Years ago, I happened to arrive in San Francisco on the day my calendar said "Chinese New Year." Naturally, I headed for Chinatown, expecting to see all sorts of craziness and get a great dinner.
Instead, the place was a ghost town -- absolutely closed. What kind of New Year celebration is this, I wondered? Well, it turns out everybody was at home -- eating.
When most Americans think of Chinese New Year, they envision parades, dragons, and fireworks. But for thousands of years, food and family have been at the heart of a 15-day celebration of the new year.
First, a few words about the calendar. The traditional Chinese calendar is based on both the moon and the sun. Since a lunar "month" is about 29.5 days, they add an extra month about seven times each 19 years, meaning the date of the new year changes every solar year. This time around, Chinese Year 4704 starts on January 29th.
In traditional China, this event would kick off a celebration that is all about family, community superstition, and food. It ends with the Lantern Festival, highlighted by the dancing-dragon parade which, in America, is always held conveniently on the first weekend after the new year begins.
The communal New Year's Eve feast, known as "surrounding the stove," invites the spirits of ancestors to be honored. Fireworks are shot off at midnight to chase off the old year and make way for the new.
After that, each day has its own traditions, many focused on food, and many of the foods are chosen because of what they sound or look like.
What's served at a New Year's Eve feast might depend on which part of China you're from. In south China, it would be nian gao (sticky-sweet glutinous rice pudding) or zong zi (glutinous rice wrapped up in reed leaves), while in the north you'd have steamed dumplings called jiaozi or steamed-wheat bread called man tou.
The next day, people abstain from meat to ensure long and happy lives. The traditional meal is a vegetarian dish called jai or Buddha's Delight. Among its roughly 30 ingredients are lotus seed (for many male offspring), ginkgo nut (representing silver ingots, or wealth), black moss seaweed (a Chinese homonym that sounds like "rich"), dried bean curd (a homonym for "fulfillment of wealth and happiness"), and bamboo shoots ("wishing that everything would be well").
Apparently, it's easy to make Buddha's Delight -- once you assemble all the ingredients. So if you can find some black tree-ear fungus, dried snow fungus, bean-curd stick, bamboo piths, dried mung-bean thread, Chinese cabbage, and both black and straw mushrooms, knock yourself out.
On the celebration's seventh day, farmers display their produce and make a drink from seven types of vegetables. The seventh day is also considered the birthday of human beings, so everyone eats uncut noodles for longevity and raw fish for success.
Day eight brings another family-reunion dinner, plus a midnight prayer to the God of Heaven. Days 10 through 12 are all about inviting friends and family for more eating. Among the traditional foods might be a whole fish to represent togetherness and abundance or a whole chicken -- head, feet, everything -- to represent completeness. Mmmm, chicken head ...
Spring rolls symbolize wealth, because their shape is similar to gold bars. Plenty of lettuce is eaten because the word for lettuce sounds like "rising fortune." The words for tangerines and oranges sound like "luck" and "wealth."
The word for fish sounds like the words for "wish" and "abundance," and it's served whole to represent the end (tail) of the old year and the start (head) of the new.
Sticky rice cake stands for a rich, sweet life, as well as rising abundance for the coming year -- the higher the cakes rise, the better the year. And the round shape signifies family reunion.
After all this stuffing, on Day 13 the Chinese take a break by eating only rice porridge and mustard greens to cleanse the system. On Day 14 they get ready for the next day's Lantern Festival, during which everyone lights lanterns and eats yuanxioa, a sweet or savory dumpling made from glutinous rice flour that is either boiled or fried.
I got to thinking how Americans might translate some of these traditions to our food culture. I can see us eating lots of "rich" foods, downing bowls of Lucky Charms, eating out of sacks because it sounds like "sex," and who knows what kind of goofiness? I suppose it's best we have parades and leave the food to the experts.