Margaret Kuo was raised in a culture where culinary arts were regarded on a level with music and literature, with recipes treasured as works of art.
Her father was a senator from Manchuria who welcomed some of China's most prominent people into his home for banquets, especially to celebrate the new year. Even after World War II, when the Communists gained power and her family emigrated to Taiwan, Kuo says, the new year was greeted with elaborate meals at which elders and ancestors were honored.
That's one reason Kuo, who had a successful career as a chemist in the United States, eventually went into the restaurant business here. And it explains why she was intent on bringing the Chinese-style banquet to our shores.
Kuo, now with four restaurants under her watchful eyes, is regarded by many as the doyenne of the royal banquet, traditionally held at the Chinese New Year.
The new year holiday, marking 2009 as the Year of the Ox, began Sunday and extends until Feb. 9. But Kuo's banquets will continue through February and some area restaurants from Chinatown to the Main Line will offer banquet menus well into April.
For Kuo, a banquet means an elaborate meal, artfully prepared, using highly prized ingredients served with propriety as a display of respect for honored guests.
A banquet is a departure from some everyday eating customs and an exaggeration of others. At everyday Chinese meals, rice takes center stage and the dishes are served all at once, but a banquet displays the host's generosity and prosperity, so the food is brought in successive bountiful courses.
Guest and host treat each other with great deference. Who enters the room first is as important as where one sits in proximity to the kitchen door, a humble spot.
And all that, the menu and the manners, are bumped up a notch or two for the New Year's celebration.
"New Year's in China," Kuo says, "is like Christmas here."
The house would be scrubbed from top to bottom, to sweep out the old and make way for the new, and then decorated in red for luck and festooned with symbols of good fortune, happiness and longevity.
The children would get red envelopes filled with cash, and everyone had new suits of clothes.
And a table was set with elaborately prepared dishes made with the finest fish, fowl, fruits and spices. It was, she says, a form of Presentation Table laid for the pleasure of one's elders and ancestors whose spirits were said to arrive on the eve of the new year and stay through the entirety of the holiday.
The presence of ancestors in one's home was a blessing and their arrival could not be taken for granted.
So, about a week before the new year, the family would prepare a banquet for the Kitchen God, a spirit akin to a modern-day food critic who traditionally arrives in advance of the ancestors and must be placated.
"If the Kitchen God was not pleased with your cooking, he would say bad things about you to the ancestors and then they might not come. So you make a meal so big that the Kitchen God stuffs his mouth and then he can't say anything bad about you."
Kuo, who arrived in the United States as a college student and met her husband, Warren, at the University of Connecticut, came to Philadelphia to work as a chemist at what was then Women's Medical College in East Falls.
The couple went on to establish four distinguished restaurants and an import/export company called Pearl of the East.
But Kuo's success as a restaurateur was not a certainty from the start. As a child of privilege, she learned to work with master chefs, not become one.
"The only time I cooked with my mother and grandmother was at New Year's," she says.
In 1974, when she opened Peking restaurant in the Granite Run Mall, Americans defined "Chinese food" as cheap chow mein. Instead of egg foo young and wonton soup, Kuo offered authentic Mandarin and Szechuan dishes at prices more typically seen in white-tablecloth eateries.
If not for positive reviews from critics, Kuo says, her business might have gone under. Instead, it has flourished.
Peking restaurant remains happily ensconced in Granite Run, and Kuo's other eateries include Mandarin in Malvern and two restaurants in Media and Wayne that bear her name. She recently turned the second floor of her Wayne restaurant into a Japanese dining room, serving sake, sushi and Tokyo-style cuisine.
The elegant Wayne dining room, where the beef is grass-fed, the shrimp white, and the wine list honored by Wine Spectator magazine, is her home base. This is where she serves her Year of the Ox banquet.
The feast begins with a plate of Four Happiness Appetizers: jumbo shrimp with peppercorn sauce, five-flavored beef, tender asparagus, and thin slices of lotus root to symbolize abundance year after year.
Dumplings are a staple of New Year's banquets because their shape is reminiscent of gold ingots (yuan bao) used during the Ming Dynasty for money; serving them brings the promise of wealth and prosperity.
For the dumpling course at her banquet, Kuo serves one of her signature dishes, Shanghai Steamed Soup Buns, with fist-sized dumplings that, when nipped, exude a gush of delicate soup.
The soup buns are followed by platters of Peking duck, Mandarin cold-water lobster tail, and Kobe beef medallions with baby bok choy.
And there's always room for a traditional dessert - in this case, a sweet chilled soup of fresh lily bulbs, white cloud ear fungi, and Goji berries.
Even a hungry Kitchen God would be satiated.
And here's a money-saving option to consider: The Chinese New Year celebration culminates with the Lantern Festival, which is akin to our Valentine's Day. Take your sweetheart to a Chinese banquet on Feb. 8 and you'll be getting a two-fer.
The Year of the Ox, 4707 in the Chinese zodiac, could be worth watching.
People born under the sign of the ox are said to be unswervingly patient, dependable, tireless, stable, honest, strong and protective.
Feng shui master Lillian Too says the ox "should never be underestimated because of their cool, calm and quiet exterior."
The ox is one who possesses eloquence and an innate ability to achieve great things, and is a born leader.
And this year's most famous ox? Barack Obama, born Aug. 4, 1961.
Obama's lucky elements are metal and earth, which should help him overcome some of the rough patches astrologers say are still to come in 2009.
Chinese astrology master Andy Goh predicts the real estate market will improve (this being an earth year) but not until fall, when Obama enters his peak luck cycle.
Goh advises all earth-metal-oxen to "expect a change in your living environment."
- Dianna Marder
The Chinese New Year celebration started Sunday night and continues until Feb. 9 this year, but some area Year of the Ox banquets will extend through February, March, even into April. Reservations are required at all locations listed below; tax and tip are additional.
6:30 p.m. now through April 30; 10 courses, $48 per person Friday, Saturday and Sunday; $45 Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday; BYOB. Guest chefs from China's Yunnan Province make their first appearance in the United States. See their menu online at www.chinesecc.com.
Margaret Kuo's Restaurants
175 E. Lancaster Ave., Wayne
Year of the Ox Gourmet Dinner, now through Feb. 28, at all locations. Six courses, $45 per person; optional wine pairings extra; see the menu online at www.margaretkuos.com.
Joe's Peking Duck
Chef Joseph Poon
108 Chestnut St.
Banquet menu is 10 courses, $36.50 per person; minimum of six people; seatings at 5:30 and 7:30 p.m. Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights now through March 31. Parties of 10 or more may also arrange weeknight banquets. See the menu online at www.josephpoon.com
Susanna Foo's Gourmet Kitchen
555 E. Lancaster Ave., Radnor
Banquet menu available now through Feb. 28, but not on Feb. 13 and 14. Three courses, $39 per person. See menu online at www.susannafoo.com.
Makes 36 dumplings
1 pound ground pork or beef
1/4 cup thinly sliced green onion
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 tablespoon Asian sesame oil
2 teaspoons finely chopped fresh ginger
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1/4 cup frozen chopped spinach, thawed (see note)
36 wonton or round gyoza wrappers (Susanna Foo prefers Twin Dragon brand)
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1/2 cup water
1. In a large bowl, combine the pork or beef, green onion, soy sauce, sesame oil, ginger, salt and sugar. Squeeze spinach to extract water. Add spinach to bowl and use a large spoon or your hands to mix everything together until the seasonings are incorporated and the spinach and green onion are evenly mixed in.
2. To fold the dumplings: Set up a work space with a dry cutting board, a small bowl of water for sealing the dumplings, the stack of wrappers, and the filling mixture.
3. To shape a dumpling, place a wrapper on the cutting board. Scoop up a generous tablespoon of filling and place it in the center of the wrapper. Dip your index finger into the water, then lightly moisten the outside edge of the wrapper. Fold in half, enclosing the filling and pinching the top edges to make a tight seal. Squeeze out any air bubbles. Create 3 small pleats on one side of the seal, folding toward the center and pressing to seal it well. Form 3 small pleats on the other side and press the entire sealed edge. Press the sealed edge down lightly to plump up the dumpling and make it stand up straight.
4. Continue folding; place folded dumplings in rows on a dry platter so they do not touch.
5. To cook: Heat a 10-inch nonstick skillet over medium high heat. Add the vegetable oil and swirl pan to coat. Carefully place about 12 dumplings in the pan, tucking them to form a circle in one direction (packing them tightly is fine).
6. Let the dumplings cook undisturbed 1 or 2 minutes, until the bottoms are a pale golden brown. Add 1/2 cup water and cover quickly. Let dumplings cook 8 minutes, then uncover the pan.
7. Continue cooking for 1 to 2 minutes more, shaking the pan gently and using a spatula to discourage the dumplings from sticking too much. When the water has evaporated and the dumplings are a crispy brown, turn them out bottom side up onto a serving platter. Serve hot or warm, accompanied by Ginger-Soy Dipping Sauce.
To use blanched fresh spinach: Drop about 4 cups loosely packed spinach into a small pot of boiling water, let cook one minute, drain well, squeeze to extract water, coarsely chop, and measure out 1/4 cup. To use napa or regular cabbage, chop finely and use raw or blanched.
Per serving (based on 12): 202 calories, 9 grams protein, 14 grams carbohydrates, trace sugar, 12 grams fat, 29 milligrams cholesterol, 386 milligrams sodium, trace dietary fiber.
Makes 1/2 cup
1/4 cup soy sauce
3 tablespoons white or apple cider vinegar
1 tablespoon chopped fresh ginger
2 teaspoons sugar
2 teaspoons Asian sesame oil
1/2 teaspoon salt
1. Combine the soy sauce, vinegar, ginger, sugar, sesame oil and salt in a medium bowl.
2. Whisk or stir well to dissolve the sugar and salt and mix everything together into a smooth sauce.
Per tablespoon serving:
21 calories, trace protein, 2 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram sugar, 1 gram fat, trace cholesterol, 341 milligrams sodium, trace dietary fiber
1 cup hoisin sauce
6 tablespoons rice wine or white wine
1/2 cup soy sauce
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup tomato paste
1/4 cup finely minced garlic
2 tablespoons Tabasco
2 pounds pork ribs cut into 1-inch riblets
1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
2. In a medium-size mixing bowl, mix all of the ingredients except the riblets, until smooth. Taste and set aside.
3. Place the riblets in a large roasting pan, and bake, uncovered, for 45 minutes.
4. Remove the pan from the oven, pour the sauce over the riblets and toss to coat.
5. Return the pan to the oven, covered, and bake for another 45 minutes. Toss or baste every 10 minutes so the riblets stay well coated with sauce.
Note: This recipe makes much more sauce than needed. Use only half to two-thirds of the sauce, but do continue basting throughout the cooking time for best results.
Per serving: 194 calories, 11 grams protein, 27 grams carbohydrates, 5 grams fat, 26 milligrams cholesterol.