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Chinese New Year Odyssey, A

by Ken Hom

Holidays and Celebrations

Spring Volume: 2004 Issue: 11(1) page(s): 5 and 36

For millions of Chinese around the world, Chinese New Year is our most auspicious holiday. It is as if Easter, Christmas and New Year festivities were all rolled into one. Many Chinese return to their ancestral homes for the occasion. Others celebrate with family and friends in an endless round of dining out.

For me, growing up in Chicago's Chinatown, Chinese New Year was always the year's most anticipated holiday. I remember as a child bright red decorations festooned to the ceiling and walls of our home, all printed with Chinese characters to assure all of the family and its guests long lives and prosperity. Within the Chinese-American community it meant two weeks of hectic preparations followed by festive celebrations, endless banquets, fabulous dinners, and red packets of money for the children. Red is an auspicious colour in the Chinese tradition, always associated with happy occasions and good luck.

Comforting, pervasive aromas and delightful tastes permeated our neighborhood. Our home was filled with the smells of the seasonings, spices, and sauces that characterize Cantonese cooking: ginger, green onions, soy sauce, garlic, hoisin sauce, and the oils--peanut and sesame.

Indeed, as the scholars Vera and Francis Hsu write, "Ask any Chinese born and raised in China what she or he liked best in the days of their childhood and 'Chinese New Year' is the most likely reply." In search of these gastronomic memories I recently returned to visit my mother in Chicago's Chinatown and discovered a wonderful sea of change.

When I was growing up, there was only a handful of Chinese restaurants, serving Chinese-American food for the non-Chinese. For the Chinese, there was an authentic menu of Cantonese food. I was thrilled to find the number of Chinese restaurants had increased from a handful to more than thirty, incorporating a number of diverse regional foods, heretofore unknown in Chicago. In addition to the best of Cantonese, there was Beijing, Sichuan and even Shanghai restaurants. The city has also made a major effort to promote Chinatown both as a destination and a as prime example of Chicago's multiethnic melting pot neighborhood. The result is now a population of 10,000 (from 1000 when I was growing up) that has grown into a vibrant community of bakeries, pastry and food shops and of course, restaurants, all within a ten-block radius.

I must admit it was a bit of a cultural shock, returning after so many years away. However, with my mother as my guide, we set out to explore some of the restaurants. Here are a few of our favorites; and they are listed together below, addresses and phone numbers ncluded.

Cantonese food is enjoying a well-deserved revival throughout Chicago and one of the best restaurants, Emperoris Choice, is housed in a historical 1928 building. The 84-seat restaurant is lined with antique paintings of some of the most famous of China’s emperors. A stunning genuine 18th century emperor's robe from the Ching dynasty serves as the focal point in its modern upscale decor.

The owners, Pat and Ken Moy travelled to Hong Kong and recruited a top chef who infused the menu with new imaginative and modern Chinese cooking, the hallmark of Hong Kong style. We had a meal that was truly fit for an emperor. Ignore the printed menu and go for the special green insert which has a number of innovative creative fresh fish and seafood dishes. On the reverse side is a listing of Village Specials with the caveat that some of those dishes are acquired tastes. This is an invitation to authentic real Chinese food.

Don't miss the Chilean Sea Bass. This fatty fish is pan-fried in a rich oyster sauce. Bitter Melon with Fish Filet is a wonderful contrasts in taste, as the slightly bitter vegetable acts as foil to fried fish fillets. Steamed White Fish in Black Bean Sauce is a fresh Lake Superior white fish gently steamed and served with a perfectly balanced pungent black bean sauce. Pork Bellies with Preserved Greens is directly from a southern Chinese village. A rich thick pork belly was braised meltingly tender, then mixed with slightly pickled mustard greens. It was sensational and mouth-watering. Lobster Peking Style came slight spicy and very aromatic. We scrapped all the sweet tender morsels from every shell. Shrimp Stuffed Tofu is cooked with great skill, juicy prawns chopped and gently stuffed into bean curd. This is then pan-fried and braised in a savory sauce. Finally, we had simple Sauteed Peapods. These are tender leaves from the snowpea or mange-tout family stir-fried with garlic. They could have easily come from any great kitchen in Hong Kong. The meal was ten out of ten.

Our next choice was the Phoenix Restaurant where I chose to host the obligatory family banquet. It is part of a worldwide group of restaurants from Hong Kong to New York. We were not disappointed as we slurped on Shark Fin Soup with Seafood, never a great favourite of mine, but skilfully executed with a deft hand. This was followed by Steamed Fish of the day which happened to be large mouth sea bass. It arrived moist and perfectly cooked. Peking Duck brought murmurs of approval for its crispy skin and moist meat. However, the Crispy Skin Chicken brought the most nods. The chicken, marinated in a tasty brine, is then steamed and finally fried. The result is parchment thin moist chicken meat without any hint of oil. Clearly, there is a master Chinese chef in that kitchen. Another memorable dish was live west coast Dungeness crab fried in a beer batter that emerged grease-free and light as tempura. As we finished, my mother assured me that Phoenix Restaurant had some of the best dim sum in all of Chinatown. How could I not believe her after the magnificent banquet.

The next day, we visited King Wah Restaurant, formerly owned by my Uncle Paul Lee and one of the oldest restaurants in Chinatown. In fact, I worked and trained there more than four decades ago. Today, it is run by my Aunt Helen Lee who has maintained the standard that enables the restaurant to survive. We ordered some of the King Wah's most well-known dishes and can report them worth trying. The Tea Smoked Duck is as good as any you might find in Sichuan, China. Smoky, crispy and moist and served with a steamed bun. The Hong Kong Steak is a rich portion of beef grilled and simply drizzled with oyster sauce. It arrives on a bed of crunchy Chinese greens. However, the most sensational dish is the Steamed Pike. This fresh fish from the lakes of Chicago is steamed then showered with shreds of spring onions and ginger. A splash of soy sauce and hot oil sealed in every flavor. The ensemble was perfection.

Although most of the best restaurants in Chicago's Chinatown still tend to be overwhelmingly Cantonese, I was determined to try a Shanghai restaurant. We dashed over for a quick lunch and feasted on Green Onion Pancake, which was so crispy and delicious, my mother ordered a take-away portion for her neighbor. Both the Vegetable & Pork Steamed Dumpling and Pork Dumpling were as juicy and savoury as anyone would expect to find in Shanghai. The Noodle Soup with Pork Chop and Green Onion rivalled any I have had on the streets of Taipei.

Despite my mother's futile protests, I could not resist BBQ King House which specialises in Chinese street food. We had room to try only two dishes and both were excellent. BBQ Chicken which is called Pipa Chicken, is a whole chicken flattened to look like a pipa -- a Chinese lute. It is then marinated, air-dried and slowly roasted into a succulent, mouth-watering treat. It was as good as any I have ever eaten. Also worth trying is BBQ Baby Pig, a suckling pig roasted to give crackling skin and moist meat.

I am pleased to find Chinese food evolving and so good in Chicago's Chinatown. The quality of the cooking and even service rivalled some of the best I have had in Hong Kong, London, New York, or Sydney. Although Cantonese dominates, regional dishes are slowly making their way into all menus. If you visit Chicago, a trip down to Chinatown is a must. It has changed for the better. As the French so adeptly put it: it is well worth the journey home.

Many of these Chicago restaurants are open daily, almost all were during the Chinese New Year when I was there. Here are the places mentioned, and do mention that you read about them in this article.

EMPEROR'S CHOICE at 2238 S. Wentworth Avenue (312/225-8800)
THE PHOENIX at 2131 S. Archer Avenue (312/328-0804)
KING WAH at 2225 S. Wentworth Avenue (312/842-1404)
SHANGHAI at 2168-2170 S. Archer Avenue (312/326-0077)
BBQ KING HOUSE at 2148A S. Archer Avenue (312/326-1219)

Finally, a recipe to help you celebrate every Chinese New Year including those years when you cannot make it to Chicago's Chinatown. It is one you can also enjoy on other festive occasions. On New Year's Eve at home, we always dine on vegetarian noodles. In the Chinese culture, vegetables are a symbol of purification while long noodles symbolize long life. I was constantly admonished not to cut the noodles for if I did, it would surely cut, that is bring bad luck. In any case, this noodle dish is delectable and easy to make, and a terrific side dish or snack.
Ken Hom has long been a supporter of this magazine and served as its honorary chairperson since the inception of the Institute for the Advancement of the Art and Science of Chinese Cuisine. This article, previously published in London's Financial Times, comes with warm regards as he heats up his own activities, one of which is completing an upcoming book, the word is it will be called 'Foolproof Asian Cookery.' We look forward to its crossing the ocean and we will intellectually cross back to learn some of his loves of Vietnamese, Indonesian, Malaysian, and Singaporean foods, all offspring of his beloved Chinese cuisine.
Tasty Vegetarian New Year Noodles
1/2 pound thin dried rice noodles
1 Tablespoon peanut oil
1/2 cup finely chopped Tianjin preserved cabbage
2 Tablespoons coarsely chopped garlic
2 teaspoons finely chopped ginger
2 Tablespoons Shaoxing rice wine or dry sherry
1 Tablespoon chilli bean sauce
1 Tablespoon dark soy sauce
2 teaspoons light soy sauce
1 Tablespoon sugar
1/2 cup chicken stock, homemade or reduced salt canned broth
1 Tablespoon sesame oil
3 Tablespoons finely chopped scallions
2 Tablespoons finely chopped fresh coriander
1. Soak the rice noodles in warm water for twenty minutes. Drain well and set aside.
2. Heat a wok or large frying-pan over high heat until it is hot. Swirl in the oil, and when it is very hot and slightly smoking, toss in the preserved cabbage, garlic and ginger and stir-fry for one minute.
3. Next, pour in the rice wine, spoon in the chilli bean sauce, soy sauces, sugar and stock, and toss in the noodles. Mix well, reduce the heat, and simmer for three minutes, then stir in the sesame oil.
4. Remove the noodles to a large bowl or platter. Scatter the scallions and coriander over them, and serve at once.
Note: Preserved cabbage can be found In ceramic crocks or glass jars at Chinese food markets.
Approximate nutrient analysis when serving four persons. Each serving has 177 calories, 14 g carbohydrate, 4 g protein, 768 mg sodium, 11 g total fat, 2 g saturated fat, and no cholesterol.

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