If the winter blues have you thinking back wistfully to New Year’s parties, here’s some good news: Ching-He Huang is celebrating the Chinese New Year this weekend, and we’re all invited.
The star of Cooking Channel’s “Easy Chinese” is hosting “Ching’s Chinese New Year” at 8 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 10 on Cooking Channel.
Kicking off the Year of the Snake, Ching’s special offers a blueprint for the ultimate Chinese New Year’s feast, including food, decorations, traditions and legends. The special takes place in San Francisco, which has possibly the most awesome Chinatown I’ve ever experienced. She even takes us with her to the world-famous San Francisco Chinese New Year Parade.
I got to know Ching last year when I interviewed her for the new season of “Easy Chinese.” She gave a cooking demo at the Food Network’s kitchens in New York, and when I tell you it was amazing, I mean I wish I could find a way to do some kind of Vulcan mind-meld here so you can know what I know about Ching’s cooking. It’s fresh, it’s traditional yet modern, it’s spicy, it’s light… Make no mistake about it, Ching may be a petite Chinese woman with an adorable British accent, but in the kitchen, she’s a heavyweight.
Ching and I have stayed in touch since meeting last year, and I consider her a friend – the kind of friend I can email and say “Why does my Chinese eggplant taste like glue when I stir fry it, WHAT IS WRONG WITH ME, CHING, AND ALSO WHY DOES MY HAIR LOOK LIKE THIS?!” Given how well she now knows me, I doubt she was all that surprised when we talked on the phone this week and my opening question was “So tell me about the Year of the Dragon.”
“It’s the Year of the Snake,” she said gently.
See, this is why they pay me the big bucks.
The Snake, I now know, occupies the sixth position in the Chinese Zodiac and symbolizes traits like intelligence, gracefulness and materialism. The Chinese New Year, sometimes called the Spring Festival, is the most important of the traditional Chinese holidays.
“Chinese people love to eat, to get together as a family,” Ching explained. “We have same hopes and aspirations as everyone else. The Chinese New Year is about togetherness, about hope for the new year, just like Western traditions.”
Much as the Western world makes New Year’s Resolutions, the Chinese focus on trying to be a better person, Ching told me.
“Weeks before the new year, you’re supposed to settle all your debts, clear your house, don’t think bad things… You also bring in flowers that are symbolic of your hopes for the year ahead. Mandarin, for example, because it’s fruitful and you want a fruitful new year. It’s all about the symbolism.”
And, of course, the food. Ching’s special will feature traditional Chinese dishes, but with her own special touch, that element I’ve begun to think of as Ching-ness. If you saw the episode of “Easy Chinese” where she made a birthday dinner for Phil Rosenthal’s wife, actress Monica Horan (“Everybody Loves Raymond” fans know both of them), you know what I mean. Instead of a cake, she gave Monica a bowl of birthday noodles – very traditional – with a candle stuck in the middle – very Ching.
It’s this magic she brings to her New Year’s special this weekend. Learning to cook real Chinese food can be a daunting idea, but Ching takes our hand, smiles, and walks us through it with such a gentle, sweet manner that before you can say “Wok on,” it’s done. And it’s delicious.
She’s a little apprehensive, she admitted to me, about how the audience will react to her New Year’s show.
“It’s a new blueprint for Chinese cooking,” she said. “I try and get the best menu I can and cook it for my family and friends. Everything is based on the traditional, but I give it my own touch.”
Let’s take the traditional uncut noodle dish as an example. Some things you don’t mess with – uncut noodles signify longevity – but Ching adds grated carrots, cucumbers and bean sprouts, then makes an egg pancake that she slices into strips, seasons, and adds to the mix. She calls it “cold noodle salad, elevated.”
Fish is another key element of the Chinese New Year’s celebration, symbolizing abundance. Rather than just a traditional steaming, Ching’s fish is dressed with white wine, pepper, some smoky bacon, Shiitake mushrooms and chestnuts.
“The steamed fish is traditional, but I also give it a sweetness and some savory notes,” she explained. “And everyone can cook it. Everyone can get chestnuts and Shiitake mushrooms and bacon.”
Ching, who makes her primary home in London, is also excited that her special takes place in San Francisco.
“It felt like a completely different world while we were filming,” she said. “It felt like we stepped back in time, like we were in Hong Kong. It’s colorful and vibrant and special.”
Interestingly, those are the same three words I’d use to describe Ching.
For more about Ching and her Cooking Channel shows, visit http://www.cookingchanneltv.com/ching-he-huang.