The Chinese New Year parade, which will ring in the Year of the Dog across Chinatown on Sunday, is boisterous and wildly popular. But there are ways of celebrating other than with fireworks. A number of Chinese culinary traditions, often hidden away in the home, are tied to wishes for the New Year: for example, long strings of uncut noodles represent long life, tangerines good fortune, lotus seeds fecundity. What follows is a survey of dishes available for the holiday at Chinese restaurants and bakeries. Note that most of the items will be available only through the two-week holiday period.
BLACK MOSS AND BEYOND
At Phoenix (2131 S. Archer) a dish called "May only good things happen this year"—actually braised black moss with Chinese mushrooms—is available, as is "Laughing and smiling to start the year," i.e., crispy shrimp balls. To a nonnative the menu might read like a greeting card.
"In Chinese it's very easy, but in English it's hard to say," says Charlie Huang, manager of House of Fortune (2407 S. Wentworth), of the special names. "It should sound lucky." Many of the names, which vary from restaurant to restaurant, are actually puns in a language that's rich with homonyms: the name of a classic New Year's dish of whole fish, itself a symbol of abundance, plays on yu, which means "fish" and also "surplus." Hence: eating a fish portends a surfeit of fortune for the coming year. Dragon Court's haha cai da xiao, deep-fried head-on shrimp, uses haha, which means both "shrimp" and "laughter," to suggest a joyous New Year. Dishes often have multiple levels of meaning. "Stepping on golden coins," a plate of black mushrooms and greens at House of Fortune, is so-called because the mushrooms resemble coins. But the dish also incorporates three types of mushrooms, Huang emphasizes, to represent the three generations of the traditional Chinese family.
A number of restaurants are offering extravagant special menus for holiday banquets; Phoenix, for instance, has a ten-course feast for $358. A few dishes are served year-round—Peking duck is on the menu at Phoenix—but again many aren't: the New Year is the only time to try a traditional soup of black moss and pig's tongue.
SWEETS AND SAVORIES
In the days surrounding New Year's, the counters and shelves of Chinese bakeries are crowded with festive goods. Their signs are often untranslated, but as with restaurant offerings, their names are usually phonetic puns, like nian gao, or sticky cake, the characters for which also suggest rising or moving up with each year. The traditional dessert of the New Year, especially in southern China, nian gao looks like a simple steamed cake, but it's a compact mass of unleavened glutinous rice flour whose density belies its size. Saint Anna Bakery & Cafe (2158 S. Archer) offers a Hong Kong variation made with coconut, which adds some fresh snap, but the point of nian gao isn't so much flavor as it is texture. Like the tapioca balls in bubble tea, the cakes exemplify what the Chinese call Q, a characterization of chewy foods whose texture is simultaneously resistant and yielding.
Stacked next to the sticky cake there's often a pan of luo bo gao (the name also means "advancement"), a savory turnip cake that's also Q. Decorated with scallions and bits of pork, the turnip cake at Chiu Quon Bakery (2242 S. Wentworth and 1127 W. Argyle) is particularly good, especially when gently panfried at home.
Other traditional New Year sweets are deep-fried. Golden dumplings like you jiao, stuffed with peanuts and coconut, are shaped into crescents to resemble ancient gold ingots. Like many Chinese desserts, the dumplings have only a hint of sweetness—just enough to portend the sweetness of the year ahead.
Restaurants offering special New Year's menus:
Dragon Court, 2414 S. Wentworth, 312-791-1882
Ed's Potsticker House, 3139 S. Halsted, 312-326-6898
Emperor's Choice, 2238 S. Wentworth, 312-225-8800
Evergreen, 2411 S. Wentworth, 312-225-8898
House of Fortune, 2407 S. Wentworth, 312-225-0880
Silver Seafood, 4829 N. Broadway, 773-784-0668