Saturday, February 20, 2010

Epicurean Adventures: Chinese New Year Gluttony

No matter the language, the culture, or other silly differences that we silly humans point out to ostracize ourselves from one another, there is one recurrent theme that runs through the majority of holidays: gluttony. A sin it may be, but feasts are one of the most anticipated parts of family gatherings, and the Chinese are no different.

The way Chinese New Year works in my family, is we close down the restaurant a bit early and gather three of the front room tables together.  We then proceed to slowly but steadily fill all three tables up with so much food, one serving plate per table, that rice is forbidden (Dad's had no luck at all with enforcing this) and you only have about six inches of space to claim on the table.

Here's a smattering of what was had (since I apparently forgot to take shots of a bunch of dishes in my feeding frenzy ...)

The hand-battered fried flounder was one of the first things to come out, puffy and crisp, sweet and salty fish beneath a golden crust with an airy center. The cold cuts behind my mother's finger are cold Chinese roast beef and apparently soy-marinated squid.

This is the mandatory soup that we're supposed to all share for good health, luck, and fortune for the coming year. My sisters and I usually dread this, since this traditional soup has what's called a Golden Egg that needs to be eaten by everyone. This said Egg is not very pleasant. It's a hard-boiled egg, peeled, which is fine. But then, it's deep fried and tossed into soup. Things that are crunchy that get forced into submissive bubbled up sogginess on the outer layer, and maintain a total blandness inside? Not so great. However, the wontons in this soup were little dumplings of pork wrapped in a meat-based wrapper, which was interesting, and the home-made fish balls (like meatballs, except with fish ... it's spongy, not very fishy, and definitely unique - and not nearly as gross as it sounds) were a novelty as they're often store-bought.

My sister's boyfriend Jordan merely call these (and correct me if I'm wrong, Su-Yee) "Best Pork." I only know the name for them in Cantonese, but I hear the word "gold" in it, so I assume that must have to do with the sauce. Anyway, tender pork chops on a tiny bit of bone are fried up and tossed in a special Chinese balsamic vinegar glaze and seasonings for a sweet-and-sour taste that's beyond what take-out customers have ever experienced. A Cantonese dish, it's flavorful, sweet, pungent, acidic, and juicy all at the same time.

Lightly coated in a dry batter, fried, and tossed in a lemony sauce, this firm white fish boasted flesh that was sweet and odorless, due to its extreme freshness. The diced bell peppers gave the sauce a crunchy green taste (you know what I mean) and created an unexpected flavor and texture.

Okay, now this is one of my favorites, in front of roast duck, another favorite - garlic and honey glazed pork ribs. Chopped into bite-sized pieces, each little rib is coated with a dry batter, quickly fried, and tossed in a delectably sweet, rich glaze that has a nice acidic bite to counteract the honey and detracts from the obviousness of that flavor. I think there are also finely diced scallions in there, too. Multi-leveled flavor, the essence of this dish is hard to capture in words. I'm not sure about the authenticity, but I've been enjoying these since I was a kid. They're equally good cold, but don't hold up too well in the toaster oven, I found.

Giant wild-caught shrimp, with a saltier flavor than farm-raised shrimp, simply boiled whole to be beheaded and shelled at the table. My dad was really excited about them since they were massive ocean shrimp, but the brininess kept it from being a hit.

Japanese seaweed salad was apparently a novelty my parents have decided they're into. Did you know that shit comes in a bag?! After I found that out, I was kind of disappointed since I've been paying $4 per tiny little bowl of the stuff at sushi restaurants, and being happy about it. Anyway, if you've never had it, it's great stuff -- crisp and tossed in sesame oil and some dried chili flakes for interest, with toasted sesame seeds throughout. The sliced stuff on the side is cold thin-sliced giant clam.

So that, ladies and gentlemen, is what ten pounds of lobster looks like cut up, lightly fried, and tossed in a soy-based, garlic and scallion light sauce that barely even classifies as a sauce since the flavor gets absorbed into the succulent, sweet Maine lobster meat, leaving minimal liquid at the bottom of the tray. The juices and sauce instead are trapped in the lobster shell while cooking and being served to burst into fully realized flavor the second it leaves that shell and enters your mouth. Each piece, per Chinese tradition, is cut to a big bite size, and a plastic fork is all you need to yoink that delicious meat right out. 

Forgoteen are the pictures of the chicken with a garlic paste and the roast duck (my hands got to greasy to hold a camera with; in my uncle Mike's words, I eat like a "barbarian"), which is different than the Peking duck we had last year (thin-sliced butterflied and roasted duck wrapped into fluffy white mantau buns with fresh scallions/cucumbers and hoisin sauce), but also awesome in its rich gamey, dark-meat flavor. Also not included are the Littleneck clams and Long Island oysters my dad simply didn't have time to cook. However, the copious amounts of food straining the table's capacity and later, our waistlines, left those items far from missed.


  1. I think "Best Pork" is actually called Peking pork chops in real chinese food restaurants. And I don't think that one tray of lobster was the whole ten pounds! Maybe five...

  2. Dad bought 10 lbs. Ergo, there were 10 pounds. And the "Best Pork" is something with the word "gold" in it in Cantonese, so who knows? Lol.