By Assunta Ng
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
The highlight of my family’s Lunar New Year feasts have always been the chicken. Why chicken?
It’s never duck, goose, lobster, or beef. The flat bills of ducks and geese make it look as if they are sad and crying, as my grandma used to say. The chicken has a “smiling” beak. It’s quite amusing when I listen to the rationale some Chinese people have for their Lunar New Year traditions.
In ancient China, eating chicken had always been considered a luxury for the rich. But once a year, people splurge on chicken, as it was a special occasion.
I didn’t dare to question anything adults did when I was a child. And even though it sounds silly, I still follow many of my family’s traditions during Lunar New Year. Those are endearing memories of my grandma and mother. Yes, my mom followed many of her mother’s rituals, too.
Grandma’s reason for fixing the chicken served another purpose. The Buddha would eat first before we did. Well, figuratively. The full chicken, with its head, tail, and legs, would be placed on the most beautiful and expensive plate we owned. Along with tangerines and oranges (also symbols of luck), the chicken will be placed in front of the mini shrine, to thank Buddha for his blessings during the year. Incense would be burnt. According to grandma, the spirits and gods would be present to devour the chicken. Can you imagine the power of the chicken to lure gods and spirits to visit our home just by its smell? Can you not giggle about the supernatural beings being so gluttonous?
How to cook chicken
We were not allowed to eat until the gods had their first taste. It was worth the wait. Grandma was a fantastic cook. Like many Chinese families, she steamed or boiled the chicken. Both methods made the chicken delicious, as they retained the original taste of the bird. Timing is critical when steaming, as well as boiling.
Put ginger and green onion inside the chicken stomach after you wash the chicken. Steam for about 30 minutes, depending on the size of the chicken.
The merit for boiling is that you get two dishes out of the chicken, soup and the meat. You can get the best chicken broth by boiling the chicken in low heat. Some chefs place the chicken in hot water in a covered big pot. Turn off the heat and allow it to cook for 30 minutes. Add green onions, lots of ginger, and a little salt so the chicken can absorb the flavors. Wait for 30 minutes to cool before you cut it.
My Vietnamese Chinese friend shared with me that boiled chicken is also popular in Vietnam during Lunar New Year. To make the dish look festive, put green onions in the chicken’s mouth or a red date, according to my friend. The legs should be a part of the decor on the side.
Grandma was a wonderful cook. The chicken was always cooked perfectly. What I enjoyed most was the drumstick, the dark meat. In the old days, no one in the family was allowed to take the whole drumstick. “It’s rude to take the best part of the chicken,” mom would say. Not the chicken breast. Imagine how typical Americans would react. Grandma would probably laugh at Americans as not-so-smart eaters.
Like a professional chef, grandma chopped the bird with a big knife into many pieces, then arranged them back together like a whole chicken, like many Chinese restaurants do. The noise of the big knife on the thick chopping board rings vividly in my ears. She was a strong woman.
Today, I can afford as many drumsticks as I want. Drumsticks are a great source of protein. One study said, eating four drumsticks a day would be a sufficient amount of protein. Yet, I prefer only to chew and suck on the juice from the bone, rather than the meat on the drumstick. Usually, I give the meat to my husband or my son. Dark meat close to the bones are my favorite bites. I’m not that strange.
Many Chinese immigrants share this preference. In fact, I have to “fight” for our bone pieces when dining with Chinese friends.
Like my last blog about serving fish during the New Year, the whole chicken symbolizes family unity, and a good beginning and end. The end means we are going to get results in what we do. And a good beginning will generate a great ending. This is the first time in America that I bought a chicken with its head still attached, not because I am superstitious, but because I needed to take a photo for this article. You can buy chicken with a head in all Chinatown barbecue restaurants during Lunar New Year. You just need to pay a few extra bucks.
Decades ago when I first came to America, I grumbled about the terrible frozen chickens. In Asia, we consume fresh chickens. You can buy much better quality chicken at Seattle’s Asian supermarkets — natural, organic, and free-range chickens. Many Chinatown restaurants offer free-range chicken. The meat tastes so much better.
There are many ways to cook chicken. You don’t have to settle for steamed chicken because some people consider it too bland. Try it barbecued or roasted.
Or simply bake it. Chicken is a flexible bird. You can experiment with all kinds of cooking methods and it will still taste marvelous.
In Chinese culture, the meaning associated with consuming prawns is heartwarming. The more you eat, the more laughter it can produce. Prawns, pronounced as “ha,” has a similar sound to laughing in Chinese. The entree name for prawns is called Ha Ha, like a big laugh!
Eat prawns on New Year’s Eve and during New Year, and you will laugh all year round. Even though it might not be true, I like to condition my brain in building up the capacity for laughter out of the most ordinary situations. The ability to find humor in daily life, is a gift. I intend to harness that gift.
Another one of my favorite dishes during New Year is oysters, which have the same sound as “good things.” We can never get tired of good things happening, right!? So go to Chinese restaurants, and order an oyster dish. Deep-fried oysters, steamed oysters with green onion and ginger, and hot pot with oysters and pork bellies are popular during this time of the year.
If you are making the oysters yourself, you can go to ID grocery stores and buy oysters in shells. You can steam them with black bean sauce or other sauces you prefer, or bake it with cheese sauce.
If a Chinese restaurant tells a customer that they are out of oysters, the customer might get upset. “What? We can’t have good things happening?” might be their response.
Lunar New Year gave me some of my happiest childhood memories. The fabulous food and the lucky money we received, plus no school for a week, led us to believe that Lunar New Year was better than Christmas. In the Year of the Dog, have a hearty Lunar New Year meal with your loved ones. Make sure you eat all the goodies to spread the best karma every day.
Assunta can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.