Duck duck dragon

SINGKIT - Doreen G. Yu - The Philippine Star

There’s this wonderful animated film on Netflix called “Duck Duck Goose.” I highly recommend it, especially for those who are familiar with Zhangjiajie, the inspiration for James Cameron’s Pandora in “Avatar,” and the old city of Fenghuang, both in Hunan province in China.

That got me thinking about ducks and geese – roasted of course, but also cooked in other delicious ways. My mother had this wonderful braised duck dish that was always a special treat, not just because it was absolutely yummy but because it was complicated and time-consuming to prepare, especially since my mother was not one for short cuts – everything was made from scratch, the proper way, not basta-basta.

About a month ago, when I started to plan my Lunar New Year’s Eve dinner (on Friday, Feb. 9), I thought of this dish from my childhood. I imagined a whole duck as the centerpiece of my table, a glistening deep dark brown (because of the mix of different soy sauces), surrounded by scallions (pre-fried), both braised to perfect tenderness, with a thick, savory/sweet sauce that can be ladled over steaming rice.

So I set about sourcing a duck that would not require six hours or more to tenderize – or even not at all, which was the case in a previous experiment. My niece managed to find a nice fat New Zealand duck at a store in Alabang, which could probably fit the bill. Next came the search for a pot big enough to put the duck in whole, not an easy task as it was a rather big and fat fowl.

Then I searched through my mother’s recipe notebooks – smudged ink, yellowed pages, many falling off their spiral binders. They were mostly written in Chinese, so I had Google translate help me along. She had several recipes for duck, but I couldn’t find the exact duck-and-scallion dish that I wanted. I looked through my Chinese cookbooks and searched online; there were lots of recipes, but none close to what I was looking for.

In the course of my online search I came across numerous entries on what and what not to eat at the New Year’s Eve dinner. There was general agreement that fowl should not be served, as it indicates good luck flying away (I have to wonder why bad luck doesn’t similarly fly away). That, plus my not finding the exact recipe and not getting a pot to fit the bird, I took as signs that perhaps I shouldn’t be having this delicious but possibly inauspicious dish on my dinner table. Perhaps too my mother wasn’t sure I could pull it off, and it would be really bad if my main meat dish turns out to be a bust.

So I’m left with what is not inauspicious, which seems to be pork. I asked my friend Judy, a fabulous cook, what she was serving. Sure enough, it was a braised pork belly. Ordinarily, this is a staple of many Chinese, especially Amoy, dinner tables. My Third Uncle had this – which we call tau-yiu-bah – with steamed rice at every meal (or so the family legend goes), ignoring whatever else was on the table in front of him. When there was a lauriat, he’d have his tau-yiu-bah and rice at home before going to the party. The fancy version of this is called dong po ruo, supposedly invented by a Song dynasty (960-1279) writer and statesman (a foodie too, for sure). The meat and its layers of fat are so tender it jiggles and literally melts in the mouth. But I digress; food certainly distracts.

The New Year’s Eve dinner is the most important meal of the year, so every Chinese family, regardless of means, will make sure their dinner table will be groaning under the weight of so much food. The idea is to have leftovers, especially of fish, to signify abundance carrying over to the new year. Family members, wherever they may have roamed, return to “gather around the hearth,” as my grandmother used to say, which is why train, plane, ferry and bus stations all across China are jampacked this time of year as people rush to make it home in the great annual migration, like our balikbayans and OFWs coming home for Christmas – multiplied a thousand times.

*      *      *

On Saturday we welcome the Year of the Dragon, the most auspicious sign in the zodiac. In ancient China, the dragon represented the emperor, the Son of Heaven. It is the fifth in the 12-animal zodiac, and why this mythical creature with all its powers did not come in first in that race to the throne of the Jade Emperor is because, so one legend goes, it stopped to help a village suffering from drought (it made rain). Their order of appearance, in answer to the emperor’s summons, determined the zodiac order, something we as kids memorized in Hokkien like a singsong rhyme – rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, sheep, monkey, rooster, dog, pig.

While generally used to tell people’s ages (especially in matchmaking), it has come to be believed that people born under a particular animal sign embody traits of that animal. Rat people are therefore thought to be smart and quick witted; Tigers are strong-willed and may be confident to a fault; Snakes represent wisdom, usually outsmarting others. Dragons embody a slew of positive characteristics, from intelligence, luck, magnanimity to charm, talent, even power.

Families want to have a Dragon in the family, so expect a lot of births this Year of the Wood Dragon, from Feb. 10 to Jan. 28 next year. Expect too business openings, product/project launches, mergers and joint ventures, as well as weddings – except during the seventh month of Hungry Ghosts, which is from Aug. 4 to Sept. 2.

For sale on the sidewalks of Binondo and in malls all over town are trinkets and charms that are supposed to bring good luck and prosperity – “di ba swerte yan sa Chinese?” I am often asked. Swerte is a combination of circumstance and labor, what you make of the hand that is dealt to you. If you think a plant or amulet will boost your chances, by all means go for it. At least it will mean good fortune for the vendor and the holiday economy.

So from my family hearth to yours, Xin nian kwai leh, wan shr ru yi!

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