Usher in the Year of the Ox with traditional Chinese food and customs | If I Were You | Indy Week
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Usher in the Year of the Ox with traditional Chinese food and customs 

Happy New Year! Take two


The Duck & Dumpling
222 S. Blount St., Raleigh 838-0085

Fortune Palace
Stony Brook Shopping Center, 2815 Brentwood Road, Raleigh 850-0086

Grand Asia Buffet
Celebration at Six Forks, 7371 Six Forks Road, Raleigh 866-0488

100 Maynard Crossing Court, Cary 466-8888

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.

Lions and dragons and mimes, oh my

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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!"

Chinese New Year Radio
The China Hour on WCOM 103.5 FM, which provides a bilingual weekly program for the local Chinese population in Chapel Hill and Carrboro, will also be celebrating the Chinese New Year over the next few weeks. The program is hosted by Chinese journalists Liuying Shen and Lu Liu and broadcasts Fridays 9-10 a.m. It can also be heard on the Web at —Kelly Behling

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 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 for more traditions, customs and info.

Dumpling chic

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.

Click for larger image • Chef David Mao of Raleigh's Duck & Dumpling will offer a weeklong special menu in honor of Chinese New Year. - PHOTO BY JEREMY M. LANGE

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.

Party like it's 4707

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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."

Click for larger image • Chapel Hill cookbook author Nancie McDermott makes hosting a dumpling party look easy. - PHOTO BY JEREMY M. LANGE

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.

Nancie McDermott's Potsticker Dumplings

These delectable dumplings are first fried, then steamed, endowing them with a fabulous dual texture. Smooth, luscious noodle-like wrapping and tender, meaty filling complement the handsomely browned bottom crust. Round gyoza wrappers, available in Asian markets and many supermarkets, are ideal here; but won ton wrappers work fine if you trim off the four corners before wrapping your dumplings. Though these treats are quick and easy to cook, the mixing and wrapping steps take a little time. You can make them a day ahead and refrigerate or freeze them.

click to enlarge Click for larger image

For the filling:
1 pound ground pork or ground beef, raw
1/4 cup thinly sliced green onion
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 tablespoon Asian sesame oil
2 teaspoons finely chopped fresh ginger
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1/4 cup frozen chopped spinach, thawed

For the dumplings:
36 won ton wrappers or round gyoza wrappers (12-ounce packages contain about 50 wrappers)
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1/2 cup water

In a large bowl, combine the pork, green onions, soy sauce, sesame oil, ginger, salt and sugar. Squeeze the thawed, chopped spinach in your hands or press it into a strainer, extracting much of the water. Add the spinach to the bowl and use a large spoon or your hands to mix everything together until all the seasonings are incorporated and the spinach and green onion are evenly mixed in.

To fold the dumplings, set up a work space with a dry cutting board, a small bowl of water for sealing the dumplings, the stack of won ton wrappers and the pork mixture.

To shape a potsticker dumpling, place a wrapper on the cu tting board. Scoop up a generous teaspoon of pork filling and place it in the center of the wrapper. Dip your index finger into the bowl of water, then lightly moisten the outside edge of the wrapper. Fold it in half, enclosing the filling, and create three small pleats on one side of the seal. Then press the pleated side tightly to the other side and pinch to seal the dumpling closed. Press the smooth plump bottom of the dumpling lightly down on the cutting board, to flatten it and make it stand up straight.

Continue folding the dumplings in this way, one at a time, or setting up three or four wrappers at a time for an assembly line. Place the folded dumplings in rows on a dry platter or a cookie sheet so that they don't touch each other.

Heat a 10-inch nonstick skillet over medium high heat. Add the vegetable oil and swirl to coat the pan. Carefully place about 12 potstickers in the pan, tucking them to form a circle in one direction; squeeze a few into the center if you can. (Packing them tightly is fine.) Place a serving platter by the stove to hold the cooked dumplings.

Let them fry undisturbed for 1 to 2 minutes, until the bottoms are a pale golden brown. Holding the skillet's lid in one hand, add 1/2 cup water around the sides of the pan and then cover quickly. Let cook for 8 minutes, and then uncover the pan.

Continue cooking 1 to 2 minutes more, shaking the pan gently and using a spatula to discourage the potstickers from sticking too much. When the water has mostly evaporated and the dumplings are a handsome, crispy brown, turn them out, bottom side up, onto a serving platter. Serve hot or warm, accompanied by Ginger-Soy Dipping Sauce. Makes about 36 dumplings.

Ginger-Soy Dipping Sauce

This is a standard accompaniment for potstickers. Vinegar and ginger provide a vibrant counterpoint to the richness of the dumplings.

1/4 cup soy sauce
3 tablespoons white vinegar or apple cider vinegar
1 tablespoon chopped fresh ginger
2 teaspoons sugar
2 teaspoons Asian sesame oil
1/2 teaspoon salt

Combine the soy sauce, vinegar, ginger, sugar, sesame oil and salt in a medium bowl. Whisk or stir well to dissolve the sugar and salt, and mix everything together into a thin, smooth sauce. Makes about 1/2 cup.

Click for larger image • Nancie McDermott's finished dumplings - PHOTO BY JEREMY M. LANGE

Cold Sesame Noodles

I adore sesame noodles and marvel at how simple it is to make this satisfying and unusual dish. They taste wonderful warm, at room temperature or cold. Asian noodles are traditional, but linguine or spaghetti, cooked al dente, work fine, and peanut butter makes a tasty and convenient substitute for Asian sesame paste, which is like tahini except that the Asian paste uses toasted sesame seeds. I like to stir the sauce together first, and then cook the noodles just before serving time. I like to add chopped cilantro along with the cucumber for extra flavor and color, and a teaspoon of hot sauce or chili paste for a fiery note. If you add shredded roast chicken, you have a main dish.

For the sauce:
3 tablespoons Asian sesame paste or peanut butter
2 tablespoons soy sauce
2 tablespoons very hot water
2 teaspoons red wine vinegar or apple cider vinegar
2 teaspoons sugar
1 teaspoon Asian sesame oil
1/2 teaspoon salt

For the noodles:
8 ounces fresh Chinese-style egg noodles, or dried spaghetti or linguine
1/3 cup thinly sliced green onion
3 tablespoons chopped, roasted, salted peanuts (optional)
1 cup cucumbers, sliced 1/4 inch thick

In a medium bowl large enough to toss the noodles with the sauce, combine the sesame paste or peanut butter, the soy sauce, hot water, vinegar, sugar, sesame oil and salt. Whisk or stir well to combine into a smooth, thick sauce.

Bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil over high heat. Drop in the noodles and cook until tender but still firm, stirring now and again to separate them and help them cook evenly, about 2 minutes for fresh Asian noodles, and 8 to 10 minutes for spaghetti or linguine.

When the noodles are tender but still firm, drain well and place them in the bowl. Toss well to coat the strands evenly. Add a little more hot water if needed to soften the noodles and distribute the sauce.

Add the green onion, and the peanuts if using them, and toss well. Transfer to a serving bowl or plate, and arrange cucumber slices around the noodles. Serve warm, at room temperature or cold. Serves four.

All recipes reprinted with permission from Nancie McDermott's Quick and Easy Chinese: 70 Everyday Recipes, Chronicle Books (2008).

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