Welcome Chinese (Lunar) New Year, Year of the Rat

Over the weekend, millions of people welcomed the Year of the Rat, the first animal of twelve in the Chinese zodiac. In some cultures, rats are considered to be a sign of wealth and surplus. Married couples pray to the rat to bless them with children.

I had a busy weekend; Constant Companion and Daughter waited for the Chinese-style dinner. Last night was the night to welcome the rat! I chose two recipes gleaned from food newsletters.

I also remembered that long ago, when we lived in Oklahoma, food traditions were part of the annual and short-lived Oklahoma Folk Festival. Fieldwork conducted statewide found talented individuals who mastered foods traditional to their communities. Many of them were featured at the festival, cooking their specialties. Another outcome of this initiative was the soft-bound cookbook – Oklahoma Cooks – which long predates the Food Network and blog star, Pioneer Woman.

One of the cooks I got to know made her special Luck in Surplus Around the Year fish at the festival. As she said, “There is an old Chinese saying, ‘head of the new year, tail of the old’ to describe the most important day of the Chinese lunar year.” This sentiment is so similar to Sephardic traditions at the Jewish New Year (see Sept. 27 post). She also noted that New Year’s food certainly includes fish. Fish (‘yu’) has the same sound as the word for ‘surplus.’” Here’s her recipe:

Ingredients

Whole fish, including head and tail

3 cups of frying oil

1 ½ tsp salt

1 ½ tsp white pepper

2 slices fresh ginger

2 scallions (spring onions)

Directions

Rub whole fish whole fish inside and outside with salt and pepper. Set aside for 30 minutes.

Fry fish five minutes in heated oil.

Dip fish in any kind of dressing when eating it.

Following my Greek Jewish tradition for Chinese New Year, I prepared another fish recipe for dinner along with an interesting noodle dish.  

Whole Black Bass with Ginger and Scallion (from Epicurious)

Ingredients

1 (3-lb) whole black bass or sea bass (not Chilean), cleaned, leaving head and tail intact

(I used 2 branzinos)

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 bunch scallions, white and pale green parts cut into very thin 2-inch strips and greens reserved separately

1 (1-inch) piece fresh ginger, peeled and cut into very thin matchsticks

3 tablespoons light soy sauce (I stick to the Kikkoman of my youth)

1/4 teaspoon sugar

1 tablespoon peanut or vegetable oil

Special Equipment

a large shallow baking dish (about 15 by 10 inches) to fit inside a 17- by 12- by 2 1/2-inch roasting pan; heavy-duty foil; a well-seasoned 14-inch flat-bottomed wok

Preparation

  1. Put oven rack in middle position and preheat oven to 400°F. Put baking dish in roasting pan.
  2. Rinse fish and pat dry, then rub inside and out with salt. Transfer to baking dish and sprinkle with scallion strips (white and pale green) and ginger.
  3. Stir together soy sauce and sugar until sugar is dissolved, then pour over fish. Add enough boiling-hot water to roasting pan to reach halfway up side of baking dish. Oil a large sheet of heavy-duty foil, then tent foil (oiled side down) over fish and tightly seal around roasting pan. Carefully transfer roasting pan to oven and bake until fish is just cooked through, 30 to 35 minutes.
  4. While fish bakes, cut enough scallion greens diagonally into very thin slices to measure 1/2 cup (reserve remainder for another use).
  5. (I did not do this step, sorry) Just before serving, remove foil from fish and sprinkle with scallion greens. Heat wok over high heat until a bead of water vaporizes instantly. Pour oil around side of wok, then tilt wok to swirl oil, coating side, and heat until smoking. Remove from heat and immediately pour oil over scallion greens and fish.

Symbolism is intertwined with the foods eaten for the Chinese New Year. Noodles, especially longevity noodles, are a food associated with luck and long life. I made a noodle dish as the side dish. They were pretty long, though not quite longevity.

Scallion-Oil Noodles

Ingredient

10 scallions

¾ cup vegetable oil

1 lb. lo mein noodles

¼ cup soy paste (I used miso since I did not have soy paste)

2 Tbsp soy sauce

Preparation

1. Cut scallions crosswise into thirds, separating dark green parts from white and pale green parts. Slice lengthwise into very thin strips, keeping dark green and white parts separate.

(I think I burned the scallions; I’ll watch them more closely next time.)

2.  Pour oil into a cold large wok or high-sided skillet. Add white parts of scallions to oil and set over medium-low. Cook until oil starts to bubble, about 5 minutes. Add dark green parts of scallions and stir to combine. Cook, stirring occasionally, until scallions are crisped and deep golden brown, 20–30 minutes. Do not rush this; slow, gradual browning as the liquid in the scallions evaporates will yield the best flavor.

3.  Using a spider or slotted spoon, transfer scallions to paper towels to drain. Let scallions and oil cool. Pour oil through a fine-mesh sieve into an airtight container; discard solids. Cover and chill scallion oil until ready to use.

4.  Cook noodles in a large pot of boiling water according to manufacturer’s directions, adding 1 Tbsp. reserved scallion oil to the cooking water when you add the noodles. Drain noodles, reserving ½ cup cooking liquid, and return to pot. Add ½ cup scallion oil and toss to coat. Add soy paste and toss to combine. Add soy sauce and toss again, adding cooking liquid as needed to loosen sauce.

5. Transfer noodles to a bowl or platter and top with three-fourths of crispy scallions. Serve with remaining scallions in a small bowl alongside.

  • Do Ahead: Scallions can be fried 1 day ahead. Keep scallion oil chilled; store scallions between layers of paper towels in an airtight container at room temperature.

We enjoyed a great Chinese New Year dinner, if I don’t say so myself. I recommend these recipes to anyone, any time of the year.

Japanese Interpretation of the zodiac, ca. 1953

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