Article written by leading Asian culinary expert, cookbook author, cooking instructor, and developer of Helen Chen’s Asian Kitchen® cookware and cooking supplies, Helen Chen. For full Bio, please see below…
February 10, 2013 ushers in the new Year of the Snake. The exact date of Chinese New Year, or Spring Festival, as it is commonly known in China, is determined by the phases of the moon. The Chinese lunar calendar is one of the oldest chronological records in history.
Chinese New Year is a time for grand celebrations and in China almost one billion people are on the move. It’s the one time in the year that everyone tries to journey to their respective hometowns for family reunions and banquets. I always suggest to tourists not to even think about visiting China during the New Year festivities. You won’t be able to buy a train, plane or boat ticket. It will be that busy and chaotic.
In the days preceding New Year the house must be cleaned, all debts settled and the house decorated with good luck symbols and signs. It’s considered unlucky to sweep or cut your hair during Chinese New Year because you’d sweep away good fortune and since the Chinese word for “hair” is a homonym for prosperity, the last thing you want to do is to cut your wealth in half.
Good luck couplets are written on scrolls of red paper and hung on either side of the front door. Flowers also play an important part in the New Year celebration. It’s traditional to have a bowl of fragrant narcissi that have been forced to bloom just in time for Chinese New Year. Paper whites or narcissi are symbolic of good fortune and prosperity. I have my narcissi in bloom right now!
With any Chinese festival, especially one as old and significant as the Chinese New Year, food always plays a large part in the celebration. For the Chinese, they are either eating or talking about food!
Lucky foods are prepared and served throughout Chinese New Year especially on New Year’s Eve when the whole family congregates for their new year banquet. Sticky rice to symbolize the “sticking together” of family and friends; whole fish to symbolize abundance; deep-fried spring rolls that resemble golden bars of gold; stir-fried clams in their shells look like silver ingots of old China; long noodles for long life; juicy Mandarin oranges to signify good luck; red apples not only for their lucky red color, but also because the word for apple, “ping guo” sounds like the word “ping” for peace; peaches for longevity; and peanuts, known as the long life nut. The list goes on and on.
Let me be the first to wish you all a very happy, healthy and prosperous New Year!
A Chinese New Year Recipe- Clams in Black Bean Sauce
Serves 2, or 4 as part of a multicourse meal
12 littleneck or cherrystone clams (about 2 pounds)
2 garlic cloves, lightly crushed and peeled
2 slices unpeeled gingerroot
1 scallion, green and white parts, cut into 1-inch lengths, bulb split
3 tablespoons fermented black beans, coarsely chopped
1 fresh Thai chili, thinly sliced, optional
2 tablespoons dark soy sauce
1 tablespoon dry sherry
2 teaspoons sugar
2 tablespoons canola oil
2 teaspoons cornstarch, dissolved in 1 tablespoon water
Cilantro springs, for garnish
1. Cover the clams with fresh cold water and soak for about 30 minutes. Scrub the
shells with a stiff brush and rinse thoroughly to remove all sand and grit. (Here’s an in-depth clam cleaning guide for more tips and pictures)
Remember the shells and all will cook in the sauce and you don’t want it to
become gritty. Drain. Set aside. If not cooking right away, place in the
2. Combine the garlic, gingerroot, scallion, black beans and chili, if using in a small dish. Set aside. Combine the soy sauce, sherry sugar and ½ cup water in another dish. Stir until the sugar is dissolved. Set aside.
3. Pour the oil into a wok or stir fry pan (you might try Helen’s 14″ Carbon Steel Flat-Bottom Wok if you haven’t settled on a wok yet) and place over high heat. Add the black bean mixture to the pan and stir until fragrant. Add the clams and stir for about 30 seconds. Add the soy sauce mixture, stir to mix, and cover the pan. Cook over medium heat for about 5 minutes, or until the clams just open. Stir occasionally for even cooking.
4. Remove the lid and thicken the sauce with the cornstarch slurry. When the sauce has thickened, transfer the clams to a serving platter and garnish with cilantro. Serve immediately.
Copyright © 2005 and 1994 by Helen Chen. All rights reserved. Reprinted from Helen Chen’s Chinese Home Cooking, New York, William Morrow & Co., 1994.
Biography of the Author, Helen Chen
Helen Chen is a widely acknowledged expert in Chinese cooking. Besides her role as an educator and cookbook author, she also is a product and business consultant to the housewares industry. In 2007 she created and developed a new line of Asian kitchenware under the brand name, “Helen’s Asian Kitchen,” expressly for Harold Import Company in New Jersey.
Having been born in China, and raised and educated in the United States, Helen brings the best of both worlds to her approach to the art of Chinese cuisine. She understands the needs of the American cook as only a native can, yet she is intimately knowledgeable with the culinary practices and philosophy of China.
Helen is the author of Helen Chen’s Chinese Home Cooking (Hearst Books,1994), Peking Cuisine (Orion Books,1997), Helen’s Asian Kitchen: Easy Chinese Stir-Fries (John Wiley & Sons, 2009) and Helen’s Asian Kitchen: Easy Asian Noodles (John Wiley & Sons, 2010). For more information, visit http://www.helensasiankitchen.com/
*Not affiliated with Joyce Chen Products