'Moonbeams, Dumplings And Dragon Boats'

New Book Features Tasty Treats for Chinese New Year

'Moonbeams, Dumplings & Dragon Boats' book cover.

"Moonbeams, Dumplings & Dragon Boats" tells the stories behind Chinese New Year and three other major Chinese holidays. hide caption

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Fireworks illustration from the story, "Dongfang and the Festival of Lanterns." From "Moonbeams, Dumplings & Dragon Boats" by Nina Simonds, Leslie Swartz and The Children's Museum, Boston. Illustrations © 2002 by Meilo So. Used by permission of Harcourt, Inc. hide caption

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itoggle caption From "Moonbeams, Dumplings & Dragon Boats" by Nina Simonds, Leslie Swartz and The Children's Museum, Boston. Illustrations © 2002 by Meilo So. Used by permission of Harcourt, Inc.

Dancing dragons are a favorite part of the New Year celebrations. From "Moonbeams, Dumplings & Dragon Boats" by Nina Simonds, Leslie Swartz and The Children's Museum, Boston. Illustrations © 2002 by Meilo So. Used by permission of Harcourt, Inc. hide caption

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itoggle caption From "Moonbeams, Dumplings & Dragon Boats" by Nina Simonds, Leslie Swartz and The Children's Museum, Boston. Illustrations © 2002 by Meilo So. Used by permission of Harcourt, Inc.
Author Nina Simonds

Author Nina Simonds has devoted more than 30 years to the study of Chinese cooking and culture. Richard Howard hide caption

itoggle caption Richard Howard

The Chinese New Year, a celebration that starts with the new moon and lasts for 15 days, begins this year on Feb. 1. This will be the year of the sheep — or ram — a character on the Chinese zodiac that promises a year of peace and tranquility (world headlines notwithstanding).

A Clean Slate

Of all the Chinese festivals celebrated throughout the year, the Lunar New Year is the most important and spectacular. In ancient China, the New Year was a time when the emperor was honored by his subjects, and his position as the ruler of the universe was reconfirmed. Today the New Year heralds the coming of spring (in China it is called the Spring Festival) and the reunion of the family. And at no other time is there more cause for joyful celebration.

Whether in Beijing, Hong Kong, San Francisco, New York, or Vancouver, the telltale signs that this grand holiday is approaching are similar. Markets become clogged with towering piles of delicacies, and houses take on a wonderfully festive appearance.

Families like to welcome the New Year with a clean slate. Houses are cleaned from top to bottom to remove all traces of the old year and its misfortunes, and to bring good luck for the coming year. Gates are repainted and windows are washed until they shine. New outfits are made or bought for children and adults. Bills are paid and all debts are settled before the holiday begins because, according to tradition, old debts cannot be claimed after New Year's Day.

At this time of year, special attention is paid to the Kitchen God, whose picture hangs in the kitchen. All year the Kitchen God watches over the household like a hawk, carefully taking notes. Traditionally an altar for offerings is placed in front of him. To keep him happy he is given the plumpest and most delicious morsels of food and sweets before each meal. Then just before the New Year holiday, families generously slather his lips with honey so that only sweet words will come out of his mouth. He travels to heaven to make his report to the Jade Emperor, ruler of the world.

From "Moonbeams, Dumplings & Dragon Boats" © 2002 by Nina Simonds, Leslie Swartz, and The Children's Museum, Boston. Used by permission of Harcourt, Inc.

To mark Chinese New Year, NPR's Linda Wertheimer looks at a new children's book — Moonbeams, Dumplings & Dragon Boats — that tells the stories behind this and three other major Chinese holidays. The book's co-author is Nina Simonds, who's written a number of books on Asian Cooking, and who took Wertheimer shopping in Washington, D.C.'s Chinatown for special New Year treats.

One traditional treat is slices of candied lotus root: It represents the blessing of many children, Simonds says, "but also it's very traditional to serve lotus root because it's said that the good luck passes through the holes of the lotus root and into your mouth for the new year." Simonds says other traditional treats include candied melon, to promote growth and health; peanut cookies, for long life; candied coconut, which symbolizes togetherness; and candied kumquats, a round, golden fruit that symbolizes money and prosperity. All these very sweet treats, she says, would go on a "prosperity plate" to be offered to guests coming over during the holiday.

Below, Simonds offers an updated recipe for a prosperity plate, as well as a recipe for traditional sweet rice balls. Both are reprinted with permission from Moonbeams, Dumplings & Dragon Boats: A Treasury of Chinese Holiday Tales, Activities & Recipes, by Nina Simonds, Leslie Swartz, & The Children's Museum, Boston (Harcourt, Inc.).

Vegetable Sticks with Peanut Dip

On Chinese New Year, says Simonds, "many families prepare a tray of prosperity — a special six-sided platter that has connecting sections filled with candied fruits, melon, and lotus seeds. These foods symbolize riches, longevity, and the blessing of more children." Simonds says those traditional foods can be replaced with cut vegetables for "a more colorful and healthful version of the traditional prosperity tray."

2 red peppers, rinsed and drained

1 yellow pepper, rinsed and drained

1 pound baby carrots

PEANUT DIP:

1 cup smooth peanut butter, or more as needed

2 tablespoons soy sauce

1-1/2 tablespoons rice wine or sake

2 tablespoons Chinese black vinegar or Worcestershire sauce

2 tablespoons sugar

2 tablespoons toasted sesame oil

2 teaspoons minced garlic

1 tablespoon minced fresh ginger

7 tablespoons water, or more as needed

1. Using a paring knife, cut off the top and bottom of the peppers. Remove the seeds and cut each pepper in half along the length. Then cut each half along the length into three or four strips, removing any white membrane. Cut each strip on the diagonal into pieces about 1-1/2 inches long. Arrange the peppers and the carrots in separate piles on a decorative tray or in a basket. Leave a small space in the middle of the vegetables for the dip.

2. Scoop the peanut butter into a blender or a food processor fitted with a steel blade. Add the soy sauce, rice wine or sake, vinegar or Worcestershire sauce, sugar, sesame oil, garlic, and ginger, blending until smooth after each addition. Add the water and continue blending. The dip should be stiff but creamy. If it seems too thick, add a little more water; if it seems too thin, add more peanut butter.

3. Pour the dip into a small bowl and place in the space on the tray of vegetables. Makes 6 servings.

Sweet Rice Balls

Chinese New Year festivities climax with the arrival of the Lantern Festival -– and, says Simonds, "no Lantern Festival celebration would be complete without yuanxiao, the sticky rice balls that are symbolic of family reunion and happiness. Recipes vary from region to region: In Taiwan many people make yuanxiao without fillings, like those in this recipe. But in different parts of China, yuanxiao often are stuffed with sweet pastes made with sweet red beans, dates, lotus seeds, coconut, peanuts, and sesame seeds. All are served in a sweet soup." And, Simonds cautions, "Be sure to say only good things as you roll the dough so that you will enjoy good luck in the year to come."

1 cup sweet rice flour

1 tablespoon safflower or corn oil

½ cup boiling water

SOUP:

4 cups water

1 cup sugar

1 teaspoon almond extract

1. Put the sweet rice flour into a large mixing bowl. Mix together the oil and boiling water, and slowly add the rice flour, stirring with a wooden spoon. Mix to a rough dough and let cool. Place the cooled dough on a clean surface and knead lightly until smooth.

2. With your hands, roll the dough into a long snake and cut it into teaspoon-sized pieces. (There should be about 40.)

3. Roll each piece into a ball and place on a tray that has been lightly dusted with sweet rice flour.

4. To make the soup, bring the water and sugar to a boil in a large pot. Lower the heat and cook for a few minutes to fully dissolve the sugar. Add the rice balls and bring to a boil again. Reduce the heat to low and simmer for 8-10 minutes, or until the balls float to the surface. Stir in the almond extract. Remove from the heat, ladle soup and balls into individual soup bowls, and serve. Makes about 40 balls.

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