As it falls on the first day of the lunar calendar, the specific date of Chinese New Year changes each year. This year, 2009, it is Jan. 26 and this is the Year of the Ox.
Given the importance of food in Chinese culture, it is not surprising that food plays a major role in Chinese New Year celebrations and “lucky” foods are served through the two-week Chinese New Year celebration.
What gives a certain food symbolic significance? Sometimes it is based on appearance. Noodles represent a long life; an old superstition says that it’s bad luck to cut them. Or, a food may have special significance because of the way the Chinese word for it sounds. The Cantonese word for lettuce sounds like rising fortune, so it is common to serve a lettuce wrap filled with other lucky food. Tangerines and oranges are passed out during Chinese New Year as the words for tangerine and orange sound like luck and wealth.
Kung Pao Chicken
This spicy dish, named after Ting Kung Pao, a high-ranking Chinese official during the Ching Dynasty, is served in both Szechuan and Hunan restaurants. Peanuts are typical to this dish. Serve with rice or noodles and a green vegetable such as bok choy. Makes 4 servings.
• 1 lb (500 g) boneless, skinless chicken thighs or breasts, trimmed of any fat and cut into 3/4-inch (2 cm) cubes
• 1 tbsp (15 ml) soy sauce
• 1 tsp (5 ml) dried hot pepper flakes
• 1 tsp (5 ml) cornstarch
• 1/4 cup (60 ml) chicken broth
• 1 tbsp (15 ml) Chinese black vinegar, balsamic or rice vinegar
• 1 tsp (5 ml) sugar
• 2 tsp (10 ml) Asian chili garlic sauce
• 1 tsp (5 ml) hoisin sauce
• 1 tbsp (15 ml) vegetable oil
• 1 red pepper, cut into 1-inch (2.5 cm) squares
• 1/2 tsp (2 ml) cornstarch stirred into 1 tsp (5 ml) cold water
• 1/3 cup (75 ml) roasted, salted peanuts
• Cooked rice or noodles
In a medium bowl, stir together soy sauce, hot pepper flakes and cornstarch until smooth. Add chicken and toss gently to coat. Let stand 10 minutes while preparing remaining ingredients.
Sauce: Stir together broth, vinegar, sugar, chili garlic and hoisin sauces, set aside.
Heat oil in large skillet or wok over medium-high heat. Add chicken and stir-fry until lightly cooked, 1 to 2 minutes. Add red pepper and stir-fry until tender-crisp, about 2 minutes. Stir in sauce mixture until bubbly and heated through.
Add dissolved cornstarch and cook, stirring gently until sauce thickens, about 30 seconds. Stir in peanuts and serve over rice or noodles.
– Barb Holland is a professional home economist and food writer who believes in shopping locally and in season.