February 11, 2010

Celebrating Lunar New Year with cookies

There is nothing more exciting in San Francisco this time of year, except perhaps for the Cherry Blossoms, than the big celebrations around the lunar New Year. All the populations that follow the Asian Zodiac have wonderful ways to highlight the changing year, and this year is no exception with our own Chinatown throwing the largest parties and parade around!

This is the time to gather with family, honor ancestors and celebrate with a big banquet that symbolizes prosperity in the New Year. So far I have only experienced the parties vicariously, through my friends telling me stories of their family gatherings. From their stories however, it sounds like every culture including Asian families, has that drunk uncle, wild cousin and unpredictable in-law. All the ingredients for great childhood memories and good times!

I love eating dim sum and all sorts of other dishes year round, but this time of year is special because the symbolism associated with each dish is about everything positive and hopeful. This year I learned more about the foods and their meanings. Did you know that:

  • Chicken and fish, for example, symbolize happiness and prosperity--especially when served whole.
  • Dishes made with oranges represent wealth and good fortune because they are China's most plentiful fruit.
  • Noodles represent longevity: therefore, they should never be cut!
  • Duck symbolizes fidelity, while eggs signify fertility.
  • Bean curd or tofu, however, is avoided because its white color suggests death and misfortune.
This explains a lot. This past week I had noticed lots of Asian people at Costco (the big warehouse chain) buying whole fish, and looking really happy while they waited. Normally myself and most others are a bit cranky waiting, as our blood sugar drops and we see the line at the cashier deepen by the minute. At this same store and some nurseries, they have been selling dwarf orange or kumquat trees.

While cruising through Chinatown this year, what surprised me was the number of ladies buying tins of cookies. They looked liked cookies or biscuits served at high tea rather than around a Lazy Susan or living room coffee table. Are fortune cookies just for restaurants? The cookies they were buying were not cheap either, most were $12 a pop.

The cookies did look tempting, and I for one hope they are for eating rather than an offering on a shelf. While I appreciate the sentiment and importance of tradition, my sweet tooth would get the better of me. And did you know this lunar New Year is on Valentine's Day? What a nice sweet coincidence. Since the Winter Olympics in Vancouver are starting now as well, and the city has a very large Chinese population, I bet a lot of excitement and extra special celebrations are going on there.

We are moving into the Year of the Tiger, and its motto is "I win", which I think is perfect. So much to celebrate this time of year and what better way, than with a cookie!

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