by Kate Heyhoe
Suppose a benevolent visitor moved into your house, stayed all year, then reported your moral actions to the higher-ups—would you tolerate it? You would if you lived in China, for that visitor would be Kitchen God.
At Lunar New Year, many Asian cultures pay honor to Kitchen God, known in China as either Zaowang or Tsao Wang. One of the most popular lesser gods and credited with the invention of fire, Kitchen God is not a judge of one's culinary talents, but rather an overseer of a household's moral conduct.
Throughout the year, Kitchen God monitors the family's virtues and vices by watching from a position on a kitchen wall or hearth mantle. Kitchen God is not an actual statue but rather a paper depiction of a lavishly bedecked figure, calmly standing aside his handsome steed. Or, in some households, he may be represented by a long red paper banner, inscribed with symbolic gold characters.
One week before New Year's, Kitchen God is dispatched to make his report to the Heavens. His lips are smeared with honey or other sweet substance, then he is ceremoniously burned. His spirit travels upwards within the smoke to the Jade Emperor in Heaven, where it is hoped that he will speak sweet words about the family in his charge.
As with most customs and legends, many variations of the story and ceremony of Kitchen God exist. One account mentions that the burning incense is used to represent the provisions he will need, and that hay should be spread out for his horse on their journey to Heaven.
Linda Lee, who conducts walking tours of San Francisco's Chinatown, explains the variety of other traditions. "Some say to smear the lips of Kitchen God with honey so he will say only nice things about you. Others to say feed him sweets so only sweet words will come out. Still others believe that honey or sweets on his lips will seal them shut so he can't say anything at all!"
Julian Mao of San Francisco's The Mandarin Restaurant further describes Kitchen God: "Every kitchen has a Kitchen God, usually posted near the stove, as a red paper banner with Kitchen God symbols written on it. In front of Kitchen God is an incense burner and a pair of candle stick holders. People burn the incense and candles everyday to pray for protection, or at least burn the incense and candles on the 1st and 15th of each month.
"Kitchen God protects the kitchen from fire, disaster, and all kinds of unwanted trouble. Once a year, on the 24th day of the 12th lunar month, families serve Kitchen God a feast of cooked chicken (which must include head and feet), roast pork, mixed vegetables, rice and more, to thank Kitchen God for the kind protection of the year. Generally a table is set in front of Kitchen God, and the food is left on the table for a few hours, then removed."
When Lunar New Year arrives, I readily dispatch Kitchen God in a spectacular blaze, after first fattening his lips with a collagen-like injection of sweet bean paste. No bad luck for me, I hope!
Asian Lunar New Year continues for two weeks, culminating in the spectacular Dragon Parade in Asian communities around the globe. During this time of revelry, you should eat certain foods to ensure good luck, long life, and prosperity...
Asian New Year Foods
Gung Hay Fat Choy!
Kate's Global Kitchen for February, 2000:
2/05/00 Asian New Year: Honoring the Kitchen God
2/12/00 Valentine Theme Dinners: Setting the Mood with Food
2/19/00 Vietnamese Meals in Minutes
2/26/00 What Food Writers Read: The Oxford Companions
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