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Sticky Fingers 

Chinese recipes I totally stole

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I was a puffy-faced cliché, freshly dumped and lurching around the apartment I'd shared with my boyfriend of four years, stuffing my things into a duffle bag under the bored gaze of our unsympathetic cat. As I scanned the rooms for the bulky sweaters and sad books I'd need to really nail the self-pity, the tipped-out edge of a folder on the bookcase caught my attention. It was my ex's archive of Chinese recipes, some in his mother's looping handwriting, others in his own spiky capitals — recipes I'd watched him transcribe over the phone with his aunts in San Francisco, the same aunts who constantly asked if he's met any nice Chinese girls. Ingredients and instructions he could certainly ask for again from a web of relatives I'd never see again. I dropped my bag and leafed through a few, suddenly laser-focused. Mine. In the bag they went.

You could call it the act of a woman scorned, but the truth is the breakup was pretty amicable. It was sheer greed. I could accept having my 20-something heart broken but I was not giving up the chili prawns. Or the lemon chicken or the other dishes from a generation of Chinese-American cooking that aimed for traditional flavors and shrugged at necessary substitutions, marvelous old-school standards I'd taken for granted at countless Sunday dinners, Thanksgivings and backyard birthday parties for a long-dead grandfather.

Chinese New Year falls on Feb. 19 this year, taking us into the Year of the Ram (or Goat or Sheep, depending on whom you ask). What could be more auspicious for the occasion than plates of bright, spicy, red chili prawns and golden lemon chicken? Maybe something cooked from heirloom recipes that weren't shamelessly purloined under the cover of emotional distress. A sheepish gung hay fat choy to you then.

Chili Prawns

Ingredients and method:

¾ pound raw medium shrimp, shelled, de-veined and rinsed

1 ½ tablespoons vegetable oil

2 teaspoons fresh garlic, chopped

1 green onion, minced

¼ teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon cornstarch

1 dash of white pepper

1 ½ teaspoon chili paste with garlic

1 ½ tablespoon ketchup

1 ¼ tablespoon oyster sauce

1 tablespoon sugar

2 tablespoons white wine

1 ½ tablespoons sesame oil

Drain the shrimp in a colander and pat off the excess water with a paper towel. Toss the shrimp in a bowl with the salt, pepper and cornstarch, then set them aside.

In another bowl, mix the chili paste, ketchup, oyster sauce, sugar, white wine and sesame oil.

In a wok or frying pan, heat the oil and garlic over medium heat until the garlic is fragrant, but not browning. Turn the heat to high and stir-fry the shrimp for 2 minutes. Add the sauce mixture and cook for 1 more minute. Plate the dish and garnish with the green onions.

Lemon Chicken

Ingredients and method:

2 boneless and skinless chicken breasts cut into 1-inch chunks

1 tablespoon soy sauce

1 tablespoon sesame oil

2 tablespoons dry sherry

1 teaspoon minced fresh garlic

¼ teaspoon salt

1 cup vegetable oil

¼ cup cornstarch

¼ cup flour

¼ cup lemon juice

¼ cup white vinegar

¼ cup sugar

¼ cup water mixed with ¾ teaspoon cornstarch

Marinate the chicken in the soy sauce, sesame oil, sherry, garlic and salt for about an hour. Remove the meat and toss it in a mixture of the flour and cornstarch.

In a small saucepan, heat the lemon juice, vinegar, sugar and water with cornstarch over medium-high heat. Let it boil for 1 minute, thickening to a thin syrup.

In a heavy pan or wok, heat the vegetable oil over high heat and fry the chicken pieces until golden brown, turning them to brown evenly. Place the fried chicken on a paper towel to remove excess oil. Plate the chicken (over lettuce leaves is nice) and drizzle it with the lemon sauce before serving.

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