Chinese New Year, which is based on the lunar calendar, always sneaks up on me. It falls around the end of January or the beginning of February and is right around the time I have recovered from the holiday buzz. This year is the year of the Ox. For years, I have been saying I will host a party for Chinese New Year, but it usually falls too close to my birthday and I don’t want to do all the work of hosting. I’m finally doing it this year and have devised quite a food line-up, combining some traditional things, with some of my own, modern creations, and some family style dishes. I love introducing new tastes to friends and enjoying it in the home feels right for a holiday that is traditionally spent with family.
The Eve of Chinese New Year is Sunday, January 25th. Hosting a party on Saturday night is more ideal for me so I sent out my invite via email about 10 days before the event for The Chinese New Year party, with promises of mah jong and oxtail. The nice part of this Ox-idental New Year, is a lot of people were out of town for the other New Year. This gave us all a chance to celebrate again, together and really get to starting on the New Year’s resolutions.
In Asia, it is a custom to prepare their home for an entire month prior to the celebration. Great care is taken in fixing up the home and cleaning it, making it ready for the New Year as well as receiving guests. A friend that works in fashion told me it is the worst time of year to get in touch with manufacturers in China. The Chinese take this holiday very seriously and take a lot of time to prepare for it and honor it.
While growing up, a couple things I remember about the holiday were the red envelopes of money and the delicious and weird foods my mom would take days to prepare. She didn’t always share with me the reasons why certain dishes were being served this time of year, but I recently did some quick online research and formed an Asian tasting menu of my own to host a small party.
So many foods have symbolic meaning in Asian culture. Most things represent the hope for wealth, prosperity, love, and health. One thing I did know is that long, uncut noodles represent long life. This was something that was always served at birthdays as well.
My plan of attack when hosting these food parties: try to keep it simple but elegant with a personal flair and do as much before hand as possible. I don’t think I did a very good job on the simple part though. Here’s a formula I have devised over the last few years that seems to work really well. I prefer to be able to enjoy the party with my guests and not be stuck in the kitchen the whole night!
Send invite 10-12 days ahead of event (evite is fine too)
Try getting a headcount / rsvp a couple days ahead of the event.
(This is tougher than it sounds)
Menu planning: hitting on the “party theme” with a specialty cocktail for the night
Make a detailed shopping list
Map things out with a prep list, including what can be done 1 or 2, or 3 days ahead as well as hour by hour up to the event.
Delegating: Many people will offer to help or bring stuff. I usually ask people to bring alcohol or drinks, since I tend to get carried away spending my budget on food! Sometimes a dessert or getting bags ice is a nice thing to delegate as well.
Decor: Pick a simple idea that works with the theme.
Lately, I have been obsessed with celadon colored ceramic, cracked glazed or uncracked. I love the soothing color and it goes well with the Regency / Chinoiserie decor trend. I went ahead and used that as the inspiration for my invite. Originally, I considered going with a red and gold theme, but that seemed so obvious and reminded me of the Christmas decorations I just boxed up. I recently traveled to Asia for the first time and am much more in-tune with the Japanese design sensibility.
I chose my dishes and color themes based on Japanese pottery and ceramics, mixing in some French platters that borrow from that design aesthetic as well. A lot of elements in Japanese design can be seen echoed in modern square plates and housewares.
A beautiful bowl of oranges will add color and represent wealth and luck.
I hate ironing probably because I don’t have the time. So instead of using linens, I decided to wrap the table where all the food was going to be, in craft paper. I also wanted to wrap the ugly card table I have in craft paper where people could play mah jong. Yes, mah jong. This game has quite a range of perceptions. At times in history it was thought of as lowly and gangster to gamble and play mah jong so it was done on the sly. In some Western cultures when Chinese theme parties were considered exotic, mah jong was played by wealthy housewives. I think this party falls somewhere in between those two extremes.
Since I was serving some very Asian foods and some of my own creations, labeling things was a must. With the craft paper, I just took a black Sharpie and wrote directly on the paper, with arrows, outlining the dish forms etc. So fun and not fussy and some of my comedian friends had some fun with it too.
I went a bit overboard with basing the menu on 12 items, based on the 12 year cycle and symbols of the Chinese zodiac. Kinda cheesy and overly ambitious on my part, but since there are some vegetarians coming, some dishes count as two. So half the menu was my creation and about half of it was ‘ancient Chinese secret’, the dishes denoted by an asterisk that I ordered from two restaurants.
Chinese food has a reputation for being greasy, fried, and not so pretty. Presentation was going to be important for all the dishes, including the restaurant ones. Breaking the usual conventions of how Chinese food is slopped on a plate was something I wanted to do. Although as the night wore on, things didn’t look quite as pretty as I wanted but all 25+ guests were happy.
For example, if a platter of fried shrimp is not so attractive, arrange them in overlapping rows with a lot of negative space on the dish. They have instantly become chic. This is basically all Mr. Chow did. He took foods I have been eating my whole life and made them attractive enough to serve to the Beverly Hills crowd. Funny how that works.
I broke the serving of the menu items down into two groups. The first set was more appetizer and finger foods. The second serving was more main course items to be served as soon as most of the guests had arrived and had a drink in hand.
Specialty cocktail: Lychee, sake and vodka martini with a splash of coconut milk
appetizers: set out at 8pm on coffee table and main table
1. Curry Beef Empanada* - Onion pastries*
2. Soy Lotus Root
5. Peking Duck*
7. Spicy Salt Shrimp*
8. Panko Crusted Tofu with Soy Dipping Sauce
10. Braised Oxtail and Shortribs with Noodles
11. Eggplant and Shitake Mushroom with Noodles
12. Baby Bok Choy
Birthday cake and sweets by Bethany
Once you have the menu mapped out, it’s easy to make a shopping list. This is the first time I ordered take out for a party, but there’s some things not worth trying to make, like Peking Duck. So I placed a couple orders for a few of my favorite Hong Kong style dishes from NBC Seafood, in Monterey Park. I was a little disappointed with them and heard they changed owners. It wasn’t quite the same as it had been. The Chinese empanadas and savory pastries were purchased from a hole-in-the-wall Taiwanese bakery, Yi Mei. It’s near the fabulous dim sum restaurant, Elite and I discovered it when we had to wait over an hour for a table at Elite on a crowded weekend morning. I call this pre-eating. We eat a few snacks and Taiwanese style street food before getting our table at Elite.
I tend to do a lot of my party shopping at Asian markets like Ranch 99, because of the rock bottom prices and super fresh seafood. The best part about this Asian food theme party was that I did not have to run around to three different markets for all the ingredients. The worst part was that even though my friend David helped me shop and cook all day the day of the party, we were not the only ones having a Chinese New Year festivity. Every place we went to in SGV was packed!
Symbolism of Foods for Chinese New year:
When I set out to plan this menu, part of it was to satisfy my own thirst for knowledge on what the traditional dishes are and what they symbolize. I also wanted to introduce new flavors to friends. I recently read the book ‘The Fortune Cookie Chronicles’ by Jennifer 8. Lee and was curious of my own American/Chinese perception of what these foods were. As with many children of immigrant parents, the fluency of the language was not passed down to me, but the tradition of foods was. In her book, she states that food is one of the only traditions that are passed from generation to generation in the different cultures that have left their native lands. So true.
Here’s what some of my food choices were based on. There are endless choices and regions to pick from and I had a really hard time narrowing it down. I considered going fusion but then thought that was taking it a step too far. I was planning to make a “Lion’s Head Meatball” casserole, which is a very family style dish of large, pork meatballs stewed with napa cabbage, but I opted for the oxtail stew, since it is The Year of the Ox.
Lychee Sake Vodka Martini with a splash of Coconut Milk:
Lychee nuts represent close family ties.
Curry Beef Chinese Empanadas:
This flaky pastry shaped like a large dumpling is filled with curried ground beef and onions. My mom used to make these and I have yet to perfect mine. Dumplings represent wealth because they are shaped like ancient Chinese gold. I cut them in half so they were more like hors d’oeuvres and people wouldn’t fill up on them.
Taiwanese Pan Fried Dumplings:
The fillings of these are meat with Chinese garlic chives which symbolize eternity. They might have been referring to the eternal garlic breath they give you all night. Traditional shaped dumplings are the shape of old Chinese coins and represent wealth. Since these are a different shape (and easier to make)
Ginger Honey Chicken Wings:
Chicken represents happiness and marriage. We’ll see if it works.
Peking duck is usually served at weddings and banquets. So many modern Asian restaurants borrow from the basis of this dish. Momofuko in New York is one of them that cleverly uses a brined pork belly instead of the duck. Peking duck can be served two ways. One is the crispy skin and meat sandwiched in fresh,steamed buns with green onion and hoisin sauce. The other is the meat served in lettuce cups. Duck symbolizes fidelity. I ended up just doing it served one way. Duck + steamed bun + green scallion + hoisin sauce = yum
Panko Crusted Fried Tofu:
Fried tofu is golden in color and represents wealth. In this case, we used a silken tofu that almost tastes like an egg custard. I’m not sure if I bent the rules a bit with this dish since it’s important not to serve white tofu since white is the color of death… but the golden outer crust should hide all that. We also marinated this in ginger and lemongrass before coating and frying them.
Green Beans and Baby Bok Choy:
Green vegetables represent close family ties. I’ll have to track down the green bean recipe from my mom!
I always find it ironic when I order these pancakes at restaurants now, only because at one point in my life, I think I OD’ed on them. They are usually at Northern Chinese style restaurants where food is dough-ier, like dumplings and these pancakes. My dad is from this region and my mom would make these pancakes all the time and freeze them,uncooked. One time, I made the mistake of telling my mom my friend liked these. She started making them for me by the truckload. Chinese mom’s always think you are starving or there’s a potential to starve. I refrained from telling her that I liked anything again.
This was the first time I attempted to make them on my own, which conjured up memories of watching my mom twist these balls of dough together. I used to help her sprinkle the salt and onions on and drizzle the sesame oil. That was my job and I would wait patiently to do it.
Green onions represent cleverness.
Spicy Salt Shrimp:
This is one of my favorite dishes and I just learned that the mysterious ’spicy salt’ is an aromatic mix of 5-spice powder and toasted salt. Some menus say these are ‘baked spicy salt shrimp’. I have no idea why the translation says that since they are very obviously deep fried. Shrimp served whole represents happiness and well-being. I have only ever seen this whole in my life, but as it goes, the day I order them for a party, they came with no heads! On the bright side, I’m sure more people were willing the eat them. The heads on shrimp can scare some people away but I eat them, eyes and all. They are fried so crispy that the shell just adds crunch. If you eat the heads of sweet shrimp at sushi, this is the same concept. I ordered the calamari prepared in the same way since some people might be freaked out.
Braised Oxtail and Shortribs with Fresh Noodles:
Year of the Ox! I’m not sure if i’m honoring the Ox by braising it. Serving this with the unctuous sauce over a bed of fresh pasta satisfied the need for a dish of uncut noodles to represent long life. This was a dish that I made 2 nights before and kept warm in the oven till it was ready to serve. I found the recipe on this blog and the only thing added was the shortribs.
Steamed Eggplant and Sautéed Shitake Mushrooms:
Serving some veggies over fresh noodles was a nice vegetarian alternative to the oxtail. The shitake mushrooms represent longevity as well. This is a simple dish of the long thinner Asian eggplant, steamed whole then split lengthwise and topped with fresh ginger, scallion, cilantro, soy sauce and sesame oil. The mushrooms were sautéed in batches with soy sauce, oyster sauce, wine and green onions then the noodles were tossed with them so they weren’t stark white in color.
The party was a huge hit and I managed to have a great time thanks to the help of many good friends: a trained chef, David, who was more than willing to help cook and prep all day, even during the party; Kyra and Jen who are always on kitchen cleanup (I stopped asking, they just do it), Bethany who made all the yummy sweets and bartended for a long time, and of course my boyfriend, who documented the night with my constant nagging. Additionally, all the guests came armed with drinks and booze and gifts for the belly and the home! These are the kind gestures that make these events possible.
Admittedly, I should have based the menu on the lucky number 8 and not 12, as well as my guest list, but I tend to get carried away. I love a good party. We served about 25+ people, including vegetarians. It was ridiculously ambitious and so many things required heating up even if we had already cooked them earlier in the day. We pulled it off as a collective effort and I am pretty sure everyone had a blast.
Having a couple food warmers that I got at Ikea and ordering some dishes helped make this possible. The simple warmers just required a couple tealights under them. Certain food, like chicken wings and fried tofu, were kept warm throughout the night so people could continue to graze on them. I also spilt up the items I was making and strategically had a couple homemade items in both the first and second serving. One personal goal I had was not to make too much food and have tons leftover to put away. I aimed to make portions for about 12 people for each course, since portion sizes were meant to be small. I think it worked. I didn’t see anyone rummaging around in the fridge at midnight.
The few items I started the party with were more like finger foods, meant to whet the appetite for the heartier, warm main dishes. In general, I love tasting courses and small plate meals. This may be something that I acquired subconsciously from my childhood. I am sure it is not just from being completely gourmande. I grew up attending Chinese banquet style meals on special occasions where every dish was brought out every 5 minutes and placed in the middle of the table on a lazy susan for everyone to share. Usually it started with a soup and ended with a steamed whole fish or fried rice. But the point is, everyone got to have a little taste of several dishes.
Ending on the salty, sweet chocolate birthday cake and rice crispy peanut butter, chocolate bars that Bethany made were a nice treat. The recipes were both from the book, Baked. At this point everyone was happy but the sugar high took it to a new level.
That’s my perfect meal, a little taste of everything. Next time I’ll remember to keep the guest list to under 10 people. It’s so hard though!
Most recipes for items served will be available shortly in the ‘Food’ section of wallFlour.