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Luck of the Golden Dragon

by Harley Spiller

Holidays and Celebrations

Summer Volume: 2000 Issue: 7(2) page(s): 15

You know we are in the energy-filled Year of the Dragon, one of the twelve animals in the Chinese zodiac. But did you know that the zodiac is further divided into five elements, one of which is metal? The Chinese traditionally use five elements: Wood, Fire, Earth, Water and Metal to describe how things work together in a cycle from beginning to end.

This is similar to the Western game of 'rock, scissors, paper' where wood can beat earth; metal pounds wood; fire melts metal; water puts out fire; and earth fills up water. The Chinese penchant for gold, eighteen karats or better, seems to be reflected in the fact that contemporary references to the five elements refer to 'gold' in lieu of the more traditional 'metal.'

The Gold Dragon year is considered the luckiest of all in the complete sixty year cycle, and it seemed that this year's Chinese New Year's celebrations were happier and more excited than ever before. The average person only experiences one Golden Dragon year in their lifetime. A lucky few get to experience two Gold Dragon years, but a person would have to live to be one hundred and twenty-one years old to live through three such auspicious years!

Many Chinese people will be trying to have babies this year. It means a difficult life for these Golden Dragon kids. They will have large groups of peers and face great competition for such things as entering university. Chinese people told me that this year is the single LUCKIEST of all, and so far they have been correct.

A newly formed Chinese community group at a large housing complex in New York City's Harlem had arranged a potluck supper and my Chinese cousin (by marriage!) invited me. The meal proved to have the largest number of dishes this reporter has ever seen on a dining table. Twenty families, almost all originally hailing from the Sichuan and Hunan provinces, and mainly affiliated with Columbia University, were responsible for bringing two dishes each. There were some forty entrees to choose from.

I tried nearly all of them (such a sacrifice for you, dear readers), except the following which just didn't entice amidst the authentic family recipes. Paella mysteriously appeared on the table - how it got there I'll never know but oddly it was the only dish on the table which had shrimp; a seafood salad consisting mainly of fake crab and mayonnaise; baked skinless chicken drumsticks (made by a Chinese lady's Caucasian husband and thoroughly enjoyed by a big young Chinese man); Singapore Chow Mei Fun noodles still in the container from the local take out; regular deviled eggs and more savory ones with crunchy Asian-flavored topping; and a very pink and fruity Ambrosia, a dessert I'm sure you never thought you'd read about in Flavor and Fortune!

Some of the truly exciting dishes were cold Sichuan noodles, which were lightly coated with an oily, spicy topping that bears no resemblance whatsoever to the gloppy peanut mess that most Chinese American restaurants foist upon unknowing diners. Chicken with Peanuts was also startlingly different than the brown sauce, scallion, and celery amalgamation that usually passes for authentic fare. In this case, the dish was prepared to be eaten at room temperature and it consisted of slabs of white meat chicken showered with ground Sichuan pepper and loads of salty peanuts still in their thin brown skin. The only dishes that were completely eaten was steamed flounder with vegetables, and stewed duck feet. My personal favorite was a soft, supple and elegant Sichuan steamed pork dish that was coated with toasted ground rice.

The flurry of food continued with a Chinese potato salad made with loads of very soft mashed taro; beef tendon casserole; Mao Tse Tung's favorite pork meat and vegetable casserole; lots of different cold prepared meats like pig's tongue and ears; roast chicken; two kinds of pork and chive dumplings; a meat dumpling in a wrapper made entirely out of egg; lo mein; cold barbecued fish; and an odd dish that was perhaps cross-cultural, cold cubes of potato mixed with carrots and peas and other small bits of vegetable.

Arrowroot powder was used to make a lip-smacking and exceedingly healthy Sichuan jelly afloat in a tangy and spicy soy sauce; a finely chopped tofu skin and vegetable dish was lacy and impossible to stop eating; and a deceptively simple looking vermicelli and shredded chicken dish sang with refreshing flavors.

From further north in China came a chicken and chestnut entree as well as an eggplant, potatoes, peppers and other vegetable medley that seemed almost Mediterranean despite its Mongolian origins. These were both served with a sprinkling of chopped fried eggs that were made especially for young children. Baked sliced apples with an oatmeal topping and a coconut jelly rounded out this formidable forty dish feast.

Proud of my Buffalo roots, I prepared and brought a simple old-fashioned upstate New York recipe for fresh watercress salad, with a dressing containing loads of finely chopped garlic soaked in soy and lemon juice and a little white pepper. Surprisingly, almost everyone took some of the uncooked vegetable and one grandfather made me proud when he inquired about the recipe through his English-speaking daughter. I was invited back for next year's party, but somehow I think that this year's Golden Dragon feast will be ever unstoppable!
Harley Spiller's ever-growing collection of thousands of Chinese takeout menus has nothing representing Africa or India. Please send any such menus to him in care of Flavor and Fortune. He thanks the Mahrers; the Wu family, especially Sally; Hong Liu; Wang Ting and Lylie for their great friendship.

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