Much of the banquet's meaning was lost on the guests, who were also unaware of the Chinese custom of keeping conversation upbeat on the New Year. "You don't say bad things or bad words," said Leeann. "You don't mention deaths or injury." Yet out on the patio, guests were bemoaning their rigorous work schedules.
And they were fretting about the evening's dietary damage. "Any time there's rolling oil, it's a little bit terrifying for an L.A. person," said one guest.
At least the group had eaten some lotus root, a symbol of happiness. Now they were digging into whole crispy fish with ginger-green onion sauce, a symbol, said Leeann, of a whole life: "A whole fish means you always have extra--extra money, extra everything."
The feast also included shrimp blanketed in mayonnaise, crisp-skinned roast duck, fried rice dotted with peas and pork, vibrant stir-fried vegetables, and golden tofu stuffed with shrimp. This last dish, called "pile of gold" in China for its resemblance to gold bars, is another New Year's staple, a promise of wealth in the coming year.
Black moss, a kind of seaweed, is also traditional. "But the taste is really hard for Americans," says Leeann. "It's really fishy. And the texture is just like hair."
As guests savored a dessert of cool creamy mango pudding with miniature coconut walnut cookies, Katie appeared with a huge red platter. In the center were chocolates and marzipan fruit. Along the rim were small red envelopes printed with an ornate gold design. This was lucky money. "I have to give them to anyone younger than me," said Leeann. And so, each of the guests received an envelope containing a dollar bill.
One guest planned to buy a lottery ticket with his. Another planned to save up another $3 and buy a latte at Starbucks.
Usually, Katie says, the flow of money went the opposite direction--from the guests to Leeann--in the heated poker games that typically ended New Year's parties.
"I told all my friends to expect to have their shorts eaten by my mother," said Katie.
But with a writer and photographer present, Leeann was playing innocent. "Poker?" she asked with a surprised look. "That's illegal!"
Active Work and Total Preparation Time: 1 hour
This festive appetizer, which is great for a Chinese New Year or Fourth of July gathering, looks like a firecracker. In China, firecrackers light up the sky on New Year's Day. Prepare this recipe a day ahead and save the frying step till just after your guests arrive. Leeann likes the Vietnamese Sambal Oelek brand of hot pepper sauce, but any red paste hot sauce will work. Look for it in the Asian aisle of well-stocked supermarkets and at Asian markets.
1/4 cup mayonnaise
2 tablespoons hot pepper sauce
* Mix the mayonnaise and hot pepper sauce in a small bowl. Set aside.
12 large shrimp, in the shell
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon garlic salt, divided
4 spring roll wrappers
2 large carrots
1 egg, beaten
3 cups oil, for frying
* Remove the shells from the shrimp, leaving the tails intact. Make a deep cut lengthwise down the back of each shrimp; wash out the sand vein. Add the salt to a bowl of warm water and stir to dissolve. Place the shrimp in the water and swirl. Let the shrimp stand 5 minutes, then rinse in cold water, drain and pat dry on paper towels. Sprinkle the shrimp with 1/4 teaspoon garlic salt.
* Cut each spring roll wrapper into thirds, making 3 long narrow strips.
* Peel the carrots and cut them into thin matchsticks 3 inches long. You'll need 24. Place the carrot strips in a small bowl, sprinkle with the remaining 1/4 teaspoon garlic salt, and set aside.
* Brush some egg on the top of each shrimp. Place 2 carrot strips in the slit of each shrimp. Brush a spring roll wrapper strip with egg, then set a shrimp 1 inch from the end. Roll the shrimp up tightly in the spring roll strip, with the egg holding it together. The tail of the shrimp should be protruding from one end and the carrots from the other--to resemble a firecracker. Continue the process until all the wrappers are rolled with the shrimp and carrots.
* In a wok or deep frying pan, heat the oil to 325 to 350 degrees. Fry the shrimp rolls until golden brown, about 2 minutes, turning 2 to 3 times. Drain them on paper towels. Serve with the dipping sauce.
12 pieces. Each piece, with sauce: 70 calories; 264 mg sodium; 32 mg cholesterol; 4 grams fat; 7 grams carbohydrates; 3 grams protein; 0.58 gram fiber.
Glazed Cornish Hens
Active Work Time: 15 minutes * Total Preparation Time: 1 hour 30 minutes
You can store the soy sauce mixture in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to four weeks and use it again. Use leftovers for a quick salad or flavorful sandwich.
4 (1 1/2- to 2-pound) Cornish game hens
1 1/2 cups soy sauce
2 cups water
1/2 cup dry white wine
3/4 cup sugar
4 star anise
1 (1-inch) piece ginger root, sliced
* Remove the excess fat from the game hens. Wash the hens in cold running water; drain.