Chinese New Year: A toast to Tiger

February 8, 2010

There won't be any ball drops on Saturday night, and thankfully, no one trying to decipher what Dick Clark is saying. Yet more than a billion people on the planet will be celebrating and partying as another year begins anew. The Year of the Tiger, 4708, begins this weekend (and no, it's not sponsored by Accenture). As cocktail waitresses around the country raise a glass, serious Chinese restaurants will be serving special meals for at least a week. In Chicago, it seems as if there are at least one or two new restaurants each year that are willing to go the extra mile -- both within and beyond Chinatown -- and provide at least a starter's guide to savoring the holiday like an ex-pat.

Most dishes that are served during New Year celebrations have some type of special significance or symbolic importance. The dishes will typically contain an ingredient that correlates to a word or phrase, for example: a wish of wealth and a prosperous new year -- gung hay fat choi -- is translated as black sea moss with smoked, dried oysters. "Joyful laughter" = walnut shrimp; "birds of happiness welcome the spring" = roasted squab.

Chinatown's Chamber of Commerce always dominates the New Year's celebrations every year, kind of like Steven Colbert hogging airtime from his guests. It's hard not to: you've got a killer location, an ancient-looking pagoda on Wentworth and dozens of regional Chinese dishes all within a few blocks.

But this year, a number of other restaurants are getting in on the act. Big Bowl is featuring a special menu; so is Sunda and Ben Pao.There's also going to be an Argyle Street Chinese New Year's Parade in Uptown, a week after the big one in Chinatown. This area is sometimes referred to as "New Chinatown." Perhaps that's a response to the fact that Vietnam also goes by the Lunar calendar as well. Their holiday -- known as Tet -- also begins on February 14 this year. The Vietnamese also have symbolic dishes they traditionally serve during Tet: Banh chung‚ and‚ Banh tet are essentially tightly-packed sticky rice cakes with pork or mung bean fillings wrapped in banana leaves. These two items represent Heaven and Earth. You can also find a sweet version of Banh tet with plantain filling.

Now don't get me wrong, I think it's a fine idea to have another parade for the North Side, but isn't having a Chinese New Year's parade on Argyle kind of like throwing a Hannukah Potato Latke festival on Devon? I mean, there are some Jews up there, but it's kind of dominated by Indians and Pakistanis. Same thing on Argyle: you've got tons of Vietnamese joints, a handful of Asian markets and just one predominant Chinese restaurant: Sun Wah BBQ. The restaurant recently moved to larger digs around the corner, on Broadway, and they're especially excited about this year's parade since they've arranged to have a marching band, floats, both lion and dragon dancers as well as a first for the area: official firecrackers. At the restaurant, they're planning on offering a 10-course blowout menu, with every dish relating to some type of traditional saying or New Year's wish, including such timeworn phrases as: "Good luck at the forefront!" (fried chicken); "May you have a house filled with pearls" (fried rice) and "may we have family unity this year?" (pan-fried cake). Chinatown's Parade: On Wentworth from 24th St. to Cermak Rd. Parade step-off time is 1 p.m., although there are other activities starting as early as 11:30 a.m. Argyle St. Parade: Feb. 20, 11:30 a.m.