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Gifts For The Gods: Food For The Chinese New Year

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Gifts For The Gods: Food For The Chinese New Year

Food

Gifts For The Gods: Food For The Chinese New Year

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MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

If you're suffering from post-holiday blues, consider this. We may be two weeks into 2009, but Chinese New Year is fast approaching. The first day of the Lunar New Year is Monday, January 26th. For food writer Grace Young, that means it's time to start pulling out all sorts of Chinese traditions.

GRACE YOUNG: One thing that's really important is that the Chinese feel that you really have to clean your house. It's this whole concept that you have to sweep out the old in order to usher in the new. And one of the great traditions of Chinese New Year's is making offerings to the kitchen god.

BLOCK: And who's the kitchen god?

YOUNG: So, the kitchen god is a domestic god that resides behind the stove, and he watches over everything in your home. And the Chinese believe that the heart of the family resides in the kitchen. So, one week before Chinese New Year's, the house is completely scrubbed clean, and then the family always puts a food offering in front of this little altar that they have right by their stove. And everyone's offering is slightly different, but the main purpose is to bribe the kitchen god so that when he goes up to see the Jade Emperor, his report will be favorable.

BLOCK: Bribing him, OK.

YOUNG: Bribing him with food. So, my grandmother on New Year's Eve used to put out a whole chicken. Maybe it was Chinese soy sauce chicken or salt roasted chicken. It doesn't matter what kind, but the whole chicken represents a proper beginning and end to the year and the wholeness of life on Earth. She would also put out roast pork because pork signifies prosperity. And then she would always put out a stir-fried lettuce dish because in the Chinese tradition, lettuce in Cantonese is saang choi, which sounds like rowing fortunes. And she'd also put out some rice wine. So, the feeling is that you feed the kitchen god to make him happy, and that the wine will either make him so drunk that all of your bad deeds, he won't be able remember...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

YOUNG: Or that he'll slur his words so that the Jade Emperor won't be able to understand what he's saying about you.

BLOCK: Well, what if he's reporting your good deeds? Then that doesn't get through either.

YOUNG: Oh, well, I guess then you could just put, like, a teaspoon of wine...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

YOUNG: But I don't think anyone is that perfect these days. But there are so many different ways that you can bribe the kitchen god, and hopefully, if the report is good, then you'll have a prosperous New Year.

BLOCK: And then could you, with all good conscience, eat the whole roast chicken and lettuce?

YOUNG: Oh, absolutely.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

YOUNG: Nothing is wasted. Nothing is wasted in a Chinese household.

BLOCK: What would be some other things you might eat on New Year's Eve?

YOUNG: On New Year's Eve, the Chinese love to eat scallops or clams. My family used to love to make stir-fried clams with black bean sauce because the opening of the shell represents a fresh beginning for the New Year, and also scallops and clams look like ancient coins. Some people eat a mushroom dish because mushrooms grow very quickly so they represent prosperity. Shrimp is a very popular dish because the word for shrimp is ha, which sounds like the word for laugher. So, it represents happiness. The list goes on and on. And there are specific dishes that you would never eat, such as melon, because the word for Melon, gua, sounds like death.

BLOCK: Oh.

YOUNG: And some people won't eat tofu because the word fu - the fu rhymes with negativity.

BLOCK: What about dumplings?

YOUNG: Dumplings are actually very, very important. My family do not eat them because we're Cantonese and from the south, but in the north boiled dumplings, giao zha(ph), are very, very important. Most families make it on New Year's Eve, and they start to eat them around 11:30, 11:45 at night into the New Year. So, again, it's the idea of bringing abundance from the previous year into the New Year.

BLOCK: It sounds like it's a complete feast, we are talking about here.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

YOUNG: Yes. You never stop eating.

BLOCK: And we are heading into the year of the ox in the Chinese Zodiac.

YOUNG: Yes. It's going to be the year 4707, year of the ox. And there are 12 animals in Chinese astrology, and each represents different characteristics. So, the ox seems to be the perfect animal for the times that we lived in. It's a persistent, undaunted animal who works very hard despite difficulties.

BLOCK: Well, Grace Young, Happy New Year. Kung Hei Fat Choy.

YOUNG: Kung Hei Fat Choy, wishing you much prosperity and good health.

BLOCK: Grace Young is author of the book "The Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchen." You can find recipes for traditional New Year's dishes, including Good Fortune Stir Fried Garlic Lettuce, at our Web site, npr.org.

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