Chinese New Year bites
NEW YORK - Food has always played an important role in Chinese culture, and Lunar New Year specialties both sweet and savory are no exception. They are offered at Chinese bakeries, supermarkets and restaurants in celebration of the big event, beginning this year on Feb. 9.
Among the most popular items are:
Nian Gao, the New Year's cake, the most important cake eaten during Lunar New Year festivities, is a sweet, sticky dessert similar to a pudding.
The word "nian" means year, and the pronunciation of "gao" sounds the same as the Chinese word for high or higher. Therefore, eating Nian Gao is thought to ensure advancement in the New Year. The main ingredient, glutinous rice flour, is a symbol of cohesiveness and family. It is believed that a household will have a good year if the Nian Gao is made perfectly, with a nice smooth texture. There are many types of Nian Gao, but the most traditional is the one made with brown sugar and dried dates.
Lo Bak Gao, or turnip cake, is a savory dish available at dim sum restaurants year-round but it is particularly popular during Lunar New Year. Served on New Year's Day as a symbol of prosperity and increasing fortune, the "gao" name again includes a homonym for the Chinese word for tall or high, a good omen for those hoping to grow taller or move up the corporate ladder.
The dish is typically made with white radish or turnips, Chinese sausages, dried shrimp, black mushrooms, and flour. It is generally cut into 1-inch-thick slices, pan-fried and served with oyster sauce on the side.
(Source: Explore Chinatown.)
On the Web:
Wine lore packaged for connoisseurs and for beginners, respectively
Two recent books provide for those in search of information on wine at very different levels, at correspondingly different prices.
-"Bordeaux and Its Wines" (Wiley, 2004, $200) is the 17th edition of an august reference work whose first edition, written by an Englishman, Charles Cocks, came out in 1845. Now translated from the French, it's often called just "the Feret," for the French editors who have updated it over more recent years.
This 2,336-page volume includes thousands of detailed listings of Bordeaux wines and chateau names, along with information ranging from the history of winemaking to individual vineyards' soil conditions and vatting procedures. Black-and-white illustrations of chateaux and wine labels accompany nearly every entry.
-"The Complete Idiot's Guide to Wine Basics" (Alpha, 2004, $18.95 paperback) is by wine writer Tara Q. Thomas, who kindly and informally sets out to answer questions and assumes nothing can be taken for granted.
Building up from the level of catering to the absolute beginner, Thomas fills in knowledge blocks: wine types, tastes, how and when to serve, and much more - perhaps opening the door to connoisseur level and passion enough to spend $200 on a book on Bordeaux and its legendary wines.
Cooking classes at home or on location
Home cooks in search of tuition can stay home and prop a book on the kitchen counter to take them through the learning process. Or they can choose a cooking school in a glamorous setting for a combined vacation-study visit, again guided by a book.
Here's the choice:
-"Cooking One on One" (Potter, 2004, $37.50), by John Ash, offers what its subtitle calls "private lessons in simple, contemporary food from a master teacher."
Ash is a prize-winning cookbook author and food columnist, who also teaches and hosts a radio show about food. In short, he can communicate, and his book channels his experience into instruction. His method: He features a series of basic themes and shows how to develop cooking skills to more complex levels.
The book's three sections are flavor-maker lessons, technique lessons, and main-ingredient lessons, and each has plenty of recipes and color photos.
-"Cooking Schools and Holidays" (Abbeville, 2004, $29.95) is by Jenni Muir, a food writer who divides her time between London and Australia.
She offers attractive options for people looking for their ideal mix of food and travel. Her suggestions feature interviews, color photos and recipes from a variety of places worldwide, ranging from The Culinary Institute of America in New York state's Hudson Valley, to Australia's Sydney Seafood School.
The 25 main areas of culinary and scenic interest selected include food lovers' tours of Paris, elegantly on the beaten track; and the Nick Cairn Cook School in Scotland, or Raffles Culinary Academy in Singapore, in rather more unexpected spots.