January 25 is the first day of the first moon of the Year of the Dog. On the Chinese lunar calendar the years are gathered into groups of 12 and each year is given the name of an animal; Rat, Tiger, Hare, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Ram, Monkey, Cock, Dog and Pig. This grouping serves much the same purpose as dividing a century into decades. The Chinese equivalent of a century is the Cycle of Cathay, which is five 12-year groups or 60 years.

Babies born this year will celebrate the return of the Dog Year each time it comes around. For those who are superstitious, the natal year is most important in controlling matrimonial affairs. After all, some animals are congenial and some aren't.

For instance, a man born in the Dragon year should never marry a girl born in the Tiger year. Horses and Oxen don't get along, nor do Rats and Goats, Rams and Snakes, Chickens and Dogs or Pigs and Monkeys. Girls will never marry, it is said, if they have not done so by their third natal year, when they are 24 years old. If you were born in 1910, 1922, 1934, 1946, 1958 or 1970 this is your natal year.

Chinese New Year is essentially a time for family reunions. Family members try to return home no matter what the distance or the expense. It's a time for home celebrations, dinners with the extended family, visits to neighbors and friends. Children happily receive bright red and gold envelopes from aunts and uncles. Each envelope contains money for buying sweets and firecrackers.

But it's also a time when bills must be paid and all accounts settled. Shopkeepers wait for customers to pay bills so that they in turn may satisfy their creditors.

Preparations for the New Year begin early the month before: cleaning the house, cooking special foods, buying new clothes for the children. It's a lot like Christmas with spring house-cleaning thrown in.

On the evening of the 23rd of the 12th moon, the kitchen god, who resides in each household in the form of a picture over the stove, is sent off to heaven. There he reports to the other gods on the shortcomings of the family.

To be safe from his tattling, the family feeds him a sticky rice ball which glues his mouth shut. The crickets that chirp in the kitchen carry him back to heaven; in a house without crickets a clay substitute must be bought. The kitchen is then swept and cleaned for the New Year and a new kitchen god is pasted over the stove, to watch the happenings of the next year.

Decorate your table with narcissus; it not only smells wonderful and looks beautiful but also symbolizes good luck. Peonies, symbolizing love and affection, are similarly appropriate for a family dinner. But beware -- if they wither and die quickly, so might the love they represent.

A spray of peach blossoms near the front door is supposed to guard the house from evil. You might also place an orange in a small basket at each place setting to wish your guests happiness and prosperity. An apple would signify a wish for peace and peanuts a wish for long life.

If you don't do a lot of Chinese cooking, it may be best to plan a simple and elegant meal that depends more on appearance and decoration than on great culinary skill.

This is a good time to buy some frozen dumplings or other snacks. There are usually more of them available in the Chinese grocery stores now than at any other time of year. Try "pot stickers", whose Chinese name, chiao tzu, sounds like the word for sons.

You should also be able to find pork, shrimp or crab shu mai. These are the little dumplings with pleated tops; each looks like a tiny purse. Spring rolls indicate a wish for spring. Serve them with a dip of soy sauce flavored with a little grated ginger or rice vinegar. Serve the dumplings directly out of the steamer basket, so that there is no time for them to cool down. Or if you don't have a bamboo steamer, try lining a basket with the dark green outer leaves of a fresh head of cabbage. Offer a choice of dry white wine or black tea.

The first course is a roast duckling salad. This salad is a crisp combination of cooked vegetables, shredded peking duck and egg strips, tossed with a light sauce. No need to worry about making a peking duck, just order one from a Chinese grocer or call a restaurant for carry out. (Duck Chang's will sell half a duck for $8.)

The dish can be made with poached chicken breasts, but it's not as tasty. Small red or black lacquer dishes make spectacular serving pieces for this salad, but any salad plate lined with a lettuce leaf will look good. The leaves can be filled with salad, rolled into envelopes and eaten by hand.

No Chinese meal is complete without soup, so our second course is a rich chicken broth with watercress and ham shreds. The flavor of the broth is really important, so it's best not to cheat by using canned broth. The watercress leaves are just barely wilted in the broth and add a peppery taste to the soup. The broth may be made days ahead, but the watercress and ham shreds must be added at the last moment. I especially like the small Chinese soup bowls and porcelain soup spoons with this, but a plain white soup bowl does well too.

Our menu includes two main dishes, sweet and sour prawns with lichee and beef filet with snow peas and oyster sauce. Both should be served with rice. Serve them as separate courses to accentuate the contrasting flavors.

The sweet-and-sour prawns should be made with the largest jumbo shrimp or prawns you can find. If they are 16 or fewer to the pound, plan on just two or three per person. The dish will taste the same made with smaller shrimp, but the appearance is less impressive. The lichees and cucumber crescents offer both texture and color, contrast to this dish. The red of the sauce is also auspicious, symbolizing joy and virtue. This dish may be prepared early in the day and reheated before serving if done gently.

The beef filet with snow peas and oyster sauce is a good, salty contrast to the sweetness of the shrimp. It is a modern Chinese dish; the meat is left in whole slices, making a fork and knife the preferred utensils. (You might prefer them for the large prawns as well.) The filet is sliced in 1/4-inch-thick slices and marinated for several hours. Just before serving, it is grilled over high heat, glazed with a sauce and arranged on a bed of cooked snow peas. The sauce may be prepared ahead and reheated. The snow peas should be quite small and tender, with no development of the pea in the pods. If these are not available, switch to frozen snow peas or fresh broccoli.WATERCRESS SOUP WITH HAM SHREDS (6 to 8 servings)

2 pounds chicken wings

2 quarts water

1/2 teaspoon five-spice powder

2 teaspoons salt

1 teaspoon sugar

2 tablespoons rice wine (substitute dry sherry)

2 thick slices ginger

4 scallions

2 bunches watercress

2 ounces dry-cure ham (Smithfield or country ham)

Wash the chicken wings and place them in a stockpot. Cover with 2 quarts water. Add the five-spice powder, salt, sugar, rice wine, ginger and scallions. Bring to a boil. Skim as necessary. Cook for 1 hour at a simmer. Strain through a wet paper towel. Chill until serving time. Remove the congealed fat. On the day of the party, remove the leaves from the watercress. (they turn yellow if kept too long.) Slice the ham in the thinnest possible shreds. Just before serving, bring the stock to a boil, taste for salt, add the watercress and ham and return to a boil. Serve immediately.

SWEET AND SOUR PRAWNS WITH LICHEES (6 servings)

12 or 18 jumbo prawns or shrimp (depends on size)

2 tablespoons rice wine

1 tablespoon ginger, grated

1 teaspoon cornstarch

1 large cucumber, peeled, seeded, and cut in crescents

1 can lichees, drained (about 1 cup)

About 2 tablespoons oil, for wok

10 slices ginger

Sauce:

2/3 cup water

4 tablespoons rice vinegar

6 tablespoons catsup

6 tablespoons sugar

3 teaspoons cornstarch

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon sesame oil

Peel and devein the prawns. Marinate in the rice wine, grated ginger and 1 teaspoon cornstarch. Prepare the cucumber and lichees. Mix the sauce in a bowl. Heat a wok until very hot. Add about 2 tablespoons of oil and heat until it smokes. Add the prawns. Cook until bright red on both sides. Cover with a lid and cook for 3 more minutes. Remove the wok from the heat without removing the lid. This will continue the cooking. Heat another wok or a saucepan. Add a splash of oil. Fry the ginger until fragrant. Add the cucumber and saute' for 1 minute. Add the lichees to the pan. Cook 30 seconds. Stir the sauce mixture ingredients together and add it to the cucumbers. Cook until thick and clear. Add the prawns. If you want to do this ahead, keep at room temperature until serving time, then reheat over a low flame until heated through. Arrange the prawns on a long oval platter, all curving in the same direction. Pour the sauce, cucumber and lichees over.

BEEF FILET WITH SNOW PEAS AND OYSTER SAUCE (6 servings)

1 1/2 pounds of beef tenderloin (from the large end)

2 tablespoons soy sauce

2 tablespoons rice wine (substitute dry sherry)

1/2 teaspoon szechuan pepper, ground

1/2 teaspoon grated ginger

Sauce:

1/4 cup oyster sauce

2 tablespoons water

2 tablespoons soy sauce

2 tablespoons rice wine (substitute dry sherry)

1 teaspoon cornstarch

1 teaspoon sesame oil Snow peas:

1 slice ginger

2 scallions, sliced

2 tablespoons plus oil for wok

1 pound fresh snow peas, rinsed with ends snapped off

3 tablespoons water

1 tablespoon rice wine (or dry sherry)

1/2 teaspoon sugar

1/2 teaspoon salt

Trim off all of the fat and silver skin from the tenderloin. Remove the gristly strip that separates easily from the side of the filet. Cut off the large flap of meat to make a cylinder. Slice about 1/4 inch thick. You should be able to cut at least 12 of them. Combine 2 tablespoons soy sauce, 2 tablespoons rice wine, 1/2 teaspoon szechuan pepper and 1/2 teaspoon ginger. Marinate the sliced filet in the mixture for at least an hour.

Mix sauce ingredients together in a saucepan, bring to a boil and continue to cook until thick and clear. Set aside.

Slice the ginger. Cut the scallion in thin slices. At serving time, heat a large saute' pan until very hot. Add a little oil to film the pan. Saute' the filet slices briefly on each side, about 30 seconds. As each one is finished, slide it into the pan with the sauce mixture. Meanwhile heat a wok until very hot. Add 2 tablespoons of oil and the slice of ginger. Cook until the ginger is browned. Add the snow peas and scallions and stir-fry until the peas turn a brighter green. Then add the water, rice wine, sugar and salt and cover with a lid. Cook for 3 minutes. Place the snow peas and scallion mixture on a large oval platter. Quickly reheat the filets and place them on the platter, making 2 overlapping rows down the length of the platter. Spoon any extra sauce over the meat.

ROAST DUCKLING SALAD (6 servings)

1/2 roasted peking duck

1 green pepper, cut in paper-thin slices

1 large carrot, cut in 3-inch long julienne strips

1 cup bean sprouts

2 eggs

2 tablespoons oil

1 bunch scallions, cut in julienne strips

2 tablespoons ginger, cut in julienne strips

Dressing:

1/3 cup oyster sauce

1 tablespoon honey

1 tablespoon rice vinegar

Pinch five-spice powder

1 teaspoon salt

1 tablespoon soy sauce

1 tablespoon sesame seeds

2 tablespoons water

1 teaspoon sesame oil

1/4 teaspoon szechuan pepper

Remove the skin from the duck and cut in strips 3-inches long and 1/8-inch wide. Remove the meat from the bones and shred the meat into pieces the same size as the skin. Blanch the julienned green pepper in boiling water for 1 minute. Remove from the water and immerse in cold water. Repeat this with the carrot shreds and the brean sprouts. Beat the eggs until the yolk and white are mixed. Heat a skillet until hot. Brush with a tablespoon of oil and pour half of the egg in to form a thin pancake. Turn. Cook until firm. Repeat with the remaining oil and egg. When the eggs are cool, slice in thin shreds to match the duck and vegetables. Place all of the dressing ingredients in a jar and shake until well mixed. Place the duck, blanched vegetables, julienned scallions, ginger and egg strips in a large bowl. Add the dressing and toss well. Refrigerate until several hours before serving time. Arrange the salad on plates. The plates may be garnished with a spray of Chinese parsley and a radish rose.

Note: If you want to serve this to wrap in lettuce, remove the leaves from 2 heads of bibb or other soft lettuce and stack the leaves on top of each other. Use a sharp knife to trim all of the leaves to the same size circle. Each guest will place about 2 tablespoons of salad in a lettuce leaf and wrap in into an envelope. The lettuce man be trimmed a day ahead if wrapped in wet paper towels and placed in a plastic bag.

CHINESE RICE (6 servings)

2 cups medium or long grain rice

4 cups water

1 teaspoon salt (optional)

Place the rice in a 2-quart saucepan. Add the water and salt. Bring to a rapid boil. When the water boils down to the level of the rice and steam vents appear in the surface, cover with a tight lid and reduce the heat as low as possible. Let sit over the low heat for 15 minutes. The water should be absorbed.

PEACH BLOSSOM (6 servings)

4 large naval oranges

1/2 cup of Japanese plum wine (substitute cointreau)

1 quart lemon sherbet

12 camellia leaves

Use a sharp knife to peel the oranges, removing all of the white pith. Cut in 1/4-inch-thick slices. Marinate in the plum wine. Arrange the orange slices to form flowers on 6 salad plates. At serving time make 6 large round scoops of sherbet and place in the center of the flowers. Garnish with camellia leaves.

THIS WEEKEND, in enclaves of Chinese culture around the world, the streets are busy, the stores bursting with goods and shoppers. Clubs and fraternal organizations are ready, after months of practice, to perform their strenuous dragon dances. Costumes are pressed and ready for parades, firecrackers have been bought, special foods have been purchased and prepared. The Chinese New Year is here.