When I first discovered that I was born in the year of the rat, I was somewhat disappointed; after all, rodents are usually not beloved animals and are often seen as pests. Being the first sign of the Chinese zodiac, however, rats are typically leaders, pioneers and conquerors. People born under the rat sign are said to be, at their best: organized, meticulous, intelligent, charismatic, charming, practical, industrious, eloquent and artistic. OK, I'll own those qualities any day. On the other hand, they can be controlling, obstinate, power-driven and critical. Then again, none of us is perfect! There are five types of Rat years and people - fire, wood, earth, metal and water. The year 2008 represents the Earth Rat: trustworthy, motivated by permanence, realistic ... and sanctimonious.
As mentioned in a previous column, the Chinese Lunar New Year celebration dates from 2600 BC and represents one of the major holidays of the Asian culture. Because the start of the lunar year is based on the cycles of the moon, a new year can begin anywhere between late January and mid- February. This year, the celebration begins Feb. 7 and lasts 15 days, through Feb. 22.
Dishes representing different wishes (or whose Chinese words phonetically sound like lucky symbols) are served at the sumptuous New Year's reunion meal. Popular dishes include whole fish (togetherness and regeneration), chicken (happiness and a long marriage) and dumplings (good wishes toward one's family). Green beans (longevity) or stir-fried blends of mushrooms, zucchini, broccoli, sugar peas and bamboo shoots are likely side dishes. Tangerines and oranges, symbolizing prosperity, are traditional dessert choices. Sea foods such as shrimp (representing liveliness and happiness), oysters, raw fish or edible seaweed are also served.
It's popular to wear red, which is said to ward off evil spirits, but not black and white, colors associated with mourning. "Hong bao" (red packets of money) are given by married couples to children and unmarried adults as wishes for prosperity and success. Legend says that firecrackers were used to scare away a mythical man-eating beast (and bad spirits) each spring. They are now used to bring in the New Year with a bang!
In celebration of the New Year holiday, I asked Cecilia Yu, the owner of China Paradise, one of my favorite local restaurants, to share a recipe that would usually be made during Chinese New Year meals. She offered the recipe below for their Asparagus Chicken in Black Bean Sauce. Whether you serve it as part of your own New Year festivities or as a delicious family meal throughout the year, I know you will enjoy it. Happy Year of the Rat!
Jacqui lives in Danville with her pug, Nina Simone, and volumes of cookbooks and recipes. Her column runs every other week. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
China Paradise's Asparagus Chicken in Black Bean Sauce (serves 2-4, depending on entire meal)
1 tsp. minced garlic
1 tsp. black beans
1 lb. chicken slices
1 lb. asparagus, cut into bite-sized pieces
1/4 yellow onion, sliced
2 tsp. soy sauce
3-4 tsp. chicken broth
1/2 tsp. sugar
Salt to taste
Cornstarch and water, mixed together to create "slurry," a thickening agent
1. In a medium pan, sauté the garlic and black beans in the oil; add the chicken.
2. In a separate pot or pan, steam the asparagus until "al dente" or tender; add to the chicken and vegetables and stir-fry until well blended.
3. Add the chicken broth and soy sauce to the pan; add sugar and salt to taste.
4. Create a "slurry": Start with 1 tsp. cornstarch and mix with water in 1/2 tsp. increments until a mixture the thickness of thin paste is generated. (Note: The slurry will thicken more when cooked.)
5. Add the "slurry" to the pan and mix well with all ingredients until the sauce thickens to the desired state.
6. Serve immediately over hot, steamed rice, fried rice or chow mein noodles.