TO MILLIONS of Chinese around the world the lunar new year, which starts today, is Christmas, New Year, Thanksgiving and the Fourth of July rolled into one; simply the most important holiday on the calendar. It is fittingly celebrated like four holidays in one, too; the house is cleaned, the debts of the past year are paid and a great feast is prepared.Red envelopes are filled with money to give each child who visits. Firecrackers chatter and huge red banners wish one and all health, happiness, prosperity and long life.
Our good friend, Abe Chu Wen Pu, could not go home for the holiday. He was halfway around the world and missed his wife and children terribly. My husband and I had lived in Taiwan many years ago and knew how difficult separations are at holiday time, and how much more at home we had felt when Abe and his wife Nancy had invited us to their family New Year celebrations. There must be some way to cheer our lonely friend.
A party might help. The very core of the New Year celebration is the family dinner. It is, in fact, a feast of 30 to 40 dishes, prepared with all of the daughters-in-law helping. Without a kitchenful of daughters-in-law, a banquet of this proportion seemed an ambitious undertaking, but I had studied Chinese cooking in Taiwan and, in fact, some of my recipes came from Abe's mother, Madam Chu. We plunged into the planning.
First came the guest list. Abe wanted to invite all of the people who had been kind to him during his stay here. And we wanted to invite a few "old China hands" we knew. The combined list numbered 30 people, so I fervently hoped some would turn us down. Abe did a calligraphy design in black on a gold-flecked Chinese red paper for the invitations, which were written in both Chinese and English. I even considered following the ancient custom of enclosing the guest list with the invitation but found that it wouldn't fit. Abe and I decided on a menu that included his mother's family style dishes, several banquet dishes and some that I had learned in my cooking classes. It would not be one of those banquets where each dish is balanced against the others for the utmost effect on the tastebuds and other senses. Instead, it would be balanced by what I could accomplish and what I could buy without compromising authenticity. We did limit the menu to just 20 dishes instead of the larger number his mother customarily served.
It's the custom in China to present a printed menu to each guest as a remembrance of the dinner. This always seemed a good idea to me. When I know that there are 28 dishes left, I'm not as likely to eat too many sweet and sour prawns. So once the menu was firmed up, we had a friend copy a dragon chasing a pearl and typed in the menu. Abe decorated the menu with wishes for health, wealth, happiness and long life.
A rental agency promised to save round tables and chairs for that night; serving dishes (30 of them) were borrowed; and Abe's kitchen god was hung over my stove. We peeled the skin from four pounds of walnuts, shaped and froze hundreds of dumplings and roasted pounds of bright red pork. Abe found strands of tiny firecrackers and I spent hours looking for ingredients at oriental groceries.
All too soon, it was the day before New Year's. I woke early and began the chopping and mincing. No cheating with a processor, it was all done by hand. For each dish, I cut the meat and marinated it in a bowl, Abe sliced vegetables and arranged them on a plate, and we stirred together the dibs and dabs that constitute the sauce. Each dish was labeled to prevent confusion at cooking time, then popped into the refrigerator to await the final cooking. A few dishes were already completed, just waiting to be served. These were my insurance. I had scattered them through the menu to give me a break in the cooking. Even the cook must eat; and as the hostess I needed time to talk to guests. Chinese Banquet Menu Cold Dishes Crispy Fried Walnuts * Tea Eggs * Cold Chicken in Oyster Sauce * Roast Pork Cantonese-style * Hot Dishes Abalone Corn Soup * Red Rubies with Green Jade Sweet and Sour Prawns with Litchi Steamed Pork Dumplings * Steamed Shrimp Dumplings * Steamed Chicken and Spinach Dumplings * Beef with Oyster Sauce Broccoli with Mushrooms Madam Chu's Crab Soup Twice-Cooked Duck with Black Bean Sauce * Mongolian Lamb Almond Float Sweet and Sour Fish Rice Beverages Chinese or Japanese rice wine and ginger ale
These dishes may be prepared a day or more ahead.
Ten people were seated at each table with the guest of honor facing the entrance to the room. There is a very interesting Chinese custom of inviting relatives and friends to stand by in case a guest fails to appear. It is considered bad luck to have an empty seat at the table. The tables were set with small dinner plates, chopsticks, porcelain soup spoons, a rice wine cup and tall glass for water or ginger ale. The plates would be changed three times during the meal.
As the evening progressed toasts were raised to Abe, the new year, his country, our country, each new dish and every other thing we could think of to drink to. The banquet lasted for five hours, but this included the walking around and game-playing typical at a Chinese dinner.
As our guests were leaving, one unfolded his starched, linen handkerchief and revealed one perfect crispy walnut. "I know that tomorrow I'll never believe how incredibly delicious this dinner was, so I'm taking this to remind my tastebuds." COLD DISHES
To serve the following four cold dishes, arrange the Roast Pork, the Chicken in Oyster Sauce and the Tea Eggs on a large platter. Place Crispy Fried Walnuts in a separate bowl. CRISPY FRIED WALNUTS (10 servings) Boiling water 1 pound fresh walnut halves 1 cup sugar 1 cup water Oil for frying
Bring a large pot of water to boil. Add the walnuts and bring back to a boil. Rinse in several changes of cold water. Cover with water and begin peeling away the skin that coats each nut. I use a small pointed knife to help lift the skin. This is time-consuming but necessary. If the skin is left on the nuts, they will taste bitter when fried. Happily,this job may be done months ahead if the nuts are stored in an airtight container. Place the cup of sugar and cup of water in a 1-quart saucepan. Bring to a boil and stir until the sugar is dissolved. Boil for 3 minutes. Add the peeled nuts and boil for another minute. Drain well. Put 1 inch of fresh oil in a 10-inch skillet and place it over medium heat. Add the nuts before the oil has heated too much. Cook slowly. Do not stir. When the nuts begin to take on a golden color remove them. If overcooked they will burn. Place the hot nuts on a cookie sheet to cool. Soon after they are cool, place in an airtight container. You may substitute almonds (already blanched) for walnuts but the flavor is not as good. Be sure to reserve 1 cup of the walnuts for the Red Rubies with Green Jade dish. TEA EGGS (10 servings) 3 cups water 1star anise 3 tea bags 1/2 cup soy sauce 2 dozen quail or pigeion eggs or 6 small hen eggs, hard-boiled
Make a strong solution of tea using the water, anise and tea bags. Add the soy sauce. Break the shells on the eggs but do not peel them. Cover with the tea. Allow to sit in the solution for at least 24 hours. Peel and cut in half. COLD CHICKEN IN OYSTER SAUCE (10 servings) 2 1/2 pound chicken, poached (see directions below) 2 tablespoons of oyster sauce (purchased at oriental store) 1 tablespoon of honey 1/8 teaspoon of five spice powder (purchased at oriental store) 1 teaspoon of salt 2 tablespoons of fresh ginger, julienned 2 tablespoons of green onion, julienned 2 tablespoons sesame seeds
Wash the chicken and place 5 stainless steel soup spoons in the cavity. Place it in a 4-quart dutch oven or stockpot and cover with cold water. Place the pot over high heat. Bring to a boil. Boil for 5 minutes. Cover with a lid and allow to sit at room temperature for 2 hours. The residual heat will cook the chicken completely, making the meat moist and flavorful.
Or you may poach it by any other method. Chill the chicken and skin it. Slice the meat into very thin slices, about 2-inches long and 1-inch wide. Any pieces that are not neatly sliced may be saved for another use.
Mix the oyster sauce with the honey, spice and salt. Pour over the chicken slices. Just before serving, garnish with the ginger, green onion and sesame seeds. This dish tastes best if allowed to marinate in the sauce for a day. ROAST PORK CANTONESE-STYLE (10 servings) 2 pounds boneless pork loin 4 tablespoons hoisin sauce (purchased at oriental grocery) 4 tablespoons sugar or honey 4 tablespoons rice wine (or sherry) 2 cloves garlic, mashed 2 tablespoons ginger, grated 2 teaspoons salt 2 tablespoons soy sauce 2 cups water red food colorin (optional)
Cut the pork loin in strips 2-inches thick and 8-inches long.
Mix the remaining ingrediants except the water and food coloring and marinate the pork in the mixture for at least 12 hours. Form S-shaped hooks from large paper clips. Place one in the thick end of each strip. Place the oven rack in its highest position and place a baking pan on the bottom rack. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Use the paper clips to hang the meat from the top rack of the oven. Pour the water into the baking pan. Bake for 35 minutes. Remove the thickest piece of meat from the oven. Cut into the thickest part and check to see that the meat is cooked through. Chinese cooks often add sodium nitrite to the marinade and let it marinate for a week or longer. This makes a very red color inside and out. I prefer not to use nitrites. Chill the roast pork until it is needed. Then slice very thin. ABOLONE CORN SOUP (10 servings) 1-pound can of abalone (from oriental grocery) 1 tablespoon peanut oil 1 tablespoon rice wine (or sherry) 4 cups chicken stock 1 can creamed corn 1 teaspoon salt 1 egg white 4 tablespoon cornstatch mixed with 1/2 cup water
Cut the abalone in paper-thin slices. Set aside. Heat a stockpot on high heat. Have the oil and rice wine mixed in a bowl. Have the chicken stock beside the pot. Add the oil and wine to the pot. It will sizzle. Quickly pour in the stock. Mix the corn into the stock and bring to a boil. Add salt. Use a fork or chopstick to stir the egg white. Do not allow it to form bubbles. You must be able to add it to the soup in a thin stream to make egg shreds. If the egg white forms bubbles it will float and look nasty. Add the egg white in a thin stream while stirring the soup. Thicken with the cornstarch and bring back to a boil. Add the the abalone slices. This may be made a day ahead and reheated at serving time. Take care not to cook the abalone too long as it will become very tough. Serve in small bowls. RED RUBIES WITH GREEN JADE (DICED CHICKEN WITH WALNUTS) (10 servings) 1 1/2 pounds chicken breast, skinned and boned 1 small egg 1 tablespoon soy sauce 1 tablespoon cornstarch 2 green peppers, cut into 1-inch squares 2 fresh, hot red peppers or szechuan red peppers, cut into 1/4-inch squares 1 green onion, cut in 1/2-inch pieces 2 thick slices of ginger, the size of a quarter 3 1/8 cups oil for frying 1 cup crispy fried walnuts (see recipe above) Sauce: 2 tablespoons soy sauce 1 tablespoon vinegar 1 tablespoon rice wine (or sherry) 2 teaspoons cornstarch 1/2 teaspoon sugar 1/2 teaspoon salt 1/2 teaspoon sesame oil
Cut the chicken into 1-inch cubes. Marinate in the egg, soy sauce and cornstarch. Cut the vegetables and place in separate piles on a plate. Cover until time to cook.
To make sauce, mix all ingredients in a small bowl. Cover until ready to cook. When ready to cook, heat 3 cups of the oil until very hot. Add the chicken all at once and stir rapidly. Fry for 1 minute. Remove with a slotted spoon and set aside. Heat the remaining oil in a wok or large saute pan. Add the ginger and cook at very high heat until it turns black. Remove from the pan. This flavors the oil. Add the green pepper and cook for 1 minute. Add the red pepper and green onion and cook for another 1/2 minute. Add the cooked chicken and toss. Stir the bowl of sauce. Add it to the pan and toss well. The sauce makes a glaze over the meat and vegetables. It will not be like gravy. Place on an oval platter and garnish the top with the crispy walnuts. Serve immediately. SWEET AND SOUR PRAWNS WITH LITCHI NUTS (10 servings) 10 jumbo-size prawns shelled, deveined and butterflied 2 tablespoons rice wine (or sherry) 1 tablespoon ginger, grated or minced 1 teaspoon cornstarch 1 large cucumber, peeled, seeded and cut in crescents 10 slices ginger, peeled and cut into nickel-size pieces 1 bunch green onions, cut into 2-inch lengths and fringed on the end* 1-pound can litchi nuts, drained (purchased at oriental grocery) Oil for frying Sauce: 4 tablespoons rice vinegar 3 tablespoons sugar 1/4 cup catsup 1 teaspoon cornstarch 1 teaspoon salt 1/2 teaspoon sesame oil 1/4 teaspoon five spice powder (purchased at oriental grocery) 3 tablespoons water
Butterfly the prawns by cutting almost through lengthwise. Flatten by pounding with the flat side of a cleaver or with a plate.Marinate in the rice wine, ginger and cornstarch. Place the cut cucumber crescents, ginger slices and green onions on a plate. Drain the litchis and add them to the plate.
To prepare sauce, mix all ingredients in a small bowl. (Catsup was introduced to the Chinese about 200 years ago and they have been using it ever since. They like the red color and find the tomato taste appropriate for sweet and sour sauces.)
Heat a wok over high heat until it is very hot. Add about 2 tablespoons oil, stir around to cover the bottom and add the prawns. Stir-fry until the prawns turn bright red. Place a lid over the prawns (it may fit down in the wok) and remove from the heat. The residual heat will continue cooking them.
Heat another wok over high heat until very hot. Add a splash of oil. Stir-fry the ginger until fragrant.Add the cucumber, cook 20 seconds. Add green onion and litchis. Stir-fry 10 seconds. Add cooked prawns. Stir the sauce mixture and add it to the wok. Bring the sauce to a boil. Serve immediately.
*Note: Some cooks use the green onion as an uncooked garnish rather than adding it during the cooking. STEAMED PORK DUMPLINGS AND STEAMED SHRIMP DUMPLINGS
These may be made at home but the technique for shaping the dumplings requires practice. It is possible to purchase them from the frozen food cabinet at an oriental grocery store. Follow the package directions for steaming. STEAMED CHICKEN AND SPINACH DUMPLINGS (10 servings) Filling: 10-ounce package frozen chopped spinach 4 ounces chicken breast, minced or ground 1 clove garlic, mashed 1 teaspoon salt 1 tablespoon grated ginger 2 teaspoons rice vinegar 1 tablespoon soy sauce 1 teaspoon sesame oil Wrapper: 1 package won ton skins 1 tablespoon cornstarch in 1/4 cup water Soy and Vinegar Dip: Grated ginger and soy sauce 1 teaspoon hot chili oil 1 cup rice vinegar
To prepare the filling, thaw the spinach and squeeze out the moisture. Mix it with the finely minced chicken and remaining ingredients. Place 1 teaspoon of this mixture on a won ton skin. Moisten the edges of the won ton skin with the cornstarch and water. This acts as a glue. Now gather all of the edges together and press tight to make them stick. Place on a cookie sheet. Finish with remaining skins. Freeze the dumplings. At serving time, place the dumplings in a steamer basket so that they do not touch each other. Place the basket over rapidly boiling water. Cover with the lid. Steam for 15 minutes. Serve immediately with soy sauce and vinegar dip. BEEF WITH OYSTER SAUCE (10 servings) 1 pound sirloin or other steak, cut in 1-inch squares 1/8 inch thick, when semi-frozen 1 tablespoon soy sauce 2 teaspoons cornstarch 1/2 teaspoon sugar 2 cups fat for cooking Sauce: 1 tablespoon rice wine (or sherry) 2 tablespoons oyster sauce 1/2 teaspoon cornstarch 1/2 teaspoon sesame oil 1/2 teaspoon szechuan pepper (purchased at oriental grocery)
Cut the beef. Combine soy sauce, conrstarch and sugar. Marinate meat in mixture. Mix the sauce ingredients in a small bowl. Refrigerate until serving time.
Heat 2 cups of fat to smoking. Stir the meat and add it all at once. This should be done in a wok so that the fat does not boil over. Cook the meat 1 minute exactly. Remove and keep warm. Remove the oil from the wok and return the meat to it. Stir the sauce mixture and add it. Toss well. Cook until the sauce is clear. Place in the center of a warm platter and surround with broccoli and mushrooms. BROCCOLI AND MUSHROOMS (10 servings) 1 pound broccoli 2 green onions, cut in 1/2-inch pieces 5 paper-thin slices ginger 1/4 pound mushrooms, thickly sliced Oil for stir-frying Sauce: 1 tablespoon rice wine 3 tablespoons water 1 teaspoon sugar 1/2 teaspoon salt
Cut the flowers off the broccoli stems, but save the stems for another dish. Cut the green onions, ginger and mushrooms. To prepare the sauce, mix all ingredients in a small bowl.
Heat a wok over very high heat and add a splash of oil. Stir-fry the ginger. When it begins to color, add the broccoli and green onions. Stir-fry until the broccoli begins to turn a brighter green, about 2 minutes. Add the mushrooms and stir-fry for another 20 seconds. Add the sauce mixture and cover with a lid. Steam for 3 minutes. Arrange around the Beef with Oyster Sauce. MADAM CHU'S CRAB SOUP (10 servings) 4 cups chicken stock 1/4 cup water chestnuts, sliced thin 1/4 cup frozen green peas 2 ounces country-style ham, minced 1 teaspon ginger, grated 1 tablespoon soy sauce 2 tablespoons cornstarch, mixed to a paste with water 2 tablespoons sesame oil 2 green onions, cut in 1/2-inch pieces 8 ounces crabmeat 2 eggs, slightly beaten Salt to taste
Heat the chicken stock in a 2-quart saucepan. Add the water chestnuts, peas and ham. Simmer for 3 minutes. Add the ginger and soy sauce. Add the cornstarch. (The soup will be a thick consistency.) Then add the sesame oil, onions and crabmeat and bring back to a boil. While stirring, add the eggs in a thin stream. Add salt to taste. The soup may be prepared ahead but you must reheat it very gently. TWICE-COOKED DUCK WITH BLACK BEANS SAUCE (10 servings) 3-pound Long Island duckling 2 tablespoons soy sauce 1/4 teaspoon ground szechuan pepper Oil for frying Sauce: 3 tablespoons soy sauce 4 tablespoons rice wine (or sherry) 4 tablespoons salted black beans (purchased at oriental grocery) 1 clove garlic, mashed 2 tablespoons lemon juice 1 tablespoon cornstarch 1/2 teaspoon sugar 1/2 teaspoon sesame oil 1/4 teaspoon five spice powder (purchased at oriental grocery) Rice
Wash the duck and wipe dry. Use a three-tine fork to prick the skin of the duck to help release the fat. Mix the soy sauce and pepper and rub into the duck. Let rest on a plate for 2 hours. Heat a wok over very high hear until very hot. Add about 1/4 cup of oil. Fry the duck on all sides until the skin is well-browned and crisp. This may take as long as 20 minutes. Remove the duck and let it cool. Cut the duck into serving size pieces. I usually remove some bones at this point.
To prepare the sauce, mix all ingredients in a large bowl. Add the duck and allow to marinate until 45 minutes before serving time. Then, place the duck and the sauce on 2 dinner plates that will fit into your steamer. Sometimes glass pie plates will work best. Place the plates in your steamer. Bring the water to a rapid boil. Cover the steamer and cook for 45 minutes. This dish may be finished a day ahead and reheated in the steamer with little loss of quality. The sauce is strong and needs rice served with it. MONGOLIAN LAMB (10 servings) 1 pound lean lamb (shoulder cut), cut while semi-fozen into paper-thin julienne strips 1/2-by-2 inches 2 tablespoons oil (salad or vegetagle) 1 tablespoon soy sauce 1/2 teaspoon salt 1 tablespoon rice wine (or sherry) 1/2 teaspoon szechuan pepper (purchased at oriental grocery Oil for frying 1/2 pound green onion, julienned Sauce: 3 cloves garlic 1 tablespoon soy sauce 1 tablespoon vinegar 1 tablespoon sesame oil
Marinate the cut-up lamb in the oil, soy sauce, salt, wine and pepper. Set aside until just before serving.
Combine sauce ingredients in a small bowl. (Notice that the sauce has no thickening; it is more seasoning than sauce.) Heat a wok over a very high heat until very hot. Add a splash of oil. Immediately add about 1/3 of the meat. Rapidly stir until meat is lightly cooked about 20 seconds. Repeat with the remaining two batches. Reheat the wok. Add another tablespoon of oil. Return the meat to the wok and add the green onion and sauce mixture all at once. Toss for 10 seconds and serve at once. ALMOND FLOAT (10 servings) 1 cup blanched almonds, finely ground 1 cup hot water 2 1/2 teaspoons almond extract 2 envelopes gelatine 2 tablespoons sugar 1 cup milk 2 cups canned mandarin orange sections in their juices 2 cups water 1/2 cup sugar
Grind the almonds in a food processor or blender. Add the hot water and blend more. Add 2 teaspoons of the extract. Strain through a very fine sieve. Set aside. Place the gelatine, sugar and milk in a saucepan. Allow to sit for 1 minute, then heat on medium flame until gelatine is dissolved. (It is best to stir this constantly as the gelatine will burn.) Do not allow it to boil, just simmer. Add it to the almond mixture. Pour into an 8-by-8-inch square pan. Chill until firm. Use a knife to cut into diamond shapes.
Place the mandarin oranges, water, sugar and the remaining 1/2 teaspoon of almond extract in a soup tureen and stir until dissolved. Chill until serving time. Just before serving, lift the almond curd out of the pan with a spatula and add it to the tureen.
Note: This can be served with fruit cocktail instead of mandarin oranges. The Chinese consider this a sweet, cold soup. But most Americans will appreciate it more as a dessert. Situated after an especially hot szechuan dish, it has a cooling effect. SWEET AND SOUR FISH (10 servings) 2-pound sea bass 1 green onion, mashed with the side of a cleaver 1 tablespoon of ginger, grated 1/2 teaspoon of salt 2 tablespoons of rice wine (or sherry) Cornstarch for fish 3 green onions, julienned 3 ounces of ginger root, peeled and julienned 4 large dried black mushrooms, soaked in warm water and julienned 3 dried szechuan red pepers, soaked in water and julienned Oil for frying (about 2 quarts) Sauce: 1/4 cup rice vinegar 1/4 cup catsup 1/4 cup sugar 2 teaspoons cornstarch 1/2 cup water 1 teaspoon salt 1 teaspoon sesame oil
Clean the fish well. Remove the gills, but leave the head on. Make diagonal slices in the sides of the the head on. Make diagonal slices in the sides of the fish. These should spread open like petals when the fish is fried. Combine green onions, ginger, salt and wine and rub into the fish. Marinate for 1/2 hour.
Press cornstarch all over the fish, including into the slashes made in the side. Set aside until ready to fry.
Place a wok on a high heat and add a splash of oil. Stir-fry the julienned vegetables for 10 seconds. To make the sauce, mix the vinegar, catsup, sugar, cornstarch, water, salt and sesame oil in a bowl. Add mixture to the wok. Cook until clear. Set aside.
Place about 2 quarts of oil in a wok and heat to 400 degrees. Grasp the fish by the tail with tongs and dip into the oil. The fish should be dipped in and out and turned over for the first minute. Then allow the fish to fry for about 4 minutes. The curve of the wok will make the fish curve so that it will stand up on its belly on a platter. Reheat the sauce and pour over the fish.
Note: The ancient Chinese usually served a fish at the last dish at a banquet, but often everyone was too full by this time, so the fish was not eaten. Since it did signal the end of the banquet, thrifty hosts began substituting a carved wooden fish. By the end of this banquet you, too, might wish to substitute a wooden fish. Happy New Year!