Here are some traditional Chinese dishes that are fit for a Chinese New Year feast, courtesy of the incomparable Cecilia Chiang. Her restaurant, The Mandarin, introduced San Franciscans and Americans to authentic Northern Chinese cuisine starting in 1961 when it first opened. Chiang, 96, is being honored this year at CAAM’s annual fundraiser, CAAMFeast: Food, Stories & You, alongside George Chen (China Live) and Brandon Jew (Mr. Jiu’s) on Saturday, March 5, 2016 at One Kearny Club in San Francisco.
Chiang has been called the “Julia Child of Chinese cuisine.” Her recipes are step-by-step renditions of traditional Chinese recipes. I mean, you could use pre-made wonton wrappers for your dumpling skin, but her recipe teaches you how to make it from scratch. You could also cut out the circle wrapper from a cookie cutter, but you could learn the traditional way of rolling it out with a rolling pin and enjoy the fruits of your labor in the kitchen. You could also microwave a whole steamed fish — but Chiang will teach you how to steam it over a stovetop, old-school way. (You could, of course, adapt recipes as you wish).
Whole fish, dumplings, and “lion’s head” meatballs (see Chiang’s recipe) are all dishes eaten on Chinese New Year. “These are dishes you have to eat during the New Year,” Chiang said. The fish symbolizes fu gui you yu, a saying that means leaving prosperity for generations to come. “Yu” sounds like the word “fish.”
Many of the foods and customs revolve about having luck, wealth and health. Dumplings are also a staple in any Chinese New Year dinner. The dumplings can be shaped into ingots (yuan bao) versus the traditional crescent shape symbolizing wealth. Whatever shape you make them in, they are truly delicious. Below is a traditional recipe with shrimp and pork. The great thing about dumplings is that you can create your own filling recipe.
Other popular dishes for Chinese New Year are tang yuan or sweet glutinous rice balls. Things shaped like circles symbolize togetherness, as having family together is a big part of the new year. Oranges and pomelos are also popular. Other dishes include long noodles to represent long life, nian gao (sticky rice), and vegetarian dishes.
The two recipes below are excerpted with permission The Mandarin Way, Cecilia Chiang’s memoir as told to Allen Carr published in 1980 by California Living Books (revised and expanded edition).
Steamed Fish (from The Mandarin Way)
1 rock cod, carp, sea bass or red snapper, 2-3 pounds
5 scallion tops, 4 inches long
3 slices ginger root, 1/4 inch thick
garnish: 4 scallions, finely shredded, and fresh coriander
2 1/2 tablespoons cottonseed oil
3 drops sesame seed oil
3 or 4 drops light soy sauce
dash of Chinese cooking wine
Make incisions one-half inch apart on both sides of the fish (Lay the fish on a chopping block, holding the head firmly in a cloth since it is apt to slip, and with a Chinese cleaver make an incision about an inch below the gills, with the blade upright and parallel to the side of the fish. When the skin is penetrated, slice in a semicircular motion, across the width of the fish, with the blade angled slightly inwards. This makes a deep slash to the bone. Repeat the slashing at inch internals–there will be five or six–down the fish on both sides).
Arrange the scallions on a platter, and lay the fish on its side on top; stick the slices of ginger into the incision nearest the head.
Place the platter on a rack in a wok or roasting pan (having brought some water in the pan to a boil first). Cover, and steam for 17 to 18 minutes.
In the meantime, mix the cottonseed oil with the sesame seed oil, soy sauce and wine, and cook for two to three minutes to blend the flavors. When the fish is ready to be served, pour the sauce over it, and garnish with the scallions, shredded lengthwise, and some chopped coriander. The fish thus prepared has just sufficient seasoning to bring out, rather than mask, its delicacy, and in that respect is typical of the restraint of the northern Chinese cuisine.
Stuffed Dumplings (from The Mandarin Way)
4 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 cups cold water
1/2 cup finely chopped cooked shrimp
1 cup (scant) finely chopped lean raw pork
1 1/3 cups finely chopped fresh raw Chinese cabbage
Yield: 100 dumplings
Prepare the filling first. Discard the outer leaves of the cabbage, and after chopping the rest, squeeze in a kitchen cloth to extract as much moisture as possible. Mix the cabbage in a bowl with the pork and shrimp, and store in the refrigerator for one hour to firm up and blend the flavors. The quantity will be sufficient for one hundred dumplings, or about eight dozen.
Combine the flour with the water gradually, starting with half the water, and mixing well. Knead the dough on a lightly floured board until completely smooth, and then allow it to rest for about twenty minutes, varying the time with the heat of the kitchen.
Now put the dough on a lightly floured board and roll it into a long roll about one and a half inches in diameter. Cut into one-inch rounds, sprinkle each round lightly with flour, and flatten on the table with the ball of the hand; then roll out into a three-inch circle, turning the dough at each roll of the pin. Place a scant tablespoonful of the filling into the center of each round. Do not overfill, or the chiao-tzu (eds. note: also spelled jiao zi) will break open. Lay the chiao-tzu in the curve made by the base of the fingers and the palm of the hand, and with your other hand bring the central portions of the dough together. Then crimp the dough together from either end, with the seam thus made uppermost, and the bottom slightly flattened, to make a plump, crescent-shaped dumpling. (To make ingot shaped dumplings, check instructions here). You may now add the chiao-tzu to chicken stock if you like, and you will have delicious soup dumplings.