Tradition calls for Chinese New Year celebrants to prepare dishes symbolizing longevity and luck. Yet once the festival begins, participants aren’t supposed to cook anything at all.
“It’s always chaos leading up to New Year’s,” says Lily Lei, co-owner of Lee Lee’s Hot Kitchen, which is planning a special menu to mark the 15-day holiday that starts Thursday. “It’s horrendous work.”
For a variety of reasons, including a customary avoidance of knives during the holiday, cooking is considered taboo during Chinese New Year. But the superstition is complicated by other superstitions, such as the belief that a hard year will follow if the food supply is depleted. So Lei’s family every year readied for the holiday by cooking up massive amounts of a 10-vegetable stir fry, composed of ingredients that each symbolize something auspicious. Even the name of the dish (xi xian cai) sounds like a New Year’s greeting.
“You make a big wok of it, and then throughout the 15 days, you eat this dish all the time,” says Lei, who has a running joke with her family about the difficulties of remembering all 10 required vegetables. “All the siblings would call and say ‘I only have nine!’”
Because Lei’s relatives emigrated from mainland China generations ago, they’ve kept up traditions that have faded away in their homeland: The cooking abstention isn’t practiced in many big cities. Even the Leis scaled back the expectation from 15 days to three when Lei was a teenager.
“But we try to keep it going for the next generation,” she says. “Otherwise, they have a Chinese look or Chinese name, but they don’t have a sense of identity.”
In honor of the holiday, Lee Lee’s Hot Kitchen is serving xi xian cai tomorrow night. Other items on the special a la carte menu include fish and nian gao, a sticky rice cake. While the rice cake is usually sweetened with brown sugar and dates or red beans in China, Lee Lee’s is serving a savory version with pork and spinach.
“The American palate wouldn’t consider a pan-fried rice cake as dessert,” Lei says.
Lei also had to bend to American tastes on the matter of tangyuan, a small glutinous rice flour ball cooked and served in boiling water. The snack marks the end of the holiday in Lei’s family.
“I brought back samples from New York City,” Lei says. “Some of the staff tried it, and some of them spit it out. It’s a texture thing. For me, I could eat that every day, but when I saw the reaction, I thought maybe we’ll just explain it.”
Or maybe the restaurant will offer it as a freebie, Lei suggests, much like the boiled peanuts and red envelopes planned for the tables.
For more information about Lee Lee’s Hot Kitchen, 218 President St., call 822-5337 or visit leeleeshotkitchen.com. The New Year’s menu will be available from 5-10 p.m. Feb. 19. Parties of eight (speaking of good luck) or more people can reserve a table.