Today, with a crackle of fireworks and a ferocious bark, we begin the Chinese Year of the Dog. About time too, after several cold and bitter weeks with little to celebrate. One nice thing about the Chinese New Year is that it doesn't entail a midnight watch; another is that it's an occasion to invite friends in while sending out for food.
There was a time during the Years of the Wok (not a recognized part of the Chinese calendar), when the time-honored custom established by our ancestors, Sending Out For Chinese Food, fell into disrepute. All over the country people advanced with cleavers, splintering harmless pieces of pork, turning chicken into matchsticks, slivering broccoli and chinese cabbage, and setting them all to dance to a crispy doneness in the slippery-sided wok.
Enveloped in a sizzle of ginger and garlic, the chef performed with the seriousness of a drummer on a hot roll. And the food, when finished, was also serious, as anything must be that has taken so long to chop. Conversation centered on slicing techniques and the best way to sharpen a cleaver. And if the guests seemed unconscious of the skill of it all, the host's fallen face recalled them to praise.
Where was the fun of agreeing to an order of mooshi pork as long as everyone else would agree to an order of lemon chicken? When the egg rolls had been filled by hand, did one dare announce a longing for fried won ton? Choice had disappeared along with the little white cardboard cartons with their wobbly handles.
The old Chinese tradition, as recounted by Reay Tannahill in Food in History, was disappearing. "A grand banquet in 13th-century China probably consisted of about 40 dishes of stir-fried, grilled, and roasted meat or seafood," she wrote; "the same number of fruits and sweetmeats; half that number of vegetable dishes, close on a dozen rice dishes, differently prepared and flavored; up to 30 pungent variations on dried fish; and a wide choice of refreshing drinks which performed the same function as the sorbets of later French entertainments -- cooling the palate and reviving the appetite between courses."
However, lest you feel you will fall short, she adds that, "The National Palace Museum of Taiwan has recently tarnished this luxurious image a little by alleging that much of the food served at imperial banquets not only remained uneaten at the end, but was not fit to eat in the first place. Many of the dishes were apparently stale leftovers, set before the guests in order to keep up appearances. (Probably they were placed well out of reach.)"
Nevertheless, it is enough to make you follow tradition and celebrate the Year of the Dog by placing a copious take-out order at your favorite Chinese restaurant, heeding the wisdom of the Tao:
Give up cooking with woks, renounce cleavers.
And it will be a hundred times better for everyone.