Chinese New Year is like Christmas, New Year’s Eve and Easter rolled into one glorious celebration. The Chinese use a lunar calendar, and the holiday always coincides with the second new moon after the winter solstice. This year, the celebration begins on Sunday, February 10.
In ancient China, the festivities lasted two weeks, but the modern celebration lasts for three days at most. While feasting and merrymaking are an important part of the holiday, it does have a serious side.
According to Chinese legend, the holiday began when an offended household deity returned to heaven and asked the all-powerful Jade Emperor to destroy the Earth. Upon hearing the demand, the other gods urged the emperor to postpone his decision until he’d had a chance to visit Earth himself.
Forewarned, people put their affairs in order and made offerings to the gods in atonement for their transgressions. The emperor, pleased with what he saw, granted a reprieve.
To symbolically ensure continuation of that reprieve, the Chinese settle their debts, repair strained relationships and subject their households to a rigorous cleaning in preparation for the holiday.
One of the more intriguing aspects of the holiday, at least to Westerners, is the 12-year cycle often referred to as the Chinese Zodiac. Each year is named for a different animal, and people born during the year are thought to have the traits commonly ascribed to the species. This is the Year of the Snake, and the list of attributes includes cunning, intelligence, wisdom, and business acumen.
Food plays a major role in the New Year’s celebration. For home cooks, planning the menu can be challenging, since a lot of Chinese dishes are stir-fries made just before they’re served. The following dish is both easy- on- the- cook and delicious. It may not be “authentic,” but the flavors and ingredients are thoroughly Asian. Add rice, a green vegetable, and a salad made with tropical fruit (think mangoes, pineapple, and even some canned lychee), and you’re all set.
Star Anise Chicken
I came across a simple recipe for an interesting chicken dish in a magazine I was reading in a doctor’s office. The sauce called for ¼ cup orange juice, one-quarter cup soy sauce, one-quarter to one-half cup honey, and one to two star anise pods. With a bit of trial and error, I eventually settled on ¼ cup honey and one star anise pod per recipe.
Star anise has a distinct licorice flavor. It’s hard and doesn’t soften when it cooks. So like cinnamon sticks, the pods should be removed before the dish is served.
I decided to use chicken legs because they do better in braises than chicken breasts, and I also opted to cook the legs skin-on to keep them moist. Diners can remove the skin if they’re watching their fat consumption.
I brown the legs before I add the sauce mixture, and I always double the sauce, even when I’m using as few as six to eight drumsticks. The dish reheats and freezes well, so I generally make more than I need.
The second time I made the recipe, I added dried shiitake mushrooms. The mushrooms have to be soaked beforehand and then trimmed and sliced. Try to buy both the mushrooms and the star anise in an Asian grocery. In addition to the mushrooms being larger, they’ll also be a lot less expensive, as will the star anise. Both the mushrooms and the star anise have a long shelf life. You can leave the mushrooms out, but they add a lot to the dish. A garnish of stir-fried snow peas is also a possibility. And one last hint, I always use a reduced sodium soy sauce.
Star Anise Chicken
6-8 drumsticks, skin-on
6-plus dried shiitake mushrooms, soaked and prepped
Sauce, preferably doubled
One-quarter cup soy sauce
One-quarter cup orange juice
One-quarter cup honey
One star anise pod
Stir-fried snow peas, optional
1. Brown the chicken legs and then lower the heat.
2. Mix the sauce, and add it to the pan.
3. Cover the pot.
4. Braise the dish over low heat for about an hour. If you’re making the dish ahead of time, it should be covered and stored in the refrigerator. Reheat over low heat. I’ve also used the microwave to reheat the dish.
5. Stir-fry the snow peas, and add them to the reheated dish.