For anyone who's been to any city with a sizable Chinese population on the Chinese New Year, you know the holiday as an explosion of good luck charms, music, firecrackers, people in dragon costumes crawling through the streets and an abundance of all things red.
It's a celebration of the year to come, calling for prosperity, luck and happiness. Each year is marked by one of twelve animals, each carrying its own set of attributes - 2011 is the year of the rabbit, and those born this year are said to be ambitious, virtuous and financially lucky. Tradition dictates that one sweep his or her house the night before the New Year, but not the day after - the good luck will be swept out. The food is, of course, important as well, involving a lengthy feast, often with eight courses - a lucky number - marking the evening portion of the holiday.
With the traditions, symbolism and cuisine taken into consideration, it's hard not to think that the Chinese New Year kind of blows the American champagne-and-ball drop celebration out of the water.
In Central Oregon, the Chinese New Year was a bit quieter than the massive fetes found in cities like San Francisco and Los Angeles. But at Five Fusion and Sushi Bar, owned by Chinese-American Lilian Chu, the holiday was in full force. Chu and her team, including chefs Di Long, Joe Kim and Kwok Chu, cooked for two days, preparing an eight-course dinner for the holiday and throwing a 30-person prix-fixe ($100) dinner, with all proceeds going to the KIDS Center. Ingredients were culled from around the globe, including abalone, lobster and red snapper driven in the day before from San Francisco. Oregon Spirit Distillers created cocktail pairings for most dishes using its Oregon Spirit vodka and Black Mariah Marionberry Cordial.
Five Fusion's upstairs space was decorated with red lanterns, tablecloths and centerpieces. Guests, many of whom wore red and had their own Chinese New Year stories from years past, were seated at large round tables. A man at my table taught us all to say "cheers" in both Cantonese and Mandarin.
The eight dishes were served leisurely over the course of three hours, all presented family style and accompanied by a story - an explanation of the ingredients and presentation. According to Chu, each dish is lucky - both in appearance and sound. The first, a potpourri of duck, pork, jellyfish and sea cucumber, was said to bring fertility. All of the happily not-pregnant women at the table, including myself, hesitated for a moment before digging in. The jellyfish was especially delicious, not at all the gooey texture one might expect. Instead, it was chewy and had a nice snap, akin to al dente pasta.
Next was a seafood dumpling soup, followed by pan-seared shrimp, the word for which in Chinese sounds like "ha" - a happy dish. The fourth course was a barbequed free-range chicken, a delicacy in China. According to Long, Asian countries eat much more lobster than chicken, reserving poultry for special occasions. The bird was marinated, dried and then barbequed, making for the crispiest, most candy-like chicken skin I've ever tasted.
A steamed red snapper followed, then black mushroom with abalone (which had the flavor and texture of a meaty mushroom). The seventh dish came out with fanfare - huge lobsters, some the size of a small dog, served over twice-fried pasta and black bean sauce. Lastly, dessert was a ginger crème served in a crepe, accompanied by a marionberry flavored White Russian. The Dude would be proud.
It was clear that Chu spared no expense for the meal - each ingredient was ultra fresh, spiced perfectly and presented beautifully. Traditionally, red envelopes are passed out during Chinese New Year with money and good luck charms inside. At the end of the night, Chu passed around red envelopes filled with a dollar, a card from the KIDS center and a raffle ticket for a spa treatment basket.
I'm not sure if my luck has increased from Five Fusion's Chinese New Year celebration, but I'm a Chinese New Year's convert. New York can have its ball drop and champagne toasts - I'll take an eight-course Chinese meal, good luck charms and centuries-old traditions over "Auld Lang Syne" any day.