, reduce heat to low and simmer 3 to 4 minutes per side or until the chicken is just cooked and juices run clear when the chicken is pierced. Enjoy.


Pittsburgh, Pa.: What kind of training did you do early in your life.

Grace Young: At the age of 13 I started studying French cooking with a famous chef in the San Francisco area , Josephine Araldo. I apprenticed with a well known recipe developer and food stylist, Stevie Bass, from the time I was about 15. I studied Art History at U.C. Berkeley and then came east to work for General Foods. I did recipe development for their Birds Eye line for a few years and then I became the Test Kitchen Director and Director of Food Photography for over 40 cookbooks. In 1999 I published my first book, The Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchen. A few months ago, my latest book was released, The Breath of a Wok.


Anonymous: Is it appropriate to drink alcohol, and if so, what is the ideal spirit for New Year's?

Grace Young: Yes, the Chinese love alcohol especially on special occasions. It's very popular to drink beer with meals, but these days wine is also appropriate. THe Chinese are also great lovers of cognac. At Chinese banquets its quite common to see cognac at every table. There are more traditional Chinese alcoholic bevreages to choose from too, like rice wine or Mao Tai. Do note, that Mao Tai has a very high alcohol content.


Washington, DC: Hi Kim and Grace,

First, thank you very much for hosting this special chat. I have been wanting to learn more about Chinese cooking. I have a duck in my refrigerator and I want to make a Chinese style roast duck. (not Peking duck with the pancakes, just a regular roast duck with Chinese seasonings and a nice crispy skin) Do you have any good recipes? And should I have some kind of dipping sauce?

Grace Young: It's a little complicated to write out a whole recipe for roast duck here. I have a recipe in THe Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchen which is quite simple. You brush the duck with a mixture of honey and water that have been boiled and then cooled. The duck is stuffed with amixture of stir-fried garlic, ginger and scallions that have been simmered in bean sauce, soy sauce, rice wine, sugar, ground Sichuan Pepper and cilantro. The duck is then air-dried for about a few hours in a cool and breezy room. Then it's baked at 450 degrees for about 20 minutes. THen It's roasted at 350 degrees until it's golden---the honey glaze gives the duck a wonderful rich color. It may sound abit complicated here, but it's really easy and the results are magnificent. it's on page 180 in the book. Just borrow it from the library.


Vienna, Va.: So...if I want to get pregnant this year, it's a good idea to make something sweet and sour tomorrow??

Grace Young: Well...
The Chinese say that something sour brings grandchildren and I guess that's one step further than what you desire. I can tell you that traditonal Chinese households have a tray of togetherness, a teak or rosewood box with 8 compartments filled with sweets that are only offered during the 2 week New Year's celebration. Some of the sweets that are in the box are: candied lotus seeds which symbolize the wish for more sons, watermelon seeds for more children and candied winter melon representing a continuous line of descendants like the vines of the melon plant. You can also cook with lotus seeds that have not been candied for they always represent more sons. I hope you'll have a child born in the year of the rooster. good luck.


Anonymous: Thanks for taking my question. What is the difference between rice wine and rice vinegar? Can you use interchangeably?

Grace Young: These are two very different ingredients. A good substitute for rice wine is dry sherry. It is made from fermenting glutinous rice. As you can imagine dry sherry and vinegar are quite different. Rice vinegar is also made from glutinous rice but it is sour like all vinegars though mild in flavor.


Sichuan pepper: Isn't that illegal to import into the US? I lived in Sichuan and I miss Sichuan pepper... Any sources? Just kidding, sigh.

Grace Young: You're right they've been illegal for the last year or two. But if you go to a Chinatown grocery store and ask a Chinese friend to ask for them in Chinese, most stores do seem to carry it---I guess i shouldn't be publishing that piece of info.


washingtonpost.com: Grace, what does a "Happy New Year" mean?

Grace Young: The literal translation of the Cantonese New Year's greeting: "Gung Hay Fat Choy" is Congratulations Prosperity.


Stafford, Tex.: What ingredients do you put in Won Ton soup?

Grace Young: I like to fill my dumplings with a combination of finely chopped shiitake ushrooms, shrimp, ground portk, scallions, fresh water chestnuts, cilantro, and season the filling with soy sauce, rice wine, roasted or toasted sesame oil, a little sugar, and white pepper. Hmmmm. I'm in the mood for them now. And I always serve them in a good homemade chicken broth.


Grace Young: Well, the time has really flown and I apologize for not being able to answer all of your questions. But I want to wish all of you good fortune and health in the Year of the Rooster. Don't forget, you still have one day to straighten out your messes just to impress the Kitchen God before he reports on the status of every household. Eat well and be merry in the Year of the Rooster!
Grace Young


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