If you thought reading tea leaves might reveal a rosier year, think again. Even the Chinese may not be able to help. Jan. 26 ushers in their Lunar New Year, beginning with the new moon and ending 15 days later with the full moon. Numerically the year is 4707, but according to the 12-year animal cycle, we are entering the Year of the Ox.
About a quarter of the world's population follows the lunar calendar and New Year's is the largest celebration in China, Vietnam, and many other Asian countries. Celebrants will eat special foods to promote prosperity and luck during the year.
The Ox signifies "prosperity through hard work," which sounds more like a Soviet-era work banner than a motto of encouragement in this economic climate. Then again, U.S. President Barack Obama was born under the sign of ox, so perhaps this is indeed an auspicious year.
Specific foods play a part in Chinese New Year as they did on Jan. 1 here. While we ate black-eyed peas and collard greens to ensure good luck and fortune throughout the year, the Chinese eat foods that are homonyms for what is desired. The Mandarin word for fish, for example, sounds like the word for wealth, thus fish becomes a main dish. The word for ginkgo nuts sounds like silver ingots, and so that food is popular. White foods like tofu, however, are not eaten because white is the symbol of death.
Ox will not be eaten in Asia during the New Year celebration. It's not part of the gig to eat the animal -- a good thing for tigers, dogs and dragons. But ox is eaten across the world. Oxtail has been eaten throughout the American South for generations. Centuries ago when oxen pulled the wagons, all parts of the oxen were eaten, including the tail. Nowadays, it's a tail from a cow -- either gender. The Spanish do make a gender distinction, though: Rabo del toro is bull-tail stew. That bull, by the way, met his demise in the aftermath of a bull fight.
Like short ribs, slow cooking tenderizes this lesser cut of beef -- and it is beef. Why do they still call the off-putting "oxtail"? Thomas Hamilton, owner of Down to the Bone, a "soul food" restaurant at 7945 N. Tryon St., says, "I don't know why they do, but I've been eating them since I was a little boy." He goes on to say that this meat is, in fact, a delicacy and when "cooked right is as good as a steak." His oxtail entrée ($10.25) is a popular item on his menu.
But Southern home-styled restaurants aren't the only ones to offer oxtail. Many Caribbean restaurants are known for their luxuriously piquant oxtail dishes. One of the best in town is found at the take-out-only spot Austin's Caribbean Cuisine, 345 S. Kings Drive. Jamaican cuisine is known for its marinated, slow-cooked dishes, and the oxtail stew here is falling-off-the-bone tender, cleaved bite-sized and rests on a bed of rice and beans. Austin's entrée ($10.95) is usually served on weekends. Across town at the Dominican eatery Punta Cana Caribbean Restaurant & Grill, 5230 South Blvd., oxtail stew ($10.75) is offered daily.
Restaurants aren't the only places you can find oxtail. In the 1930s, cuts of meat like oxtails were staple items in butcher shops and grocery stores. In the past, oxtails were inexpensive, but that's no longer the case. A meat cutter at Compare Foods on Independence Boulevard said they sell oxtails both frozen ($4.59 per pound) and fresh ($5.19 per pound). Local farmer Harriet Baucom of Baucom's Best sells oxtails by special order ($4.45 per pound), saying that oxtails are a specialty item typically bought by her higher-end customers. The price of oxtail has increased recently as cutting-edge restaurants start to feature them on their menus.
On a side note, the ox (or cow) may not be the actual animal on the Chinese calendar. Instead, this animal may be the Asian water buffalo -- not a Wild West American buffalo, which is, in fact, bison.
Water buffalo produce 15 percent of the world's milk, and that milk is known for its higher fat content. In Italy, this milk is used in artisanal mozzarella: mozzarella di bufala. This cheese is commonly found in area restaurants and grocers, such as Harris Teeter and Trader Joe's, at a variety of price points. Tommy George, proprietor of Pasta & Provisions, carries it in season with local tomatoes. "We sell it by the boatload then," George says.
Regardless of what animal is on the Chinese calendar, as we enter the Year of the Ox, perhaps a bowl of densely flavored oxtail stew may be just the right dish to ward off the inauspicious.
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