Ringing in the Year of the Snake

Technically the Chinese new year began on the 10th, which was this past Sunday. Festivities commonly last for days afterward though, so I still feel like I’m actually on time with this entry.

When I was growing up, New Year celebrations were all about the food, much of which is highly symbolic — dumplings like purses full of money, oranges and tangerines are homonyms for gold, the word for fish sounds a lot like abundance, long noodles mean long life, etc. But you don’t really think of the symbolism when you’re eating — it’s just a celebratory meal, to start the new year off right.

This year K and I invited our families over for hot pot. Hot pot is easy, all prep and no cook; you just put out plates of raw meats and cleaned veggies and a couple of electric skillets with simmering water, and everyone cooks their own food right there on the table. Just be sure to keep the “raw” cooking implements away from the “safe” eating implements to avoid cross-contamination, and you’re good to go.

hot pot on the table

Everyone can cook food to their desired doneness. For instance, my mom likes to wave sliced beef gently in the water until the red just fades to pink, whereas K’s mom leaves beef in the water until it’s very well done.

When I was growing up, my siblings and I would hoard food with fanatic possessiveness; any onlookers would have heard plenty of “that’s my shrimp ball! I put mine over here! Get your own!” etc. Now that we’re adults, it’s a lot more relaxed.

For hot pot this year, we did our shopping at the huge new Lotte in Catonsville and it was fantastic. The thin-sliced meats are perfect for hot pot; we got pork, lamb, beef (ribeye) and duck, all thinly sliced and ready to go. We bought squid, which K cut crosswise so that the pieces would curl up when cooked. We also got frozen fish balls and beef balls (we were delighted to find Lotte’s bulk frozen meatball display in the freezer section, $5/lb!). My mother brought peeled shrimp and “white rice fish” (whitebait), both of which cook up in a flash when they hit the hot water. For vegetables, we got Napa cabbage and watercress, and K’s mom brought snow peas; we also bought canned straw mushrooms and quail eggs, also from Lotte. We put out bottled condiments so that people could make their own dipping sauces (soy sauce, hoisin, oyster and XO sauce, sriracha). It was definitely an impressive spread.

We had cooked food, too. K’s aunt brought homemade turnip cake, which I intend to learn to make; it’s fantastic sliced thin and fried crispy. And K and his mom made dumplings and steamed shumai that morning. It was so delicious; I feel full just thinking about it.

Anyway, when everyone is finished cooking, the cooking water will have taken on all the tastes of the meat and the vegetables. That’s when you put in the noodles to cook (transparent saifun, also from Lotte), and let everyone finish off the meal with a bowl of hot noodle soup. It’s a warm and filling end to a great meal. After all, nothing beats eating a big dinner with family.