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Xin niam hao! (again)
January 29, 2003

I couldnít have been happier in the strange surroundings.I sniffed and nothing smelled familiar, but it all smelled mighty good.The shelves were loaded with unusual itemsódried seaweed, lotus root, dehydrated watercress, desert honey powder, dried anchovies, whole and all but blinking their little eyes at me.

No, I wasnít halfway around the world in China.I was giving myself a treat by shopping in a Chinese grocery store on West Tennessee right down the road in Tallahassee.

I enjoy cooking Chinese food, but doing it right takes special spices, which arenít always available at the local supermarket.Iíd stopped in to pick up some dried five-spice powder, the combination of anise seed, fennel seed, cloves, cinnamon and pepper (all ground fine) that makes Chinese food taste like Chinese food.But after looking around, I grabbed a basket and started shopping.Too many things begged to go home with me.

Remembering my unfortunate encounter with the salted duck eggs, I used restraint and ended up with only snow pea crisps and candied ginger with an intriguing recipe for gingersnaps on the side.Iíd save more shopping for the next trip after I went through my cookbooks and made a list.I wanted a reason to return.

Xin niam hao! Happy New Year!February 1 is Chinese New Yearótime to welcome in the year 4700, celebrating the crowning of the first Chinese king all those years ago. That would be 2697 B.C. on the Western calendar. And itís a time to cook up some good Chinese food.

The Chinese know how to celebrateóNew Yearís, sometimes called the Spring Festival, lasts for two weeks.Unlike the Western New Year, the date of the Chinese New Year varies as it follows the lunar calendar.Every year from the first new moon in the lunar year Chinese communities and homes are decked in red (for happiness) and gold (for wealth) until the moon grows full fifteen days later, and the holiday ends with the Lantern Festival.

This most important Chinese holiday recalls the agricultural culture of Chinaóitís the time for planting new crops and looking forward to the coming spring.Naturally there are special foods associated with the holiday.Families journey back to their hometowns to visit relatives and friends and partake in special meals.Often, a dumpling soup is served on New Yearís Eve.Visitors are offered special tea eggs.Golden oranges are the lucky dessert.

Instead of dividing the year into twelve sections as the Western horoscope does, the Chinese horoscope looks at a cycle of twelve years, with each year bearing the name of an animal.So instead of asking, ďWhatís your sign?Ē they ask, ďWhatís your year?ĒThis year is the Year of the Sheep.Sheep people are considered loyal, honest and quiet. They make good actors, and get on well with Rabbits and Horses (in the horoscope, not for real).Were you born in 1907, 1919, 1931, 1943, 1955, 1967, 1979, or 1991? Congratulations!Itís your year.

I hope to get back to the Chinese grocery before Saturday night, with a long list for my feast.Maybe Iíll fix cuttlefish and tofu?Certainly some hot and sour soup. But even if I donít make it back, Iíll tailor my February 1 menu to the celebration, spread the red tablecloth, and pull out the chopsticks.I may even take the easy way out and buy a frozen stir-fry dinner at the grocery store (there are good one in the refrigerated case as well) add some chicken and stir up a bowl of sweet and sour cabbageólucky in all New Yearís traditions.Weíll top it off with oranges and fortune cookies,

But come to think of it, thereís nothing wrong with carryout.

Tea Eggs

12 eggs

2 star anise pods* (you can substitute a pinch of anise seed or skip it altogether)

1/4 cup black tea leaves (or 3 teabags)

2 teaspoons salt

2 tablespoons soy sauce

††††††††††† Cover the eggs with cold water, bring to a boil and boil 15 minutes.Remove the eggs, cool them in cold water, and then dry them.Crack the eggshells by tapping gently with a teaspoon, but do not remove the shells. Cover the cracked eggs in water and bring to a boil.Add the remaining ingredients and simmer for 2 hours. Cool and dry the eggs, then refrigerate.

To serve, peel, cut into quarters and arrange flower-style on a plate.††

*Available in the international sections at some grocery stores or in Asian food markets.

††††††††††† I was surprised eggs can survive a two-hour boil. They tasted fine.The tea and soy are barely discernable, but the appearance is wonderful.The eggs look like little ovals of marbleized porcelain.

They will be a wonderful year-round dish.Iím thinking about an Asian chefís salad with crispy noodles and soy dressing.Iíll let you know.

††††††††††† And of course, you donít have to make the whole dozen.The soy and tea are mostly for the color, the more you use, the more distinctive the marbling will be.

 

Red Cabbage with Hot and Sour Sauce

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

1/4 cup thinly sliced green onions (white and green parts)

4 cups thinly sliced red cabbage

††††††††††† Heat the oil in a large frying pan or wok.Add the onions, stir-fry for just a few seconds, and then add the cabbage. Stir-fry for one minute; add 1/4 cup water.Remove from heat and cover for one minute.Uncover, add sauce.Stir for about a minute to blend thoroughly, and serve.

Sauce

1 tablespoon soy sauce (I use the light or low-salt version)

2 tablespoons wine vinegar

1 teaspoon Tabasco sauce (or your favorite hot sauce; Crystal is good)

1 teaspoon sugar

 

The cabbage cooks so little in this that it is really more like a warm cole slaw.And itís delicious. If spicy food is not for you, omit the hot sauce.

Xin niam hao, everyone!Happy New Yearís--4700.

Remember, Iím looking for good cooks with long memories who will share their kitchen secrets with me.†††


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Trilla Pando is a member of the Southern Foodways Alliance & the Story Circle Network