As the Year of the Snake creeps in, families south of Boston are skipping the trip into Chinatown and venturing into Kam Man Food in Quincy for all their new year needs.
Owner Wan C. Wu predicted a busy weekend as people finalized their holiday preparations, likening it to the crush at the mall on Christmas Eve.
On Sunday, at least one group will perform lion dances during midday to herald the Chinese New Year, a 15-day celebration. Next Saturday, at least five groups will perform the lion dances at the market, which is also celebrating its 10th anniversary. On Sunday and Wednesday, Kam Man will be closing at 7 p.m. in honor of the holiday.
The sprawling supermarket on Quincy Avenue also sells prepared foods, housewares, and gifts. Here customers can buy peach tree cuttings with blossoms in pink (the Chinese color of luck, along with red), yellow chrysanthemums, and small leafy trees bearing mandarin oranges. Wu said it’s customary for the Cantonese to buy an entire box of oranges and give the fruit away as gifts.
“We’ll sell hundreds of oranges over the next couple days,” he said. Dragonfruit is also popular this time of year because of its dark pink hue, he added.
The new year isn’t complete without “nian gao,’’ or new year cake. The bakery inside the market sells the steamed cake of caramelized sugar and rice flour for $7. There are also sesame balls (75 cents each), fried dough covered in sesame seeds and filled with sweet lotus seed paste.
Don’t overlook the bakery’s everyday offerings, including its many buns (75 to 90 cents), lightly sweet bread with various fillings. The chicken bun makes a great savory snack, but the bacon-and-scallion bun has bacon bits that are soggy instead of crisp. The pineapple red-bean bun has a nice sugary crust on top.
Slices of purple yam mousse cake ($1.60) are visually striking, even if the concept sounds odd. The mousse has the consistency of a set custard, with a wonderful, subtly floral flavor, and alternates with thin layers of sponge cake. The mango mousse cake ($1.50) is just as good, with a delicate mango flavor.
Avoid the cheesecake slices ($1), which lack creaminess, aren’t nearly sweet enough, and taste flat. The small chocolate explosion cakes ($4) are better, intensely rich like a truffle and bittersweet.
Among the Taiwanese, pineapple cakes are eaten this time of year, and are sold in the grocery section by the box ($2); sampling the bite-size cakes with pineapple filling was underwhelming, however, the taste ordinary.
To satisfy the sweet tooth of children, there are trays of assorted Chinese candies. One large tray ($23) has sesame, coconut, winter melon, and lotus seed confections.
Wan says an offering of meat for ancestor worship is common during the holiday. Whole ducks ($19) and slabs of roast pork hang on hooks in the prepared foods section before they are carved to order. Kam Man’s roast pork ($9 a pound) is much like the kind you buy everywhere else: juicy, salty, and the red glaze is sweet.
Other entrees like duck gizzards and spiced pork stomach — not associated with the holiday — may require an adventurous palate, and Wu says they are authentic recipes. There are also eggplant, green bean, tofu, and noodle dishes, and the store has tables and chairs available for dine-in customers.
The rest of the market has all the ingredients to make traditional new year dishes from the various regions of China, including dumplings, dried mushrooms, dried oysters, and “tang yuan,’’ or glutinous rice balls. All are symbolic in name or appearance.
The Chinese word for “fish” sounds like the word for riches or abundance. The seafood section sells many types, from mackerel to snapper to halibut, mostly in whole form. The fishmongers can fillet them or remove the heads on request, though fish should appear whole at a new year dinner. It also doesn’t get fresher than live — tanks hold lobsters, crab, and more.
If you lack the hardware for a Chinese New Year feast, head to the housewares section for electric rice cookers, woks, and clay pots. Those in search of an elegant gift will find ornamental chopsticks, sake sets, and painted teapot sets.
To grace the home, there are paper lanterns, and banners with symbols or phrases for fortune and prosperity. Don’t forget decorated red envelopes, to fill with gifts of money.
And if the shopping works up an appetite, pick up a “banh mi’’ ($4) at the Vietnamese food stand near the entrance to the supermarket. The crusty baguette with ham, pork, pickled carrots and daikon, mayonnaise, pate, and cilantro is a mouth-watering balance of salty, sour, and sweet.
For his part, Wu will travel with his wife to New York for a dinner with relatives. But they’ll skip the lengthy preparations for meals and eat out.
“You don’t have to do any cooking. Everyone’s busy these days,” he said of the convenience of going to a restaurant. “But it’s not how we would celebrate in China.”
Shirley Goh can be contacted at email@example.com. Follow her blog at whataboutsecondbreakfast.blogspot.com.