By Tiffany Ran
Northwest Asian Weekly
As early as I can remember, I loved firecrackers.
My father started me out early, at the age of 2, celebrating Chinese New Year on the streets of Taiwan. My tiny hand gripped a lit punk. He held me up and guided my hand toward a row of hanging firecrackers and, with that, jumpstarted the tradition of Chinese New Year with a bang.
Once lit, the firecrackers popped with veracity, lighting up the electric air.
In my excitement, I nearly leapt from my father’s arms toward the flame, clapping and laughing, my inner pyro sated. Families cheered, the dark night glowed, and the smell of gunpowder danced with the aroma of New Year dishes wafting from nearby houses.
As a child, I felt this energy grazing my skin, lifting the hairs on the back of my neck. It made all the food taste better, the fragrances more evocative. To me, the firecrackers popped to a musical beat.
When my mother told me about the Chinese Kitchen God, a god that presides over the kitchen and leaves before the New Year to report the year’s events to the other gods in the heavens, I assumed that the reports on my house wouldn’t be too positive.
After my parents divorced, I was raised by my father, a single parent, and many of our New Year’s were spent eating leftovers, while watching television or ordering nontraditional dishes from a nearby restaurant.
Stories of the Kitchen God and bright mythical lions that danced in my childhood dreams, as sugar plums do the night before Christmas, eventually gave way to the more practical demands and burdens in our family — strife between family members, divorce, distance, and the fact that in the States, the Lunar New Year often fell on unremarkable weekdays when we weren’t given days off from work or school. I am sure it is this way for many families who have immigrated, perhaps more so for those who have lived in the States much longer.
It pains me when I hear Asian Americans say that the Lunar New Year is just a holiday to get money, because money was not my focus growing up. I rarely had the chance to spend New Year’s with my family.
When I was 11, I remember watching my aunties taking turns cutting the nian gao and tossing pieces into the pan. A savory humidity filled the kitchen as they chatted away, while tending to a soup bubbling away in an earthenware pot.
The nian gao, a cake made of rice flour, is cut into pieces and used for sweet or savory applications. It is added into soups or stir fried or, when made with sweet red bean paste, pan fried, and served as a dessert. Nian gao literally means year cake. The word gao, or cake, has the same homonym as the Chinese word for high. We eat year cake on New Year’s, to start the New Year high.
Meanwhile, the young ones made their rounds with the elders, wishing everyone wealth, prosperity, and good health, receiving money in red envelopes in return. But my focus was on the sweet nian gao. I went to grab them, fresh off the pan, burning the tips of my fingers (a slap on the wrist from the Kitchen God, I’m sure).
Google “Chinese New Year food” and you’re bound to run into the word superstition. While everyone else is resolute on abstaining from vices and losing weight, our New Year prescribes noodles, long noodles for a long life, and a whole steamed fish for abundance, as the Chinese word for fish, yu, has the same homonym as the word for abundance.
Dishes like dumplings, soy-wrapped meat balls, and egg rolls are made long to look like gold bars for wealth. Tangerines, with the leaves attached, stacked for luck, are also on the list.
The eyes of many people — even Asians — no longer see the source of our luck, life, abundance, and wealth as coming from these dishes, and we chuckle at the idea that a god would preside in the kitchen, where families would gather and be nourished.
I have long loved food, but such reasoning led me farther away from it. Over the years, I traded nian gao sampling for studying or for a longer night’s rest after a school day. I slowly lost touch with that kinetic energy that used to visit every year.
I ended up going to law school but dropped out after a year, much to my father’s dismay. I thirsted for another kitchen in which to belong. My leaving law school was such a shock and disappointment for my family that when I moved to Seattle to work with, learn, and write about food, it was the last thing I ever expected would bring my family together.
As terms like farm-to-table, fermenting, preserving, and charcuterie began to pop up in the food industry in Seattle, I struggled to explain these concepts to my family members.
It’s not like they didn’t understand the concepts — in fact, they understood them more than most of us do — but they came to believe the world had progressed beyond the necessary practices that had been prevalent in their youth.
They were doubtful, insisting that I look into more practical or lucrative endeavors. I knew they were secretly curious and excited, like I would be if my granddaughter living in a time of teleportation thought it a vital part of her adolescence to adopt an Alanis Morissette Jagged Little Pill phase.
One relative after another would pull me aside and share with me a dish from their childhood. I could see that my family had felt that same energy that once tickled my skin and warmed me so thoroughly that even my eyelids felt flushed.
My grandfather recounted his mother’s salt-cured rooster. My father talked about his mother’s spicy pickled cabbage. In Shanghai, my mother pointed out the rows of air-dried fish hanging from the ceiling of an outdoor market, like rows of swaying fans. My aunt spoke of her difficult childhood in China after the Communist takeover, when she air dried bamboo shoots in the mountains to get through the harsh winters.
Slowly, their stories emerged, under the guise of food, once silenced by heartbreak, war, and the earnestness to keep me focused on the progressive developments they believed would ensure me a better life.
After hearing these stories, I decided to bring Chinese New Year back into my life, even if it meant I was the only one in Seattle wearing red and I had to prepare and eat much of the food by myself.
A Western saying, “to keep the home fires burning,” should no less apply if our homes are different from those our parents knew, if our home is where we live alone, or even if we’ve had to leave home behind.
Take the time to replenish our luck, restore our health, enjoy abundance, and hope for prosperity. For me, it is not superstition, but rather a closure to a year and restoring a brighter outlook for the upcoming year. And, if we must be practical, this will be the time to use up the winter’s batch of preserved vegetables, cured meats, and dried seafood in an earthy soup of land and sea, to warm us before spring. I decided to bring Chinese New Year back into my life, when cherishing my life and history usurps most everyday practical notions. I think even the stern, omnipresent Kitchen God would approve. (end)
Visit Tiffany Ran’s food blog at www.palateb2w.com.
She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.