Double happiness for the Chinese New Year
Were about to welcome the Year of the Snake. (Fotolia.com / February 6, 2013)
In the Chinese zodiac, the years progress through a dozen astrological signs, different animals possessing auspicious meanings for coming year and for those born during that time. We're about to welcome the Year of the Snake, a sign believed to be a time for reflection and discipline, leading to security and prosperity. Isn't that a sensible and hopeful thought?
I always like to celebrate the Chinese New Year with special foods, a practice I began after opening my Asian-fusion Chinois restaurant in Santa Monica back in 1983. We like to serve special dishes like sauteed prawns with black bean sauce over noodles (which signify long life); whole sizzling fish deep-fried and accompanied by a spicy "firecracker" sauce (fireworks are believed to scare away evil spirits); and other auspicious foods.
But you don't have to get extravagant to celebrate in your own home. Even a few thoughtfully chosen ingredients or an imaginative but easy presentation style can make your Chinese New Year's meal memorable. Consider, for example, my Yin Yang Soup.
Over the past couple of decades, it's become popular for restaurants to serve what's often referred to simply as "two soups in one bowl" -- soups of contrasting colors and flavors, sharing the same bowl side by side. Many people think achieving the effect calls for some sort of secret trick; but, really, all you need to do is make sure both soups have similar consistencies, so they don't flow into each other; and then pour them simultaneously and steadily from a pair of ladles, one held in each of your hands. Rotate the ladles slightly counterclockwise as you pour, and then dot each with a contrasting spoonful of the other soup, and you'll have a close approximation of the Chinese yin yang symbol, which represents unity and balance.
The pair of refreshing cold soups in this particular recipe have complementary Asian flavors, of course: a tomato soup mildly spiced with ginger, lemongrass, and chili oil; and a pea soup made creamy with coconut milk. Both can be prepared well in advance of your meal, to be kept chilling in the refrigerator until serving time.
When the moment arrives to serve the soup, relax and don't rush it. If the first bowlful, prepared while you're still getting the hang of it, looks a little messy, just serve it to yourself. And feel free to tell your guests that you're offering them this pair of soups in a spirit of "double happiness" -- a traditional Chinese wish for good fortune.
YIN YANG SOUP
1 tablespoon peanut oil
1 tablespoon thinly sliced onion
1/2 teaspoon minced fresh ginger
1/2 teaspoon minced garlic
1/2 teaspoon minced scallion
1 Kaffir lime leaf, torn in half, or 3-inch strip lime zest
1 piece fresh lemongrass, about 3 inches long, trimmed, cut from the base end, crushed; or 3-inch strip lemon zest
2 cups whole peeled plum tomatoes
1 tablespoon tomato paste