by Alicia Lieu
Be sure to check out the recipes at the end of this post and check back every month as Alicia shares her adventures of How I Met My Dinner!
Chinese New Year is coming up on January 31. There are twelve animals in the Chinese Zodiac and this will be the year of the horse. I don’t know anyone personally who was born the year of the horse, but according to the www.TravelChinaGuide.com, these celebrities were born the year of the horse:
Louisa May Alcott, Chopin, Davy Crockett, Ella Fitzgerald, Aretha Franklin, Sandra Day O’Connor, Rembrandt, Teddy Roosevelt, Sir Isaac Newton, Barbara Streisand, Cindy Crawford, Cynthia Nixon, Denzel Washington, Harrison Ford, Jason Biggs, Jackie Chan, Jerry Seinfeld, John Travolta, Leonard Bernstein, Oprah Winfrey, Paul McCartney, Rembrandt, Ashton Kutcher, Emma Watson, Josh Hartnett, Katie Holmes, Kristen Stewart, Kobe Bryant, Genghis Khan, Emperor Kangxi and Yongzheng of China’s Qing Dynasty.
As a composer/conductor, I get especially excited about Chopin and Leonard Bernstein. I, myself, was born the year of the snake and so were my mother and my grandmother.
This year I will have the good fortune of being with my family around Chinese New Year, which is celebrated for up to two weeks after the lunar New Year. Naturally, a whole lot of food is involved with this. Traditionally, the big New Year’s dinner has to happen on the eve of the New Year. I will miss this part with my family, but my mother will send me pictures of the family dinner, I’m sure. There will be plentiful dishes of dumplings, rice, noodles, meats, seafood, tofu, and vegetables, making sure to have food left over to signify abundance in the coming year. With a small circle of friends that represent family to me in New York, I have come up with a way to maximize the food, friends, and family.The Chinese Progressive Dinner allows a person to experience cuisine from different parts of China in different restaurants and possibly with different friends. Progressive dinners are usually planned out to have appetizers served at one house, the main course at someone else’s house and dessert at a third location.
Out in California where I grew up, everyone had a car and a good sized living room and this was very easy to organize. Here in New York City, people live in different boroughs with up to an hour and a half travel time by subway and the people who live centrally located in Manhattan don’t have large apartments that can accommodate large groups of people, given the exceedingly high cost of housing. Well, at least I haven’t yet made my way into the social circle of those who can afford large living rooms, anyways.
With Chinatown in Manhattan containing a great diversity of regional Chinese foods, I planned and executed a progressive Chinese dinner. I was reunited with friends, one of whom I had not seen in an embarrassingly long time–I believe it may have been two years. But oddly enough, that happens easily in a city like New York, where people focus on their careers and don’t have a lot of free time. I gathered two friends in Chinatown, one a banquet chef at The Westin and the other a physician’s assistant.We started at Shanghai Cafe and had Shanghai style soup dumplings (XiaoLongBao) and two other traditional appetizers (Kau Fu and Spicy Beef Tendon).
After taking a few minutes to remember where we had left off, we talked through a brief history of Chinese food in America, noting that Chop Suey and Sesame Chicken were invented by necessity by the Chinese who immigrated to America to work on the railroads, catering to a non-Chinese palette.
At the second restaurant, Xi’An Famous Foods, located one and a half blocks away, we dined on Spicy Cumin Lamb Noodles and Oxtail Noodle Soup. We sat beneath a picture of Anthony Bourdain eating a Chinese burger and noodles at Xi’An Famous Foods. Over our entrees, we caught up on who had gotten married, who now had kids and where they moved to, and, of course, what we thought of people’s spouses, proceeded by the conversation of why we are still single!
We then headed another half-block down to Cha Chan Tang, a Hong Kong style teahouse which would be the equivalent of a diner. They serve breakfast, lunch, dinner, dessert and everything in between. We had Bubble Tea, Peanut Butter stuffed French Toast, Toast with Butter and Condensed Milk and Fried Sweet Buns dipped in condensed milk. At this point, most of our conversation consisted of, “I’m so full,” at which point, of course, we kept eating!
My two friends have been to Hong Kong many times because they still have family there and I enjoyed hearing about their Hong Kong adventures. Although I have spent some significant time in mainland China, I have never been to Hong Kong or Taiwan and both places are on my bucket list. Not necessarily for sites, but for the food. I could probably make my way through Taiwan on my own since my Mandarin is passable, but I would definitely need my Cantonese-speaking friends to help me navigate Hong Kong. The two phrases that I know, “dim sum” and “Gong Hay Fat Choy” won’t get me very far.
By the end of this very delicious evening, we had gone from Shanghai on the east coast of China, to Xi’An, a city in the middle of China and then to Hong Kong. The format of the dinner would have allowed us to accommodate different groups of people who could have come and go according to different schedules. I was happy to catch up with just two friends, though. It was a wonderful evening.
For recipes, I am providing you with a link to my previous Chinese New Year article and a link to The Cooking Channel’s Spicy Cumin Lamb Noodles just like the ones we had at Xi’An Famous Foods. I am also providing a Google Map of the progressive dinner if you would like to embark on it yourself one day.