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Wish with fish for a good year

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Updated: March 7, 2013 6:02AM

The Year of the Snake arrives this weekend in Chicago’s Asian neighborhoods. Get into the spirit with a celebratory meal at home.

Many of the ingredients are available on supermarket shelves, or in small shops around the city specializing in ethnic ingredients. Visit Chinatown or Argyle Street for a parade, then pick up ingredients for your feast.

To plan the menu, it helps to understand the traditions. Just like Thanksgiving’s non-negotiable menu, Asian traditions specify certain items be present to usher in the new year. Many of those items are chosen because of symbolism or the way the words sound.

Noodles are ubiquitous as their length symbolizes long life. Use the longest strands you can find and never cut them for fear of cutting your luck.

Whole fish play a large role in festive celebrations. The word for fish, yu, sounds like the words both for wish and abundance. On New Year’s Eve it is customary to serve a fish at the end of the evening meal, symbolizing a wish for abundance in the coming year. The fish is served with head and tail attached, symbolizing a good beginning and ending for the coming year.

Carrot slices, whole oranges or anything else reminiscent of gold coins mean plenty of money in the new year, and spring rolls, folded to look like gold ingots and fried a crunchy golden color, serve the same purpose.

Honey is important in the menu to assure that the spirits who visit earth over the holiday have sweet things on their lips when they make their report upon return to the heavens.

If you are featuring Thai or Cambodian foods, you will want to add coconut and lime flavors and a wider selection of tropical fruits on a platter for a fresh finale.

For Singaporean or Malasian dishes, expect to find some things wrapped in banana leaves, such as this festive recipe from Singapore, where I’m ushering in the Year of the Snake this year. They impart a decidedly tropical island flavor to the meal.

After the menu is set, other habits are to clean the house, especially the kitchen, from top to bottom to sweep away any bad spirits and make way for the new year to enter unencumbered. Decorating with gold and red colors, setting out plentiful food for guests as well as the gods, and giving small gifts to children and visitors are all fun ways to adapt for your own celebration.

If you have a gong and dragon dancer handy, even better, as those scare away bad spirits as well. Because who couldn’t use a little good luck going forward?

Judith Dunbar Hines is a cooking teacher, tour guide, writer and culinary consultant in Chicago. Contact her at

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