Firecrackers snap and crackle, dragon dances lead colorful parades, and red and gold kites and flags fly from shops and restaurants as the Chinese New Year, one of the most important Chinese national holidays, is ushered in. The new year, which begins in February, is also happily celebrated by many non-Chinese whose interest is mainly in the traditional holiday food, especially the dishes seldom served at any other time of year.
Chinese New Year falls on a different day each year, but always during the Western month of February. This year Feb. 20, 1985 -- today -- starts the Chinese lunar year of 4683 -- the year of the ox.
``In China the New Year is the big family holiday, like your Thanksgiving,'' says James Shao, a Chinese cooking and language teacher born in Shanghai. ``It's a time for the family to get together, to come home to visit and wish each other good fortune and happiness for the coming year.''
When Mr. Shao was growing up in China, ``it was a time for visiting among the family and with neighbors. When a friend came to visit,'' he adds, ``freshly brewed tea would be served in a special New Year's cup -- a cup with no handles, on a raised saucer, with a little cover to catch the fragrance of chrysanthemum in the tea.
``One fresh green olive would be placed on the saucer to be nibbled as the tea was sipped.''
Mr. Shao is co-owner with Rebecca Yip of the Chinese Gourmet, a Belmont, Mass., restaurant serving Szechuan and Mandarin cuisine, and of a new restaurant in Boston with the same name.
Cantonese food is served at the new restaurant at 44 Beach Street in Boston's Chinatown, and Dim Sum is served daily from 9:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. During the holiday, there will also be a special buffet of traditional New Year sweets.
``There were many New Year foods on which to nibble in Hong Kong,'' says Rebecca Yip. ``And most all the foods served during this time were symbolic.
``There was the little sour mandarin orange, for happiness, and black and red watermelon seeds, symbols of fertility,'' she explains, ``and a fruit called `Dragon's eyes,' meaning something precious.
Other delicacies included ``preserved fruits such as plums and dried coconut, kumquats, melons, lotus seeds and dates -- sweet things to wish the guest a new year filled with sweetness.''
In Mr. Shao's home, ``there was always plenty of food that had been prepared in advance, such as Year Cake, made of glutinous rice, and whole chicken, clams, oysters, and seafoods and vegetables.
``White fungus porridge or lotus seed porridge was served when friends came to visit. And very close friends would be asked to stay to for a meal.''
On New Year's Eve, he says, ``We would have a big meal for all the family. The older family people would be up most all night getting food ready for the holiday. And children were allowed to stay up late, for at the stroke of 12 they knew they would be one year older, whatever the birth date might be, according to Chinese custom.''
Children pay their respects to elders on New Year's Day and in return are given red envelopes with a token gift of money. They are also treated to all kinds of sweets and delicacies.
At Rebecca Yip's home, New Year's ``was a time for the house to be cleaned from top to bottom. We did little or no cleaning at home after the first day and didn't even sweep, because it was said we would be sweeping out the gold dust and good luck.''
Besides food, says Ms. Yip, ``fresh flowers are very necessary for the new year. Fragrant paper-white narcissus is appropriate, and every house must have a branch of the cherry tree with buds to bloom full and fragrant for the new year.''
``The first three days of the year are the most festive,'' says Mr. Shao.
``On the fifth day we would have another big dinner. Since a lot of food had been prepared before the holiday, there would still be plenty left until the 15th of the month when the celebrating usually comes to an end.''
In Chinese cuisine sweets are not served as desserts or part of a meal but are eaten as a snack or at festivals and on holidays.
During the New Year holiday, the round shape of sweets and other foods is dominant. Everything possible is shaped in a circle or sphere. There are shrimp balls, fish and meat balls, and many kinds of sweets, all carrying the connotation of ``roundness for togetherness.''
Typical as a symbol of this family happiness are the many smooth, soft Chinese dumplings like this sweet, round, deep-fried one called Jian Dui. The size of a tangerine with a sweet bean paste filling (either made from scratch or store-bought), it is covered with sesame seeds and is delicious. Sweet Sesame Seed Dumplings (Jian Dui) 1 cup red soya-bean flour 3/4 cup water 2 1/4 cups sugar 2 tablespoons lard or shortening 1 cup rice flour 3/4 cup all-purpose flour 3/4 cup water 1/2 cup sesame seeds Oil for deep frying
In medium pan over medium heat combine soya flour and 3/4 cup water, then stir in sugar. Cook 10 minutes until mixture begins to thicken. Remove from heat and cool until a firm paste is formed. (Pre-made red-bean paste can be found in Chinese markets.)
In another pan melt lard, add cooled paste, and stir over low heat to blend, about 1 to 2 minutes. Cool.
In medium bowl combine rice flour and all-purpose flour. Gradually add 3/4 cup water and work into pliable dough.
Using rice flour, lightly flour a work surface. Roll dough into a long log, about 1 1/2 inches in diameter. Cut into 25 to 30 1-inch pieces. Flatten each with palm of hand to make small circles.
Using cooled soya paste, make 25 to 30 balls, about 1/2 inch each. Enclose each in a circle of dough, sealing well. Roll balls between hands until smooth. Roll balls in sesame seeds in a shallow container, pressing seeds lightly to make seeds stick. If necessary, moisten balls slightly to make seeds stick.
Heat oil to 325 to 350 degrees F. (165 to 175 C.) or until a 1-inch cube of bread turns golden brown in 65 seconds. Fry balls in hot oil until lightly brown. Makes 25 to 30 sweets.