I grew up in a mostly white neighborhood, and when I was in third grade, the Wu family moved in. I was immediately enchanted. They spoke a different language. They ate different foods. They celebrated different holidays. I felt so lucky that Cheryl was in the same grade as me, and made it my mission to be her best friend.
Image from: http://www.mypictgallery.tk/happy-chinese-new-year-in-chinese-writing/
Perhaps I had the teaching gene even then, because I already loved to play school, and when I found out her grandfather Ya-Ya, who lived with them, wanted to learn to read English, I joyfully volunteered to teach him. He had a worn, yellowed paperback book with short paragraphs written in Chinese and interlinear English. I spent hours at their kitchen table, reading with him, and when I look back I can only imagine what a picture that must have made - 8-year-old me "teaching" old Mr. Wu. But it was a success, on some level. After a few months, he could read children's books to Cheryl's younger sister.
I tell you that story because I believe this experience is where my life-long fascination with Asian culture began. And it explains why I like to celebrate Chinese New Year. This year, I invited a few of my girlfriends over to celebrate with me, and, of course, I went all out. I know the traditions, having been invited to the Wu household for their celebration for a couple of years before they moved away. I decorated with red, brushed "Happy New Year" in Chinese characters on rice paper for each guest, dug out my Chinese porcelain, and made sure to have some Chinese candy on hand.
But the point was to cook, and to share my love through my cooking.I brushed up on the symbolism of the foods traditionally served on New Year and based my menu on those. I made everything from scratch - roasting the pork, wrapping, and making the dipping sauce for the dumplings; creative a sesame sauce for the soba noodles; marinating and making a stir-fry sauce for the tangerine beef; and even the dessert. Here is my version of a Chinese New Year feast:
As you can see, for dessert I made lychee sorbet. The recipe is almost too simple to be good, but it truly was. It was a sweet ending to the meal but not too sweet, with hints of grape and melon and ginger all at once. It came out of the freezer at the just the right texture sorbet ought to be - not too icy, perfectly creamy - thanks to the egg white, a tip I found here. I served it with an almond cookie for crunch, but a fortune cookie would be a nice touch as well. One warning - the sorbet MUST be prepared at least a day ahead of time.
Gan bei, everyone!
Note: must be prepared at least one day ahead of serving
2 cans of lychees in syrup (sizes vary; you want 20 ounces or 500-530 grams)
2 teaspoons caster sugar (although white granulated sugar works fine)
1 1/2-inch piece of fresh ginger, peeled and sliced
1 egg white
Drain the syrup from the lychees into a small saucepan. Add the sugar and stir to dissolve. Bring to a boil over medium-low heat and boil for one minute. Place the drained lychees, sugar syrup and ginger into a food processor and process until lychees are finely chopped. Pour the mixture through a fine-mesh sieve into a shallow baking dish and press on the lychee remnants to extract all the juice. Cover dish and freeze until solid, about 6 hours. Place the frozen mixture into the food processor again and add the egg white. Process on low until egg white is fully incorporated and mixture is smooth. Return mixture to baking dish and freeze again, another 6 hours.