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Monday, January 23, 2012

Happy Year of the Dragon!

On the left, my parents' gao; on the right, gao at Panya.

For the Chinese new year, my parents sent some nian gao, the requisite brown sugar sweetened sticky rice cake and some date and lotus seed candies. It's their way of saying "Happy Year of the Dragon" and "hurry up and have kids." (Of all the 12 animals in the Chinese zodiac, the dragon is the most prestigious. Every time the Year of the Dragon comes around, there's a Chinese baby boomlet.)

The Chinese language is full of homonyms, which make for plenty of punny jokes, and for the new year, all the traditional eats are loaded with auspicious symbolism. The nian gao is always eaten around the new year because "nian gao" not only means "sticky cake," but also to advance, year after year. Usually, the nian gao is topped with dates and sometimes filled with lotus seeds, or there might be a dessert soup with the two, symbolizing more children, a blessing for Chinese. The Mandarin Chinese word for date is a homonym for "early," and lotus seed, or lian zi, sounds like the words "continuous" and "children."

There's almost always fish at a Chinese banquet, especially for the new year. "Fish" is pronounced similarly to "reserve" or "leftover" in Chinese, and by the time the fish course arrives, toward the end of dinner, everyone's usually so full they can't finish it. But that's the point: a hope of abundance for the new year.

Last night, the eve of the lunar new year, was a big night for most Chinese restaurants, but there's still plenty more eating for tonight. Restaurants like Ming's Chinese, Kirin, and Jade Dynasty Seafood still have open reservations.

Chinatown, of course, is always a go-to for nian gao, but Panya also makes a few nian gao variations: the traditional brown sugar cake, a coconut sticky cake, and a water chestnut nian ago that's more like a firm jello with chunks of sweet, crunchy water chestnuts. My favorite way to eat nian gao is to chill it overnight, then slice it and pan-fry it for a caramelized sugar exterior and oozy, sticky inside.

Gung hee fat choy!

Ming's Chinese Restaurant, 841-8889
Kirin, 942-1888
Jade Dynasty Seafood,, 947-8818
Panya, multiple locations,

(Another homonym case in point: Chinese restaurant phone numbers tend to have lots of "8"s, which sounds like "fortune" in Chinese.)

Posted on Monday, January 23, 2012 in Permalink

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About This Column

From five-star restaurants to hidden holes-in-the-wall, Biting Commentary will let you know what’s hot and what’s not. Find out the latest restaurant news—who’s opening, who’s closing, which chef is moving on, where the great special dinners are. Discover the best menu items, fabulous wines, stunning cocktails, hand-crafted beers. Be the first to hear about upcoming food events and festivals.

Food editor Martha Cheng graduated from Wellesley College with degrees in Computer Science and English. She's a former line cook, food truck owner, Peace Corps volunteer and Google techie. Follow her on Twitter @marthacheng.


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