Gung Hay Fat Choy!
Happy Chinese New Year, everyone! Today marks the start of the Year of the Rabbit, which means that celebrants of this Lunar New Year festival all over the world will be gathering with family, feasting on lucky dishes, and adorning their homes with fresh flowers and red decorations.
For those of us who are into astrology and fun stuff like that, people born under the sign of the Rabbit are said to be gracious, calm-natured, amiable, intuitive, compassionate, and appreciative of the aesthetic and beautiful in life (among a myriad of other “attributes”). James Beard (born 1903) was a rabbit, Michael Ruhlman (1963) is a rabbit, as is Jamie Oliver (1975). Although fortunetellers’ predictions for this year are tumultuous, it won’t put a damper on the festivities.
After you’ve worked up an appetite, lion dancing and such, continue celebrating with some good Chinese Eats. Here are a few standout dishes that will have firecrackers going off in your mouth:
1) Egg Tarts (Golden Gate Bakery)
Egg Tarts (don tat) are the quintessential Chinese pastry, found in any self-respectable Chinese bakery or dim sum house. Growing up, whenever it was holiday time, someone would always bring a box of these sweet treats to the hostess (kind of like the bundt cake of our culture, if you will). The pink bakery box (why is it that the red ribbon holding it together always had a gazillion impossible knots to get through before you could dig in?) would sit on the kitchen counter all day along with the other items put out for grazing.
Golden Gate Bakery is a mecca for egg tart lovers. Devout worshippers line up out the door as fresh batches of these egg custard pastries — with their warm creamy filling, flaky crust, and gentle price — are churned out.
2) Prawns with Honey Walnuts (Canton Dim Sum & Seafood)
Canton Dim Sum & Seafood in SoMa features not only dim sum on its daily menu, but it also offers some traditional banquet dishes as well. Their Prawns with Honey Walnuts is a classic favorite. Succulent shrimp are dusted in cornstarch and fried. They are then coated in a slightly sweet mayonnaise sauce (similar to tartar sauce) and served with candied walnuts sprinkled with sesame seeds. The sweet-savory combo in this dish is great. For a DIY version, I like this Honey Walnut Shrimp recipe from Rasa Malaysia.
3) Marinated Tofu (Asian Pearl Seafood Restaurant)
I know, it isn’t very often that a tofu dish gets your panties in a bunch. I mean, how exciting can tofu get? That was before I tasted the Marinated Tofu at Asian Pearl Seafood Restaurant. In Cantonese, this dish is called Lo Sui Dao Fu, which literally translated, means “old water tofu.” My mom tells me it’s because restaurants that make this kind of tofu marinate it in stocks and juices leftover from other dishes. May not sound so appealing, but believe me, whatever is in that old water is working some magic because this dish will turn any tofu-hater into a believer. The silky smooth texture of the tofu is unreal, and seems even more so highlighted by the contrasting crunchiness of the fried casing around it. Light as air, this tofu will have you floating into the new year with a smile on your face.
4) Xiao Long Bao (Shanghai Dumpling King)
Dumplings are a traditional lucky food to ring in the New Year, said to bring good fortune and wealth because of its money purse-like shape. My dumpling of choice? Shanghai Dumpling King’s Xiao Long Bao. These labor-intensive steamed soup dumplings of love are soul-satisfying. Once you bite through the thin, smooth wrapping, your mouth is flooded with a shock of hot, rich broth, and savory pork filling. Also utterly addictive are the Shanghai Style Crispy Salt Pancakes. They look nothing like pancakes, and resemble more of a rectangular folded crepe. Cut into pieces, the amazingly crispy, sesame seed-sprinkled, fried exterior gives way to a molten center of cabbage and coconut milk-scented batter.
5) Faux Shark’s Fin Soup (Benu)
Chef Corey Lee at Benu has taken the celebrated (and controversial) Chinese delicacy, shark’s fin soup, and elevated it to mind-blowing proportions with his faux “Shark’s Fin” Soup. His creation is a work of art, from the harmonious melding of flavors right down to the custom-made bowl it’s served in. The dish is presented with a silky black truffle custard at the bottom of the bowl. Lee doesn’t skimp on this luxurious treat either – there is more portioned than you think because the bowl has a special indented groove carved out of the bottom. Placed on top of the custard is a sweet piece of Dungeness crab and strands of faux shark’s fin (the texture, by the way, is spot on -– you’d never know it wasn’t real shark’s fin). Your server then pours into the bowl an intensely flavored broth of dry-cured Jinhua ham. Now that is a way to start of the New Year like an emperor.
This post was originally published on KQED’s Bay Area Bites on February 2, 2011.