In San Francisco…hell, in the Bay Area…there is NO shortage of Chinese restaurants to go to for a celebratory Chinese New Year dinner. However, as any local will tell you, all the decent ones (and even some borderline mediocre ones) are packed to the rafters during this time of the year with families of all sizes, everyone vying for the coveted large round tables, herded in and out like commuters at rush hour. My family has, on more than a few occasions, been rushed through the obligatory eight-course preset menu, complete with Peking duck and long-life noodles in under 90 minutes, all the while yelling across the huge lazy susan in order to carry on a conversation above the din of the overcrowded room. Needless to say, it’s hardly an enjoyable experience.
Her abhorrence of crowds and mediocre food…because let’s face it, even the “good” Chinese restaurants over hype and under perform when they’re trying to turn their tables 5 times in one night…has led my mother to sometimes take a non-traditional approach to celebrating Chinese New Year. A few years ago mom had the novel idea to go to a neighborhood Italian restaurant for Chinese New Year to avoid the hoards of Chinese families. It would’ve been a win had she picked a better place. Instead, we traded mediocre Chinese for subpar Italian! Last year my sister-in- law, Yvonne, volunteered to wait in line for an hour to purchase roast goose and BBQ pork from arguably one of the best vendors in town (and probably the only one my mother deems worthy), anxiously hoping and praying they didn’t run out before it was her turn (apparently there was lots of hoarding going on), just so we could enjoy dinner at home. This year, to avoid standing in line completely, we opted for “cook it yourself” Japanese sukiyaki, somewhat unconventional but certainly not as weird as Italian.
Like Chinese hot pot, sukiyaki involves cooking from a communal pan (preferably cast iron) with everyone picking and choosing from a variety of raw sliced meats (mainly prime beef), vegetables, tofu and noodles. The difference is that instead of a large pot of clear broth, the food is simmered in a shallower pan with a smaller amount of liquid that is richer and more concentrated in flavor consisting of soy sauce, mirin, and dashi (Japanese fish stock). To make things easier my other sister-in-law, Mariko, bought bottles of very good premade sukiyaki base.
While I guess the whole point of going out to eat or buying prepared food for Chinese New Year is to avoid handling big knives (and thereby reducing the risk of cutting oneself and having “bad luck” for new year), the minimal preparation involved (you can get the butcher to slice up the beef) and communal aspect of sukiyaki makes it the perfect alternative to usual Chinese New Year fare. Best of all, there’s no yelling across a large table or getting jostled by harried waiters or rushing to finish an eight course dinner!
To cap off our Japanese meal, I made Mochi with Chestnut Filling for dessert (and a lemon meringue pie, but that’s another story). This mochi is a variation of my mom’s recipe, which is surprisingly easy and very delicious…and can be made in the microwave!
Mochi with Chestnut Filling
- 1/3 cup Mochiko Sweet Rice Flour
- 1/3 cup Glutinous Rice Flour
- 1/2 cup Sugar
- 5 oz. Warm Water
- 1 cup Chestnuts, cooked and peeled
- 3 Tbsp. Powdered Sugar
- pinch of salt
- 1 Tbsp. Rum
- 1 tsp. Vanilla Extract
I leave you with a clip from one of my favorite movies from director Ang Lee, Eat Drink Man Woman (1994). It’s one of the best films ever made about food and family, which is, after all, at the heart of Chinese New Year. Gung Hay Fat Choy!