Chinese New Year (also known as Spring Festival) begins today, Feb. 14, ushering in the year of the tiger on this second new moon after the winter solstice.

While there are mixed opinions on what the tiger will bring in terms of luck and prosperity, the basis for, and ways in which, the New Year is celebrated by the Chinese remain unchanged. Traditionally a poor culture — although that’s rapidly changing — the Chinese emphasize rich cooking during this 15-day celebration, using oils and other more expensive foods that are rarely used the rest of the year.

Based on the Chinese calendar, which has been in existence far longer than the Gregorian-based calendars currently used, today marks the start of the year 4707. As legend that stretches back more than 4,000 years goes, Nian (also the modern Chinese word for “year”) was a beast
that preyed on the people of China the night before the new year. Villagers used loud noises, bright lights and the color red to ward off the beast. Today, at the beginning of each new year — starting, like we do, on the eve of the new year — the Chinese hang red paper decorations in
their windows and celebrate with house cleaning, gift giving, fireworks, public celebrations, lavish dishes and more.

Cam Luu, owner and chef of Wei-Li Chinese Restaurant in Auburn, recently prepared two traditional Chinese New Year dishes for bPlus that are not on the restaurant’s regular menu.

“When we celebrate this time of year, we use a lot of oil, so it’s a rich food,” said Luu. “In normal (Chinese) cooking, we don’t use a lot of oil.”

The first dish, “Ginger with Lobster,” is made with two lobsters, broken into pieces with shells cracked for easier eating later, chopped scallions, sliced onion and julienned ginger root. The lobsters pieces are tossed in a pasty mixture of flour, cornstarch, egg and water. The lobster is then deep fried in trans-fat-free oil for several minutes, until the meat inside the shell is firm, but not hard. The onions and ginger root are cooked in a wok with a mixture of mushroom soy, hoisin and oyster sauces. About a quarter-cup of water is added, as well as a cup of cooking wine. The lobster is added after three to five minutes, and then the scallions during the last few minutes. Luu seasoned the dish with salt and pepper, and served with rice.

The prep work is the most time consuming part of Chinese cooking, said Luu. Planning your menu and allowing sufficient time to wash and cut all ingredients will make the process easier.

The second dish Luu prepared was Beef with Flat Noodles. After cutting rice noodle sheets into wide sections, he sliced an onion, chopped several scallion stalks into fairly large pieces, and crushed a clove of fresh garlic. Luu placed the noodles in hot water, cooking them for three to four minutes before straining and rinsing them in cool water. He poured oil in a wok, heating it thoroughly, and said that an easy way to test that the pan is hot enough is by placing a slice of onion in the oil and waiting for it to start sizzling before adding more ingredients. Next he added the garlic, onion and scallion, stirring a few times.

For flavor, Luu said, they use the same soy sauce mixture as with the lobster dish, adding a bit of sugar for a sweeter taste. The beef strips and bean sprouts are added, then finally the rice noodles, and the dish continues to cook for three minutes. Luu suggests serving the dish with rice and tea.

Other traditional dishes served on Chinese New Year are Jai salad, which is a mix of vegetables like lotus seed, ginko nut, black moss seaweed, dried bean curd and bamboo shoots; round dumplings called Jiaozi; lettuce wraps; spring rolls; and Longevity Noodles, which should be eaten without cutting to avoid bad luck. Many of these dishes have symbolic meanings such as prosperity, wealth, health and happiness for the start of a new year.

Tips

• Much of the work of stir-fry is in the prep: have all your vegetables and meats ready to go, sauces made and measured out, and noodles softened before the frying begins.

• An easy way to test if the pan is hot enough is by placing a slice of onion in the oil and waiting for it to sizzle before adding other ingredients.

• Because you want to stir-fry at a high temperature, make sure you use oil with a high smoke point, such as canola, peanut or extra virgin olive oil.

Cam Luu and his wife Lilly Huang at their restaurant, Wei-Li in Auburn.

Beef with Flat Noodles

Serves 2

1 clove crushed garlic (more or less to taste)
1/2 tablespoon hoisin sauce
1/2 tablespoon oyster sauce
1/2 tablespoon mushroom soy sauce (plain soy sauce is all right)
1/2 tablespoon sugar
1 medium onion, sliced
1 cup beef, cut into thin strips
1 cup bean sprouts
1 cup wide, flat noodles (available at Hong Kong Market in Portland) or noodles of your choice if you don’t insist on authenticity

For sauce, mix sugar, hoisin, oyster and soy sauces. Cook the noodles for three minutes in boiling water, then rinse with cold water. Heat a wok over medium-high to high heat, pour 1/4 cup of oil (olive or vegetable). Test that the pan is hot enough with a piece of onion. Add the garlic, then the scallions, onions and sauce. Cook for a few seconds, stir and add the beef, bean sprouts, noodles and pepper; continue to cook, stirring frequently for three minutes. Serve hot.

Next week:

Several weeks ago, we gave you special soups. Next week, we show you the secrets behind some special sandwiches from four of L-A’s oldest and most venerable sub shops: Sam’s, George’s, Luiggi’s and Georgio’s.


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