Thursday, January 27, 2011

Power of Superstitions: Chinese New Year's traditions & angsts

Vintage & Contemporary Lie See (Lucky Money)
& Lucky Candies 
Chinese Lunar New Year's Eve (Wed. February 2nd, 2011) is fast approaching. The time of uncertainty and stress associated with the Year of the Tiger should come to an end, and I should feel a state of calm come over me as the Year of the Rabbit kicks-off on Thurs. February 3rd, 2011. Well, I'm anxiously tackling items on my "Prep for Chinese New Year 2011" checklist while having angsts over traditions so steeped in superstitions passed on by my ancestors. The superstitions dictate the frenzy, I and likely many others within the Chinese community, are going through right now until New Year's Eve. My list has been amusing and bemusing anyone outside of the Chinese culture, as in the case of my hubby. He finds it hard to believe that this CBC (Canadian-born Chinese), raised in Toronto, could be tied to so many "silly" superstitions despite all that hi-tech!

Top 9 Chinese New Year Superstitions:

* Sweep kitchen floor & Wash kitchen floor
I've noted in my daytimer to sweep and wash the kitchen floor by Tues. February 1st. It would be bad luck if I did it on February 2nd, Chinese Lunar New Year's Eve! I'd be sweeping out the good luck from home! Likewise for dumping the dirty water! 

* Garbage/Recycle Days Taboos
We have alternating Garbage Collection and Recycle Day on Thursdays. This year Chinese New Year's Day falls on a Thursday Garbage Collection Day! Aye-Yah! You should have seen my hubby's look of sheer amazement (or horror?)  as I pointed out that on January 20th we needed to pitch whatever needs to go into the garbage collection, and that on February 3rd we must keep any garbage in the house! Guess what we're doing on Thurs. January 27th when it's Recycle Day? 

* Hair Cut Appointment before Chinese New Year's Eve 
This subject is always a huge bone of contention as one ponders over when is the ultimate last day you can slot your hair cut appointment into a packed agenda, as it's considered bad luck to have it done too close to Chinese New Year. You'll sever your good luck! Yes, there are chances of accidents, where you get snipped and not your hair! Keeping all this in mind, I set my hair appointment with my amazing stylist, Guy Krouse at Salon Vivace for this Fri. January 28th so I'd be ready for the Chinese New Year's prep tours and of course, the two banquets on February 2nd and 3rd.

* No Showering on Chinese New Year's Eve
 It's bad luck to wash your hair and have a shower! If you're active and go to the gym, this one can be a challenge as nobody wants to go to school or work stinking like a skunk! Apparently, in the good old days, most Chinese villages lacked plumbing, whereas in Toronto, we have great plumbing! Try telling your mom this one. Anyway, I and other Chinese friends just go to the gym and not inform mom about showering after that vigorous gym class! The other solution: not go to the gym just prior to New Year's Eve and be stressed out from skipping your workout! Hubby could barely contain his laughter when I informed him about this superstition and the angst behind it.

* Get Chef Knives Sharpened Before Chinese New Year's Eve 
I called before dropping off my chef's knife at Nella Cucina. They promised that I'll get it back within a week, before it's Chinese New Year's Eve! Whew! Superstition: knives severs good luck, so you'd want to sharpen before it's the new year and retain good luck in the new year! Aye-Yah!

* Bad Luck to Start with Broken Crockery
I must pitch any broken dishes, cups, plates and any other crockery as it's considered to be "bad luck" to start a new year with broken stuff. After my Sunday tour, I'll replace a few chipped cups while picking up Green Chopsticks for my banquets. Aye-Yah! So much to do, and so little time!

*  Replace Dead Houseplants with Fresh, Live Plants!
It's inauspicious having dead plants as you're carrying over the bad luck from one year to the next! So I better swing by one of those Chinatown shops on Sunday after my tour and replace one of the bamboo shoots in my planter to ensure a lucky Year of the Rabbit! Agghhh!

* Settling Debts in order to Start New Year with a Clean Slate
It's funny how Chinese New Year follows right after the holiday season of gift spending, as it make settling debts a tad challenging... Sigh, it got to be done, otherwise you hear your ancestors murmuring about the bad luck for the new year!

*  Exchange Old Bills for Crisp New Bills at the Bank 
Bank tellers in Toronto's Second Chinatown banks (Spadina Ave/Dundas St W) or other areas wouldn't blink an eye when an Asian patron request for crisp new $5, $10 and $20 bills. It's considered good luck having crisp new bills in the pair of Lie See (Lucky Money) you hand out to little kids and any unmarried adult siblings.  I must also buy more of those red/gold envelopes. Sigh!

Money Tree Decoration for Chinese New Year

Before it's "Curtains Up" for the Chinese Lunar New Year festival, here are a few more other items I'll try to tackle to ensure more even luck in the Year of the Rabbit ...

* Buy 3 Kumquats (fruits) with green twigs & tie with red string/ribbon for good luck!
* Buy a box of Lucky Pastries from Chinese bakery (re-fills of wallet-shaped pastries, fire cracker-shaped cookies; smiling face cookies)
* Buy more bags of Lucky Candies
* Pick-up 3 Sesame Balls from Kim Moon Bakery
* Find golden platter to place fruits, candies & Lie See as decoration on table in lobby for guests!

Happy New Year!

Gung Hey Fatt Choy in Cantonese or

Gong Xi Fa Cai in Mandarin or

Chuc Mung Nam Mui in Vietnamese! 

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Savouring Thoughts with Chef Pilar Cabrera Arroyo

Friday January 14th, 2011 

Toronto is so fortunate to have Mary Luz Mejia and her husband Mario Strojanic, the two principles of Sizzling Communications based in this ever-evolving city. Thanks to them I heard about the special arrangements made by the Stratford Chef School to bring Oaxaca (region in Mexico dubbed the Land of Seven Moles {pron. Moh-leh}) cuisine to Stratford at The Old Prune and to Toronto through acclaimed Chef Pilar Cabrera Arroyo.  In Toronto, she lead approximately 20 culinary-focused high school students at Danforth Collegiate & Technical Institute on Friday January 14th, 2011.  Media was invited to sit-in on the class, help cook or even enjoy the authentic Oaxacan lunch the students created alongside Chef Pilar.  

Photo of Chef Pilar Cabrera Arroyo, 
courtesy of Mary Luz Mejia, Sizzling Communications 

I had the pleasure of posing a few questions to Chef Pilar for her to savour over... Many thanks go to Alvin Starkman who did a fabulous job translating the questions and answers for this interview with Chef Pilar!

SL:  What advice do you have for the attending students?
PCA:  When preparing Oaxacan food, and for that matter any kind of food, use patience, and be passionate about what you’re doing.  If you don’t have the passion for food and cooking, it just won’t work. 
SL:  Oaxaca boasts an impressive gastronomic repertoire long admired by the rest of Mexico and foodies the world over. What new exciting directions do you think Oaxacan cuisine will go in?
PCA: I think we’ll see more of a fusion of flavours. Oaxacan cuisine has developed in this way since colonial times. A lot of ingredients are indigenous to Oaxaca (and Mexico), but the Spanish introduced many ingredients as well. What began hundreds of years ago, will continue, and grow. Mole negro, i.e., is not comprised of only ingredients which are native to Mexico. Many of the more than 30 ingredients were initially brought to Mexico by the Spaniards. Mole negro was a recipe which developed over time. Keeping with the theme of mole, I think we’ll see a preservation of the current ingredient list, and basic preparation techniques, but where we’ll see change is in its presentation… more contemporary and novel, or cutting edge presentation, with the same recipe(s).  In that way the flavours which we as Mexicans have developed over generations will continue, but the dishes will be different in terms of appearance. Flavour is one dimension of cuisine, and another is the visual impact it has on the diner; the appearance of the dish can and should enhance the overall experience.

 SL:  There is a huge focus on freshness and local ingredients. What about seasonality?
PCA: We have an abundance of fresh, seasonal produce, all the time. On the other hand, while for example mangos are always available, they’re only now, mid – January, being produced locally, after a draught of three or more months not finding them in the markets in terms of quantities of very fresh product. But we have other fruits, so we’re never without lots of fresh seasonal produce. Huitlacoche (corn mould) is a delicacy, and while you can find it throughout the year, and some restaurants use it in recipes all year round, the best time to get and use it is in the rainy season.  It’s the same with chapulines (grasshoppers), one of the foodstuffs for which Oaxaca is famous. Oaxacans tend not to buy and eat chapulines all that much except during the right season, when they are fresh and harvested locally.  Chiles en nogada is a seasonal dish (in part because its presentation has the colours of the Mexican flag and hence it’s served towards the end of August and throughout September), but can be made year round.  However, when made during the optimum season, the dish explodes with flavour because of the fresh seasonal fruit from the sierra (i.e. pears, apples, peaches). It makes such a difference.  So getting back to your question, here in Oaxaca, Oaxacans are very sensitive to seasonality. Visitors to Oaxaca will appreciate the impact of the use of seasonal produce native to the region because of the difference it makes to the end product, the dish.
SL:  Your career path is one long love story connected with food.  After completing your food engineering and nutrition degree, you were hired by food giant Herdez-McCormick for Research & Development.  In 1994, you opened your award-winning restaurant called La Olla (the Pot) featuring regional produce (organic if possible). Then, you started your own cooking school called Casa de los Sabores (House of Flavours).  Looking back, if you had to do it all over again, what would you do differently?
PCA: Instead of a degree in food sciences and nutrition, I would have studied gastronomy; because that’s what I love more than anything.  On the other hand, my educational background in chemistry and everything else I learned in university has certainly given me a base from which to advance personally with what I’m passionate about.  What I learned in food sciences has helped me a lot with learning about and developing flavours. So while when asked that question of course I must give an answer, and the answer is gastronomy v. food sciences, I have no regrets since the education I did receive has served me quite well, and I can still draw on it to advance myself gastronomically, as a chef and in teaching others.

Celebrated Chef Rick Bayless (of Chicago's Frontera Grill and Topolobampo) is one of the others she taught. He says, "I would strongly urge anyone with an interest in Mexican food to take advantage of any opportunity to learn from and experience the Oaxacan cuisine of Pilar Cabrera. She is one of the greats!" 
The New York Times and Bon Appetit magazine have echoed similar sentiments.  Toronto is so lucky to have her in town to share her passion for Oaxacan cuisine! Thank you Stratford Chef School for sharing Chef Pilar with Toronto!