👨🍳 Cooking in the Time of COVID 👨🍳
The Chinese observation of the Lunar New Year is upon us: it’s 4719, the Year of the Ox, known for his determination and strength. Fortuitously, the Ox also possesses great patience, and I am positive that he will be standing by us diligently throughout these distressing times until next year charges in like a raging Tiger and we can all celebrate together as we once did.
But even a pandemic can’t stop us from embracing all of the traditions that make this holiday so extraordinary. One that I particularly enjoy is the way in which wordplay and homophones factor into the selection of traditional foods specially prepared to mark the occasion. For example, at festive gatherings a whole fish will be served, because the word for fish (yu) is a homophone for surpluses.
Now frankly, I could use some surpluses these days and the notion of a whole steamed fish festooned with fresh ginger and scallions appealed to me. However, I knew I wasn’t going to make it to any Chinatown fish markets this year and since I’m cooking for one, the idea that I might find a small enough whole fish locally seemed to be a lost cause. But as I traversed the aisles of my neighborhood supermarket, what to my wondering eyes should appear (I know, wrong holiday), just lying there all alone, curiously out of place in the meat case, was this diminutive porgy, the only one to be seen.
Because it came from a chain operation, I expected it to be prepped and ready to face my culinary endeavors head on. But no. Removing it from its plastic wrapped Styrofoam tray, I found it very much unscaled, ungutted, uncleaned – in other words, totally intact! It’s not that I’m averse to prepping a fish – I’ve done it plenty of times – but I was surprised that this was how it was packaged at my local white-bread American supermarket.
Since it was the only one if its ilk in the case and seemingly untouched by human hands to boot, it occurred to me that it might have been freshly caught, straight out of the Gowanus Canal, perhaps. (“Hey, let’s see if anybody’ll buy this!”) I mused that it might lend a certain aromatic je ne sais quoi to its flavor profile. Since this is the Year of the Ox, a bullhead catfish might be a more appropriate choice – after all, it would cover both bases – but this rogue porgy was all I could land. In any event, I obviously lived to tell the tale and I’m happy to report that it turned out to be quite tasty.
But how that porgy got there is still a complete mystery to me. Which reminds me of another Lunar New Year tale when my inner ox was thwarted in attempting to access a particular nian gao (the traditional sweet rice cake and a homophone for high year) no matter how much determination and strength he could muster – and what should have literally been a snap became a classic mystery.
Curious? Please read my very short story, “The Case of the Uncrackable Case!”
新年快乐! Xīnnián kuàilè!
Stay safe, be well, and eat whatever it takes. ❤️