Gifts For The Gods: Food For The Chinese New Year

Food writer Grace Young i i

Food writer Grace Young says Chinese families put out whole chickens before the New Year to appease the kitchen god and ensure a prosperous new year. Jim Oseland hide caption

itoggle caption Jim Oseland
Food writer Grace Young

Food writer Grace Young says Chinese families put out whole chickens before the New Year to appease the kitchen god and ensure a prosperous new year.

Jim Oseland
Grace Young's kitchen god altar i i

Grace Young's kitchen god altar Grace Young hide caption

itoggle caption Grace Young
Grace Young's kitchen god altar

Grace Young's kitchen god altar

Grace Young

For those suffering from post-holiday blues, the Chinese New Year — or the Year of the Ox — is fast approaching on Jan. 26.

For many, that means it's time to start pulling out all sorts of Chinese traditions.

One of the great traditions is to clean out the house a week before the New Year to "sweep out the old in order to usher in the new," according to Grace Young, the author of The Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchen.

Another is to make offerings to the kitchen god as a sort of bribe.

"The kitchen god is a domestic god that resides behind the stove and he watches over everything in your home," Young tells NPR's Melissa Block. "And the Chinese believe that the heart of the family resides in the kitchen. … The family always puts a food offering in front of this little altar that they have right by the stove."

The idea is that when the kitchen god goes up to see the jade emperor, his report will be favorable and you'll have a prosperous new year, Young says.

Young says that her grandmother used to put out a whole chicken because it represents "a proper beginning and end to the year and a wholeness of life on earth." Her grandmother would also put out roast pork — because it signifies prosperity — a stir-fried lettuce dish and rice wine.

"So the feeling is you that you feed the kitchen god to make him happy, and that the wine will make him so drunk that all of your bad deeds, he won't be able remember or that he'll slur his words so that the jade emperor won't be able to understand what he's saying about you," Young says.

If you want a good report, "you could put a teaspoon of wine, but I don't think anyone is that perfect these days," Young says.

Young says families eat the chicken and the lettuce and pork.

"Nothing is wasted in a Chinese household," Young says.

Stir-Fried Scallops With Snow Peas And Peppers

Scallops, clams and mussels are regarded as lucky foods. The opening of their shells represents a fresh beginning for the New Year. This is a classic Cantonese stir-fry lightly flavored with ginger and garlic. You can also add 1/2 teaspoon of red pepper flakes in the sauce mixture for a more fiery stir-fry.

Serves 2 to 3 as a main dish, or 4 as part of a multi-course meal.


1 pound sea scallops
1/3 cup chicken broth
1 tablespoon soy sauce
2 teaspoons oyster flavored sauce
1 teaspoon cornstarch
1 teaspoon Shao Hsing rice wine or dry sherry
1 teaspoons sesame oil
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons peanut or vegetable oil
4 slices ginger
3 medium cloves garlic, smashed and peeled
1 red bell pepper, cut into 1-inch squares
1 cup snow peas, strings removed
2 scallions, cut into 2-inch sections

1. Wash the scallops in cold water, removing any visible bits of shell or grit. Drain well in a colander and pat dry with paper towels. If there are any large scallops, halve or cut them into thirds to match the size of the other scallops. In a small bowl, combine the chicken broth, soy sauce, oyster sauce, cornstarch, rice wine, sesame oil, sugar, and salt. Stir until the cornstarch is dissolved. Set aside.

2. Heat a 14-inch flat-bottomed wok or 12-inch skillet over high heat until a bead of water vaporizes within 1 to 2 seconds of contact. Add 1 tablespoon of the peanut oil and the scallops, spreading them evenly in the wok. Cook undisturbed 1 minute, letting scallops begin to brown. Then, using a metal spatula stir-fry 1 to 2 minutes, or until scallops are firm and slightly brown but not cooked through. Remove scallops from the wok to a plate.

3. Add the remaining 1 tablespoon peanut oil, ginger, garlic, red bell pepper, snow peas, and scallions. Stir-fry 2 to 3 minutes, or until pepper begins to soften. Re-stir sauce mixture and swirl it into the wok. Return the scallops and any juices that have accumulated on the plate to the wok and stir-fry 1 to 2 minutes, or until the sauce has thickened slightly and scallops are just cooked through.

Adapted from The Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchen: Classic Family Recipes for Celebration and Healing, by Grace Young, Simon and Schuster 1999.

Good Fortune Stir-Fried Garlic Lettuce

Lettuce is a favorite New Year's dish because the Cantonese word for lettuce saang choi, sounds like plentiful wealth. This stir-fry is extremely easy to make. The iceberg attains sweetness from the soy sauce, sesame oil and rice wine, and only takes three minutes to stir-fry. Bok choy is also delicious cooked in this manner. The best pans for stir-frying are a carbon-steel wok or a stainless-steel skillet. Do not stir-fry over high heat with a nonstick skillet.

Serves 4 as a vegetable side dish.

1 medium head iceberg lettuce
1 1/2 teaspoons soy sauce
1 1/2 teaspoons sesame oil
1 teaspoon Shao Hsing rice wine or dry sherry
3/4 teaspoon sugar
1/4 teaspoon ground white pepper
3 tablespoons peanut or vegetable oil
3 medium cloves garlic, smashed and peeled
1/4 teaspoon salt

1. Core the iceberg and separate into leaves. Wash the lettuce in several changes of cold water, breaking the leaves in half. Drain thoroughly in a colander until dry to the touch.

2. In a small bowl, combine the soy sauce, sesame oil, rice wine, sugar and pepper.

3. Heat a 14-inch flat-bottomed wok or 12-inch skillet over high heat until a bead of water vaporizes within 1 to 2 seconds of contact. Add the peanut oil and garlic, and stir-fry 10 seconds or until just fragrant. Add the lettuce and stir-fry one minute. Add the salt and stir-fry another minute, or until the lettuce is just limp. Swirl in the sauce and stir-fry one more minute, or until the lettuce is just tender and still bright green.

Adapted from The Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchen: Classic Family Recipes for Celebration and Healing, by Grace Young, Simon and Schuster 1999.

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The Breath of a Wok

Unlocking the Spirit of Chinese Wok Cooking Through Recipes and Lore

by Grace Young and Alan Richardson

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