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Traditional foods served during the Asian New Year at Van's Chinese Seafood (3214 Broadway, 828-8449). Clockwise from front: traditional salad with pork, shrimp, and jellyfish; braised pork feet with five spices; steamed whole fish with scallion sauce; sesame balls with red bean filling; sticky rice cake; treasure box, an assortment of Chinese candied fruits; and shark fin soup. Tangerines (back) symbolize good luck for the coming year. (Photo by Mark Greenberg)

Traditional Asian New Year foods

In the Asian zodiac, this is the Year of the Monkey. Not to worry: Although there are many traditional foods eaten during the celebration that ushers in the Lunar New Year, monkey is not one of them. But ox, rabbit, rooster, and boar might all be candidates for the dinner plate, depending on the country or region. The foods eaten during this special time are symbolic in a way Western foods rarely are.

In China, many New Year's dishes are important because their names sound similar to good or "fortunate" things. Fish (Yu), for example, sounds like a word for both "wish" and "abundance." Nian Gao, a New Year's rice cake, is phonetically similar to "advancement," symbolized by the rising of the cake. For families hoping for many, the word for "sour" also evokes the term for grandchildren - hence sweet and sour pork is a dish traditionally served. Lettuce wraps come into play with the similarity between the Cantonese word for "rising fortune" and that for lettuce, and fruits such as tangerines and oranges are significant because their names are similar to "luck" and "wealth." And in the realm of dessert, Eight Precious Pudding, one of those titles that can seem both absurd and wonderful to Westerners, is important because the word for eight sounds like "fortune."

Physical form is also an important feature of Chinese New Year's foods. Spring rolls and egg rolls are said to resemble gold bars, and therefore represent wealth. Longevity noodles symbolize long life: Don't cut them under pain of ... you get the picture. A Shanghai dish called Lion's Head Meatballs draws its symbolism from the bok choy "manes" surrounding outsized meatballs, which represent family reunion. The lion, in turn, symbolizes power and strength. Jiaozi are round dump- lings that also symbolize family reunions in Northern China, where families will gather to make them on New Year's Eve -much in the manner of the Mexican tamaladas that precede the Christmas season.

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There are religious overtones to some New Year's dishes. Buddhist tradition, for example, holds that no animal or fish should be killed on the first day of the new year, and thus a vegetarian dish such as Buddha's Delight is particularly appropriate. Vegetables, in general, are thought to be purifying, while other ingredients, such as lily buds, load the completed dish with fortitous augury.

In Vietnam, a whole chicken is also served at New Year's, or Tet, because of its associations with abundance and prosperity. In addition, everybody is thought to be a year older on the first day of Tet, making it a culture-wide birthday party. Akin to the Day of the Dead tradition, altars are erected to departed ancestors - with the whole chicken front and center. Other dishes include caramelized garlic shrimp and thit kou dua, a pork stew with hard-boiled eggs.

Not to be outdone, Oshogatsu is celebrated with gusto by the Japanese; in fact, it's the most important celebration of the year. But though they observed the lunar calendar for most of their history, the Japansese now ring in the New Year on January 1 along with the Western world - except in rural pockets of resistance where the old calendar prevails. •

Asian New Year Festival

Asian New Year Festival
Saturday, January 24
$6.50 adult
$4 senior & military
$3 children 3-12
Institute of Texan Cultures
801 S. Bowie
Kick it up a notch with traditional Asian foods at the Institute of Texan Cultures

This year's Asian New Year Festival will kick off with a Chinese Lion Dance, and continues with dances from around the world, martial arts demonstrations, and a new kickboxing tournament. Al Tomita of Sushi Zushi will present a special history of sake with sampling at 1 and 2 pm for a $4 charge. Feng shui and zen lecture will be presented, and ikebana arrangements and bonsai will be on display. Among the traditional foods that will be served at this year's festival are Chinese fried dumplings, Hawaiian huli huli chicken, Indian chole, Japanese yakisoba, Laotian chicken currry, Malaysian teriyaki chicken, Pakistani tikka, Thai pad thai, and Vietnamese lo mein. The festival will also feature Indian pakous, Japanese gyudon, onigiri, mugi-cha, katsui don and unagi don, Thai lemon grass tea, Pakistani pakora, samosa, and lassi, and Boba, or bubble tea. •



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