For me, New Year's Eve is the worst night of the year, that last gasp of December when you invariably spend way too much money trying way too hard to do something "memorable." Restaurants are overbooked and overpriced, drivers and servers are overworked and overtired, and I always end up on a sidewalk somewhere, teeth chattering, checking my watch, thinking there's got to be a better way to celebrate renewal.
That's why it's so exciting to have a second chance to do this properly.
Chinese New Year, also called Lunar New Year or Spring Festival, falls on the date of the second new moon after the first day of winter. This year, that's Jan. 26. For two weeks, the holiday will be celebrated with food, festivity and sometimes fireworks, all across Asia and in many international cities like London, New York, San Francisco, Sydney, Vancouver—and, yes, Raleigh.
Thanks to the Triangle Area Chinese-American Society (TACAS), founded in 1979, Raleigh now has its own Chinese New Year festival. What started out five years ago as a small gathering of a few members and their families has grown to a major event at the State Fairgrounds, with 5,000 people attending last year.
This year's festival, scheduled for Saturday, Jan. 24, is open to the public and will thrill the senses with Chinese food, arts and crafts, dance, and singing, says Cyndy Yu-Robinson, spokeswoman for TACAS.
"It's eight and a half hours of nonstop entertainment on a big stage with two off-stage opportunities," says Yu-Robinson.
From Chinese opera, mime and ribbon dances to traditional Chinese music played on the er-hu and zither, festivalgoers can immerse themselves in Chinese culture. Also expect a return of last year's hit, an American Idol-style talent competition.
Of course, the dragon and lion dances are the big kid-pleasers.
"The dragon is held by eight people. Getting 16 feet to do the same thing at the right time is a lot more difficult than it looks. The lion dance, what a lot of people are familiar with, is one person in front, one in back. They're very rambunctious, very rowdy! The kids who are performing are all Chinese-American teens. It's a pretty energetic performance. If people come, they'll have a great time!" promises Yu-Robinson.
Come hungry. Booths will feature an array of authentic Chinese dishes.
"When you come in, there are a lot of tea samplings and other samplings for free, and then if you want to purchase other snacks, you can do that from $1 to $6. It's not going to just be spring rolls, there's going to be a lot of dumplings, a lot of steamed buns with date and nut fillings.
"And Buddha's Light International Association is going to be serving all vegetarian food. From them, you can expect things like wheat gluten made to look like duck. Those are quite tasty!"
Another Triangle group, The Chinese-American Friendship Association, hosts a New Year's show featuring Chinese music, dancing, fashion and other entertainment at UNC's Memorial Hall Feb. 8 from 3 to 6 p.m. See www.cafanc.org for more info.
If you miss out on the festivals, or if they inspire further curiosity, go out for an authentic Chinese New Year meal during the 14 days of the holiday, which officially begins the night of Jan. 25. Yu-Robinson suggests getting a large group together, say 8 to 10 people, and calling ahead to Neo-China in Cary or Fortune Palace in Raleigh and asking them to do a banquet-style dinner for you. Pick a price range, and then allow the kitchen free rein. If the idea of a banquet sounds intimidating, remember it's simply a family-style meal. Yu-Robinson says it can be surprisingly affordable.
"My parents are first-generation Americans; they came off the boat. A lot of Chinese are very, very frugal," she says. "Anything that's marked up beyond what they think it's worth, they won't go and enjoy."
Yu-Robinson also praises Grand Asia Buffet in North Raleigh for its combination of authenticity and affordability.
"All the other stuff we've found [in the Triangle] is a little more food-court-ish, more Americanized. You know it's going to taste the same as every other takeout."
The TACAS Chinese New Year Festival will be held at the Exposition Center at the N.C. Fairgrounds Saturday, Jan. 24, 9 a.m.-6 p.m. Tickets are $5 in advance through eTix and at area Asian markets, and $8 at the door. Children 6 and under are free. See www.nctacas.org for more traditions, customs and info.
For more than 30 years, the restaurants of Chef David Mao have been many Raleigh diners' preferred home for Chinese food, and their palates have evolved with him. His Mandarin House, a Cameron Village legend for more than two decades, served popular versions of the heavily sauced standards most Americans know as Chinese food.
In 2003, Mao opened his magnum opus, The Duck & Dumpling, facing Moore Square in downtown Raleigh. The décor became sleeker as the menu grew skinnier, focusing on a handful of dishes done exceedingly well, with authentic Chinese and Vietnamese ingredients. The restaurant even developed a custom martini menu, with drinks like the Asian Pear, featuring sake and spiced pear juice.
The Duck & Dumpling has been recognized by Southern Living and has become a darling of other chefs in the area. As a reminder of its whimsical urban cool, the logo—a calligraphic profile of a duck—is projected at night by floodlight, Batman-style, high on a brick wall.
Despite all this attention, Mao is a quiet, polite presence, often visiting tables to check on customers and humbly agreeing to cook off-menu when asked. At a recent lunchtime, Mao approached a table of three businessmen, who were clearly honored to have his personal attention, though they affected nonchalance.
"Can you do something with pork, um, and tofu, and eggplant? Would that work together?" one asked, hesitantly. Mao nodded sagely and returned to his kitchen.
The Duck & Dumpling has planned a special menu for the first week of Chinese New Year. It will begin at dinnertime Saturday, Jan. 24, and end on the following Saturday. The lunch menu features dumplings for family unity, spring rolls for wealth, moo shu duck for fidelity, orange chicken for good fortune, and daikon cakes for a rich, sweet life. The dinner menu will include all of the above, as well as a meatball dish called Lion's Head for power and strength, and roast duck breast for those who need a little extra fidelity this year.
Mao recounts some of the other traditions he grew up with.
"For the kids, you give lucky money in red envelopes, new clothing, new shoes. . . . At home, people eat the whole fish, head, tail, everything. If it's chicken, they eat the whole chicken. It's for the superstitions in your life, for good luck. When you sweep your house, you sweep to the corner, not out the door, because you don't want to sweep out all the good luck!"
Mao is willing to cook a special family meal, given a bit of notice.
"He can do anything," general manager Olivia Griego adds, smiling proudly at Mao. "He'll do Peking duck. Remember the Chinese New Year party we did?
"It was 10 kids and 10 adults. We had a flaming volcano that had beef all around it; we had a whole fish for them. They'd adopted children from China so they were really trying to embrace that culture. The only thing they said they didn't want was jellyfish, and then they ordered jellyfish. And all the kids loved it."
Mao was born in the Year of the Monkey. According to the Chinese Culture Center of San Francisco, "people born in the Year of the Monkey are the erratic geniuses of the cycle. Clever, skillful, and flexible, they are remarkably inventive and original and can solve the most difficult problems with ease."
If only he could bake that into a cake.
Thousands of years ago, before state fairgrounds and American Idol, Chinese New Year was celebrated at home. It was a time for cleaning, eating and pleasing the kitchen gods.
Nancie McDermott, author of the new cookbook Quick And Easy Chinese, celebrates Chinese New Year at her Chapel Hill home with her husband and daughter, who are Chinese-American. Their table, as one can imagine, is full of treats, both sweet and savory.
"Fried spring rolls are a big New Year dish, and that's one reason they're called spring rolls, because in the Chinese tradition, New Year is considered spring."
Chinese New Year is rich with symbols; images and language are very important.
"Spring rolls are thought to look like gold bars. There's the play on shapes of things and what things look like, and then a lot of word play, which we [Westerners] can't really appreciate because we don't know the original word much less the 'sounds like' thing," says McDermott.
For example, black moss seaweed, though it looks disturbingly hairy, is eaten because its name, fa cai, is a homonym for "exceeding in wealth." Likewise, the translation of "dried bean curd" is a homonym for happiness, but don't show up at your neighbor's with fresh bean curd, because its white color signifies death and misfortune. However, just-picked oranges left on the stem are welcome; the orangey/gold implies wealth, the leaves signify completeness.
"Whole fish is beloved in Chinese culture because it's complete, it's in its entirety. Something that's considered whole is considered auspicious. Anything that reminds people of money, of gold—it's not just money, but things that are symbolic of success, well-being, health, prosperity," explains McDermott.
"The classic Chinese New Year thing is to make dumplings. Actually, people have dumpling parties, particularly in Northern China. Rolling up the dough—flour and water—and rolling out little circles. Filling it with ground pork and cabbage, real simple filling, then you boil some and fry some. People come over and set up an assembly line and make a bunch and eat, and make some more, and everybody takes some home."
McDermott is a practical woman. If it's a year where they don't have time for a dumpling party, she's not ashamed to run down to Classic Silver Wok grocery in Chapel Hill for a bag of pre-made dumplings: "They are a very delicate dumpling. You buy them in a sack, and they're frozen, and you can just cook them off and keep the pot going all evening long."
But if you have even an hour or two, it's worth it to prep the ingredients and go homemade. McDermott shares her delicious and very manageable dumpling recipe below, as well as her recipe for Cold Sesame Noodles. Your friends will surely agree that a dumpling party is the most curious fun they've had (in the kitchen) in years. Besides, some guys might be relieved to attend a party where tofu is verboten.