Breaking out of the Chinese food box 

New-trition for Chinese New Year

click to enlarge Quick stir-fried bean sprouts - Read article for recipe.
  • Quick stir-fried bean sprouts - Read article for recipe.

It's tempting to say here it comes, the Year of the Snake, slithering in between the bright red lanterns and the ear-shattering firecrackers. But this Chinese zodiac animal symbolizes intelligence and self-control, even wisdom. So maybe we should picture it striding in confidently in sensible shoes — even if it can strike lightning-fast.

Either way, Chinese New Year is on the horizon and more than a billion people around the world are getting ready to celebrate. Special foods depend on the region of China you're from, but duck, pork, whole fish, bright oranges and sticky rice puddings anchor a lot of festive tables.

This year February 10 is the first day of Chinese New Year, which traditionally is a two-week happening. It also moves around from year to year as it's hooked to the Chinese lunar calendar. The first day of Chinese New Year, or Spring Festival as it's also known, is always celebrated on the first new moon, or the darkest night, between January 21 and February 21. Vancouver's big Chinese New Year parade — the 40th one this year! — starts 11 a.m. on Sunday, February 17 at the beautiful Millennium Gate on Pender Street.

I love Chinese New Year for all sorts of reasons, not least of which is it's a great excuse for trying all sorts of Chinese food, festive or otherwise, made yourself or eaten out.

If you go for making it yourself, an amazing assortment of locally grown Chinese greens are already available from the Fraser Valley, a double blessing this time of year when most green veggies are pathetic after travelling up to 4,000 kilometres from California or Mexico to our store shelves.

One of my local favourites is Chinese celery, tender and delicious, and redolent with a lively celery flavour that punches up stir-fries or salads.

Bean sprouts also make a tasty, crunchy side dish that's healthy and easy on the carbon footprint. At the last minute throw in some snow peas, chopped sui choy (also called Napa cabbage or Chinese cabbage) or slivered carrots and you've got it made. All these veggies are excellent raw, too, and would rate high on the lists of the nutrition-savvy 10-year-olds who inspired us last week.

I've searched for years for a good recipe for bean sprouts, and finally found one that says a-u-t-h-e-n-t-i-c in The Complete Encyclopedia of Chinese Cooking, edited by Kenneth Lo. This is a wonderful book that also provides some background on the regionalism of Chinese cooking as well as helpful explanations of everything from bean curd in its many forms to hoisin sauce (a thick, soy-based sauce that's slightly sweet and hot; great for dipping or cooking shellfish, spareribs, duck).

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