Food: Happy new year, again

What could be better than good food that also brings you good luck?

BY NOW, New Year's Eve is but a distant memory, and you're still smugly congratulating yourself on how you managed to survive yet another one.

After all, you didn't get arrested (a caution doesn't count). You didn't make a complete fool of yourself (besides, you never liked that shirt). And you finally managed to get over that mother of a hangover (nothing important ever happens until 4 January anyway).

It's not like me to be a party pooper, but I have some rather disturbing news. New Year's Eve is still 24 hours away. Chinese New Year, that is. There is no bigger event on the Chinese calendar. It's like New Year, Christmas Day, Guy Fawkes night, Wimbledon, and the Last Night of the Proms all wrapped up into one.

Unlike the most recent New Year's Eve, when nothing you do or say actually means anything, and the food is pretty much superfluous, Chinese New Year is full of hidden meaning, and great eating. Being something of a ceremony and festival groupie (Ramadan, Hanukkah, the Japanese tea ceremony ... ) I take the whole thing pretty seriously.

Naturally, I have had a picture of the Kitchen God hanging over the stove all year. No, not Michel Roux, but the Chinese equivalent, the all-powerful Zao Wang. Some time tomorrow, I will smear his mouth with honey so he can only say nice things about me when he reports back to the Jade Emperor.

Then I shall ceremoniously burn his picture, but not before he has been witness to a total spring clean and a very big sweep. It's fortunate his gaze does not extend upstairs to my study.

In keeping with New Year ritual, I shall be sure to pay all my debts before New Year's Day on Tuesday 16 February. I will also be very careful not to drop a chopstick or break a rice bowl, because that would mean the head of the household will lose her job.

While the festivities officially go on for 15 days, with a new celebration every day, the Big Daddy is the New Year's Eve banquet. Twelve dishes are chosen, mainly for their symbolism and connotations of luck. Naturally, it is sheer coincidence that they also happen to be delicious.

So each year, I pause in the middle of the roasted suckling pig, to reflect on the fact that the glossy red colour of its crisp, crackly skin signifies good fortune for the year ahead. While I am shovelling down a bowlful of dried oyster and black sea moss, I take the time to consider that the name for sea moss (fat choy) means prosperity. The traditional New Year's greeting, Kong hay fat choy, means, in all its oriental subtlety, "may your wealth increase".

Of course, I only eat the delicately steamed whole fish because I know that a whole fish complete with head and tail signifies a good beginning and a good ending. Pigs' tongues are on the table because they signify profit; and lobsters are a must because lung ha, the word for lobster, is similar to dragon (lung), a symbol of health and strength.

When the whole meal is over for another year, I bless my cotton socks that I am so devout.

Over the years, I have developed a few New Year traditions of my own. In the Year of the Pig, I had as much suckling pig as I could cope with. In the Year of the Sheep, it was Mongolian lamb hot pot. For the Year of the Ox, it was slow braised brisket with five spice and cinnamon, while in the year of the cock, I lived on Hakka-style salt-baked chicken.

This being the Year of the Rabbit, it is a year of consolidation, reconciliation and refinement. It is also a year of trying desperately to find a Chinese recipe for rabbit. In the nick of time, I came across Sichuan spiced and deep-fried rabbit from the Sichuan capital, Chengdu, to keep me in good luck.

I'm not even going to think about 2000, when it will be the Year of the Dragon.

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