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Lucky New Year

January 28, 1998|BARBARA HANSEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

If you are what you eat, anyone who attends a Chinese New Year feast will prosper abundantly during the coming year. That's because New Year meals are designed around foods that symbolize wealth, health and other good things.

At Jojoe Zee's home in South Pasadena, auspicious dining started last night and continues through today, which is the first day of the Year of the Tiger.

Zee and her husband, Paul, who is South Pasadena's mayor, are both from Shanghai. This morning they ate crisp, golden Shanghai-style egg rolls, representing wealth; sweet rice cake fried like French toast, the rice suggesting rising fortune; and sweet round sesame balls, the round shape indicating the gathering of family and friends.

Last night, Zee cooked an enormous banquet, including two fried fish, which no one ate. That's no reflection on her cooking skills: Zee's friends regard her as the best Chinese cook in the San Gabriel Valley. The fish represented surplus, and to fulfill that meaning, they had to be held over until today.

New Year's Eve is "just like Thanksgiving," Zee says. At least 30 family members gathered for her celebration. Today's schedule follows breakfast with midday visits to elders and ends with another dinner.

A typical New Year's Eve menu for Zee would include two to four cold dishes, among them chicken, Chinese preserved ham and bean sprouts. "Sprouts," says Zee, "mean you will have everything according to your wish." This meaning comes from an ancient symbol shaped like a sprout.

The hair-like dried vegetable called fat choy in Cantonese would also appear, combined with dried oysters. Its Chinese name means prosperity. If you add oysters, says Zee, "it means you will have a very good year."

Then there would be a hot pot soup packed with cabbage, meatballs, fish balls, mushrooms, bean threads and miniature omelets filled with minced pork. There also would be a vegetable dish with nine ingredients, because the number nine means long-lasting. However, eight is also a lucky number, meaning prosperity. "Go to Monterey Park and you will see a lot of license plates with eight," Zee says.

Rice cakes might also be on the menu, stir-fried with preserved mustard greens, dried mushrooms, bamboo shoots and chicken. And there would be vegetables cooked with dried scallops and dried mushrooms. "We eat a lot of dried foods. In winter time in the northern part of China, it is not easy to get fresh food," Zee explains.

She also serves a huge chunk of pork cooked with soy sauce and Chinese rock sugar. Or she might bring out crab shells stuffed with seafood and placed on a bed of rice sticks. The white rice sticks stand for snow, and the rosy seafood mixture represents cherry blossoms, which open in the winter. "Blooming cherry blossoms indicate you will have a good year the following year, " Zee says.

Dessert might be balls of rice flour dough stuffed with a sweet sesame mixture, which are also served at breakfast the next day. These are boiled until they float and are served in pairs because two of any item is considered more auspicious than one. In

Zee accompanies this meal with warm Chinese rice wine in tiny cups and provides soft drinks for young guests, whose fortunes improve on New Year's Day when they receive gifts of lucky money placed in red envelopes.

Zee works in the family's industrial safety supply firm in El Monte but still finds time for cooking. And she is as comfortable doing dinners for 50 as for five. Guests not well acquainted with Zee are puzzled to see her circulating among them rather than confined to the kitchen. "It's organization," she says. "I have everything already prepared. And I'm very fast."

Zee's large kitchen is equipped with a six-burner industrial range top but no wok. Wok-cooking is done outside on a powerful unit set into a blue-tiled counter overlooking the swimming pool. This way, Zee can deep-fry and cook highly aromatic dishes without mess or odors in the kitchen.

The wok counter is at the edge of a paved area where the Zees entertain large groups. Smaller dinners are held in the dining room with its large, round Chinese rosewood table.

Last night, Zee arranged the food buffet-style in the kitchen and set up an additional dining table in the sitting room. Chinese paintings and traditional furniture in these and other rooms made the Zee home an especially atmospheric place to greet the new year.

JOJOE ZEE'S NEW YEAR'S EGG ROLLS

A 1 1/2-pound package of egg roll wrappers contains 24, so you will need two packages to make 30 egg rolls. The remaining wrappers can be frozen for another use.

FILLING

1 tablespoon soy sauce

1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon cornstarch

1 1/4 teaspoons salt

1/2 teaspoon pepper

1 cup shredded lean pork or chicken

2 teaspoons rice wine

1/4 teaspoon sugar

3 cups shredded nappa cabbage

1 cup dried Chinese mushrooms, rehydrated and sliced

1 cup shredded fresh bamboo shoots or 1 (8-ounce) can

3 tablespoons oil

VINEGAR SAUCE

6 tablespoons Chinese black vinegar

3 tablespoons water

1 tablespoon sugar

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