Cock-a-doodle Yu  

Chinese New Year celebrants eat what they wish for.

As we enter the Year of the Rooster, watch what you eat. Every region of China and Taiwan has a panoply of auspicious, highly symbolic Lunar New Year foods, many of them based on wordplay and tradition. "Foodwise, one of the main symbols is fish," says Vivien Sung, author of Five-Fold Happiness (Chronicle Books, 2002). "It's very auspicious because it means abundance." In other words, yu is Mandarin for "fish" -- but spoken with a different tone, it indicates abundance.

Another common ingredient is oysters, fresh or dried, and sometimes served with a silky black "seaweed" that is actually a freshwater algae from Mongolia. According to Raymond Tang, a culinary instructor at Laney College, that's because in Cantonese oysters (ho see) sounds like "good things," and the name of the seaweed (fat choy) puns as "receiving prosperity." Similarly, in Cantonese, "tangerine" (gum) sounds like "gold," "orange" (ju) like "wealth," and "lettuce" (sang choy) like "rising fortune."

Most of the bakeries in Chinatown will be selling a puddinglike cake called nian gao -- nian means both "sticky" and "year" in Mandarin. And in Taiwan, says Anne Huang, president of the Oakland Asian Cultural Center, many people celebrate the New Year by eating sticky things, to symbolize the family sticking together.

Some auspicious dishes are chosen for their shape. Clams (in the South) or jiaozi dumplings (in the North) are said to resemble the shape of old Chinese ingots, while spring rolls resemble gold bars. Yard-long, hand-pulled noodles symbolize long life -- which is why you shouldn't cut them short. And in what seems like a postmodern twist, sesame-seed balls stuffed with bean paste are said to look like tangerines.

And then there are the banquets, where impressing your family members and business associates with expensive dishes like dried abalone are just as much a part of the New Year celebration as auspicious foods, Tang says. If you want to organize a banquet with your friends, make reservations now. During the weeks surrounding February 9, many of Chinatown's largest restaurants offer a range of banquets, from inexpensive to exorbitant. If you don't speak the language, it's best to go to the restaurant beforehand and ask someone to translate the elaborately named, Chinese-only New Year menus for you. Many will cost $88.88, say, or $168.88 -- because the Cantonese word for "eight" (baat) sounds like "make money."

If that's too much, you can find Tang giving cooking demonstrations February 5 and 6 at the Renaissance Plaza on Franklin and 8th streets as part of Oakland's Chinese New Year Bazaar, where some of the stalls will be selling traditional New Year's snacks.

And best of all, there's no hangover.

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