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The First New Year : When Peanut Butter was as prized as a 1,000-year-old egg

February 15, 1996|NINA SIMONDS

On Monday, Chinese will usher in the Year of the Rat. It was at the end of another Year of the Rat in 1972, that I experienced the elaborate preparations for my first Chinese New Year.

I had traveled to Taiwan at 19 to learn to speak Mandarin and to study Chinese cooking. For a young woman who had grown up in a New England town, the arrival of Chinese New Year in Taipei--when the Year of the Rat became the Year of the Ox--was an unforgettable event.

A month before the holiday, the first signs of the celebration appeared in the marketplace: mountainous piles of dried black mushrooms, oysters, abalone and other traditional New Year's delicacies. Clotheslines once laden with newly washed garments were suddenly heavy with strings of freshly made Chinese sausage.

In the home where I was staying, the family maid lost no time turning the house upside down in a frenzied bout of cleaning. Because the New Year demands a clean slate, all business affairs are tidied up and all accounts are settled before the holiday. My surrogate Chinese brothers and sister were measured for new outfits.

On the 23rd day of the 12th month of the lunar calendar, we smeared the lips of the papered image of the kitchen god that hung above the stove with honey and presented offerings of fruits and malt sugar. Then we burned the poster. This was done to ensure that when the kitchen god returned to heaven to report on our household, he would only utter sweet remarks and kind words about our family.

Because my surrogate Chinese family was quite prominent in Taiwan, we emptied a whole room for the expected onslaught of gifts. (It is the custom for relatives and business associates to shower their bosses and elders with gifts of food.)

I was amazed at the booty that arrived: huge bags stuffed with costly dried black mushrooms imported from Hong Kong, handsome flash-frozen tiger shrimp from Thailand, sumptuous 1,000-year-old eggs, dried shark's fin and bird's nest arranged in see-through plastic boxes. There were tins of French chocolates and boxes of Japanese cakes. To my amazement, the most prized presents were gift boxes filled with cans of Del Monte fruit salad and peaches in syrup, Bumblebee tuna and jars of Skippy peanut butter.

My all-time favorite gift was a live chicken, which strutted about our backyard for several days before he was beheaded and served in a delicious red-cooked stew.

As the holiday neared, we began the preparations for the traditional dishes. Dumplings, the quintessential New Year's specialty, were among the first foods to be made.

Because the dumpling shape is likened to an ingot of silver or gold, it is believed to bring good fortune. We organized small groups to make multiple batches, lining them on trays for freezing. (On New Year's day they were thrown into a pot of boiling water and served within minutes.) As we stuffed and folded, we were all careful--as custom dictates--to talk only about good things so that good luck would be passed on with the dumplings.

My family liked dumplings stuffed with ground pork, minced cabbage and garlic chives, but others, who abstained from eating meat on the holiday, preferred vegetable fillings made with shredded carrots, black mushrooms and cabbage. Other popular stuffings were made with peanuts (eaten to assure long life), chestnuts (in hopes of having sons) and sugar and candied fruits (for a sweet life). Some families would hide things in their dumplings: coins (for prosperity), rings (in hopes of finding a husband) and pieces of noodle or string (for longevity).

Besides dumplings, countless other dishes are traditionally served at the New Year's Eve banquet. Platters filled with such costly foods as shark's fin, abalone, be^che-de-mer (sea cucumber) and bird's nest are served in honor of the great occasion, and foods that symbolize or resemble auspicious things are popular. Clams, for instance, symbolize receptivity to good fortune, fried spring rolls resemble bars of gold and a whole fish symbolizes bounty. (Some families merely place wooden models of fish on their tables.)

Our family especially loved to prepare foods shaped or trimmed to rounds, resembling coins. My surrogate father's favorite dish was scallops with snow peas in oyster sauce.

On the eve of the holiday, everyone stayed up to welcome the New Year. My Chinese brothers and sister could hardly wait for midnight, when we were presented with red envelopes containing money. We didn't gather around the clock counting down the seconds as my friends did on New Year's Eve in America, but we did wait expectantly to hear the roar of firecrackers signaling the official arrival of the holiday. (Firecrackers are also lighted to ward off evil and lazy spirits.) We then burned incense to welcome the returning gods from heaven and offered respects to departed relatives.

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