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Chinese New Year: Eating for Long Life

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(Sacramento, CA)
Monday, February 22, 2010


Lily Chan is checking out the menu at Asian Pearl restaurant. It flutters open to many pages, but Chan lands on a special menu for Chinese New Year.


…Sea cucumber and clams, dried oysters and veggies, dried scallops, cashew nut chicken and prawns and pork …this is a great mix right there …

She could order exotic items off the regular menu. But Chan knows that Chinese New Year is for celebrating, not for making life difficult. So, she does what’s easiest. Chan picks out one of the pre-planned menus.


You could call it blue plate special? They call it woh choi. It’s one fixed family meal.


But it’s an elegant meal. New Year is when Asian restaurants strut their stuff.  For new year, special dishes and ingredients are pulled together that foretell health, fortune, long life and plain old luck.


Lily Chan: Usually it’s very well balanced, like a fish, chicken…

Johnson Chan: Because it brings good luck.


That’s Johnson Chan, Lily’s husband.


Elaine: Why does a chicken bring good luck?

Johnson:  That’s what my parents told me. HA HA! But the word chicken in Chinese, it has the luck word in it. Chicken is called guy, and “hoh sigh guy” means you’re going to, you know, have fortune.

Elaine: You’re kind of eating for fate?

Johnson: Yeah, but being American-born, we’re just following tradition.


Some traditional foods are obvious. Seeds, like lotus seeds, mean lots of children. Whole fish means wholeness and abundance. For long life, there’s long noodles and green long-beans. You get the idea. New Year diners take it for granted that symbolic foods will be somewhere on a fixed-price menu. So they order Menu A or Menu B – whatever -- and sit back and wait for the food to land on the table. Paul Wong is drinking tea at a table of 10 that includes his wife, children and his parents.


Elaine: What did you order?

Paul : Oh they had a set Chinese New Year menu, uh, I don’t remember what was in there}


Tim Wong: And crabs, you know, usually with scallion. I have to look at a menu again.


A menu is returned to the table by a server. Here’s what father and son forgot they ordered:


Tim Wong: Barbecue pork platter, dry oyster with vegetables, shark fin soup ….

Paul Wong: Oh, and twin lobsters with ginger and scallion.


For Dolly Yee, indulging in a New Year banquet is about more than just food.


Dolly Yee: Getting together with family. That’s No. 1. What better way than over a meal?


Chinese New Year isn’t just one day, and for most who celebrate it, it’s not just one meal, either. For Johnson Chan, this night’s family gathering is just the beginning.


Johnson Chan: Actually this is my wife’s side of the family. Tuesday it’ll be with MY side of the family at my parents’ house. … it goes on and on and on…


Which means more opportunities to partake of lucky ingredients, like tea eggs, for fertility. Some restaurants stretch Chinese New Year to about a month. And, anyone can order a new year banquet. If you need good fortune, it’s worth a try.  
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