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Chinese Lunar Year: Its Festivals and Foods

by Jacqueline M. Newman

Holidays and Celebrations

Summer Volume: 2016 Issue: 23(2)


The Chinese have many festivals, most probably began as agricultural events, a few may have been religious. Among the foods shared on these days may have been eggs wishing for fertility; noodles for long life; ducks for marital fidelity; chickens for good marriages; lotus, watermelon, and other seeds for many children; and oranges, tangerines and pomelos for wealth. Sticky sweet rice cakes were there wishing for a sweet life; garlic chives for eternity, too.

In China, most holidays were celebrated for three to seven days. The first of their Lunar Year was a fifteen day one known as Spring Festival. Now a seven-day public holiday, the first three days are legal holidays, the rest are not. Many a boss gives whole week off, his or her employees having enough time to return to their parent’s village in time for the evening meal, one called: ''The Reunion Dinner.’

SPRING FESTIVAL is the more common name of the first day of the Chinese New Year in China; it starts the lunar calendar. It is not on January 1st but is the first day of the Chinese Year, and it is the most celebrated holiday. Shops and offices are closed, many food facilities often not. For this Chinese New Year, most workers go ‘home’ the night before to be with their larger families for a ''Reunion Dinner'' on this eve of the last day of the 12th month on the lunar calendar. For many, this dinner may be their best meal of the year, it certainly is the best they can afford. The week before, they clean, dust, and remove all dirt from their homes, pay all their debts, and they make ready for the coming year.

For this holiday, they don new clothes, shoot off fireworks after midnight, eat a New Year dessert called niangao or they have special dumplings that look like gold and silver ingots; they were probably made a day or more earlier, and are wishes for a sweet auspicious New Year. They have already taken down the image of the Kitchen God from near their hearth, and with firecrackers said to sound like horses hooves, sent him off to the Jade Emperor in Heaven. hey have also sealed lips with a sweet sticky substance to assure his telling this emperor only good things this family did during the past year. Until Lantern Festival which is two weeks later, they eat and serve guests treats, many are fried, others can be vegetarian to bring luck, or sweetmeats including niangao or those dumplings looking like rich ingots.

The word nianguo is a homonym--also known as a homophone for a better year, a happy life, and prosperity. Oil used to be very expensive, so many fried foods are wishes for their prosperity. A whole carp is common, too, as the Chinese word for fish is yu, and in Chinese it sounds like prosperity so it also welcomes the God of Wealth. There are some who only eat vegetarian foods at this meal, another way to have wishes for a year of abundance.

Millions of workers, students, and others not living at home, travel there. One report said that more than three hundred million did just that last year. That means getting bus, train, or air reservations is no easy feat. In 2015, this festival was from February 18th to the 24th; in 2016 it was from February 7 to 13, and in 2017 it will be from January 28 to Feb 2nd. Many a boss gives their workers not only time off, but also a red envelope with cash, it is a sort of bonus, but expected, to help defray their travel expenses. Red envelopes are also given to children, the elderly, the infirm, and the needy.

At this Reunion Dinner, beside carp or another fish wishing for prosperity, chicken and/or lamb is served as a wish for luck, noodles as wishes for a long life, sweet rice balls for family harmony and a sweet year, dates for an early spring, and golden oranges and tangerines for positive economics. The latter two are received, also given when visiting family and friends.

LANTERN FESTIVAL is also called yuanxiao and is celebrated on the 15th day of this first lunar month. Many make or purchase lanterns, and in the evening they parade them around lighting the way for, among other things, ghosts to find their way home. Many make and eat rice-flour dumplings, too. No longer a public holiday, these festival foods, filled or not, are called tangyuan or yuanxiao and are featured at bakeries and restaurants. People like to dip them into syrup as wishes for a sweet year. One chef told us they also symbolize peace and unity, and on this day, many children visit their grandparents, others might take part in a Lantern Day parade; and all wear their new clothes because they like to see and be seen.

QING MING is the festival also known as Tomb-sweeping Day. It is usually between April 2nd and the 6th and many call it 'Clear Brightness Festival' or 'Pure and Bright Festival.' It occurs on or near the 5th of the month, and Qing means pure and Ming means bright. Hence the name of this one-day legal holiday. On this day, many families visit the graves of their ancestors, clean around them, and bring these relatives foods that they recall they liked. They can have a picnic here. For those that stay at home, they may set a table for their deceased ancestors and put out foods they recall they loved sharing them with them. Some have a shrine for their ancestors in their homes, and they can put these foods there, kow-tow to them three times; and eat the foods in remembrance of the good times they had together. Years before, this holiday was celebrated for three days, but no longer is; now it is a one-day legal holiday. The foods served vary house to house because they are foods the ancestors loved.

COLD FOOD FESTIVAL is very near this holiday and some combine these two events, even bring cold foods to their ancestral grave sites. Some eat them there others make cold foods and eat them at home. An article about this festival was in a past issue of this magazine; it can be found in the Article Index listing. People used to light firecrackers and burn paper money for the deceased, even burn paper images of their favorite foods. Now, as most no longer have this day off from work, it is often only old folks that have time to visit the graves and eat with their deceased relatives. Firecrackers are now banned in many places so that part of the holiday is also becoming a thing of the past.

MAY DAY is the next holiday on the Chinese calendar, and it is always celebrated on May 1st. Rare is the person who gets this day off, but all can celebrate watching local military parades and the like. Families prepare cold foods, often those their ancestors liked, or a cold soup such as the one among other dishes at the end of this article.

DRAGON BOAT FESTIVAL is a lunar holiday, is comes next on the Lunar Calendar, and most often is a day off from work. Early in June, it was a three-day public holiday but like many others now is just one day, and is on the 5th day of the 5th lunar month, often called Double Fifth or Duanwu. This festival honors Qu Yuan, a patriotic poet who was devastated when his kingdom of Chu was captured during the Warring States period about two thousand years ago. On that day, he threw himself into the Miluo River holding on to a large stone wanting to drown, and he did. His body was never found even though many boats and many folk went out looking for him. They threw rice balls in to tempt him home, but they did not work. Now foods, also to tempt him, are triangular-shaped, and people hope that fish will not devour him and eat them instead. That is why they throw in zongzi in the river near them, they they do remember him. You can read more about these special treats and find a recipe for them on this website in our recipe index. People also drink wine with realgar in it on this holiday. It is wine with the additive arsenic sulfide. It is meant to keep poisonous creatures away. Some spread some on their children’s faces and bodies to keep them away from harm. They also can make, buy, or serve these sticky-rice dumplings; and they eat salted duck eggs remembering this patriotic poet.

VICTORY DAY is September 3rd. In 2015, it was the 70th anniversary of China’s victory over Japan. it is not a legal holiday and people do not get a day off, but many do get time to go and see military parades and floats featured on this holiday. To our knowledge, there are no special foods for this holiday.

QIAOGUO is also called QIXI DAY and it is known by both names. Some say call it 'Chinese Valentine’s Day.' It is celebrated on the 7th day of the 7th Lunar month and is the holiday about Zhi Nu, the weaver maiden whom some call ‘The Fairy from Heaven' who met and fell in love with Niu Lang, the 'Cow Hand.’ They know that he farmed and she wove, and they know that they wanted to marry; and did. She went to earth to be with him, and when the God of Heaven finally heard that they had and already had two children, she was very angry. So this Queen of Heaven took action had the Weaver Maiden return to heaven. She then took a golden hairpin and drew a line in the sky to separate these lovers forever. When the King of the Galaxy found out, he had other thoughts, one of which was to let them get together one night every year. To do so, he gathered the magpies, had them build a bridge of birds beak to tail, and he the bridge a reality.

Look up and you can see what he accomplished, look at the bright star next to the Milky Way; it is the Weaver Maiden. The three stars on her other side are her husband and children, and on this special night, all lovers celebrate with them. Young women make special pastries with nuts on or in them to share with their lovers; the magpies, too. Young girls dress up, set out some tea on a table under a trellis with these goodies, and get seven threads and seven needles. The one who threads them fastest shows skills in needlecraft; this helps them snare lovers. They share the sweetmeats, in the sky they see the bridge that helped them get together; and if you believe, you should be able to see them. Can you; and do you know that any goodies left over are enjoyed by the magpies who thank the you ladies for them.

THE GHOST FESTIVAL is the 15th day of 7th Lunar Month, and a holiday but without a day off from work. In the evening, people light lanterns to help wandering ghosts find their way home, so expect to see many lanterns helping them wander that way. There are no special foods we know of for this holiday festival; do you know of any?

MID-AUTUMN FESTIVAL is celebrated on the 15th day of the 8th Lunar Month, and known also as the Moon Festival or Zhongqiu. On this day, people eat moon cakes which are often round, though they can be square, and they enjoy fruits on this day, too. In some regions, such as in Suzhou, they eat a layered shortbread made with gingko and other nuts, or filled with bean paste, shrimp, and/or fruits. In Guangzhou, the fillings can be coconut paste, lotus seed paste, fruits and nuts, even an egg to symbolize the moon. Some say longevity, good fortune, or happiness are to be had on this holiday, and special cakes often have a picture of a moon on them.

This holiday legend is about Chang E flying to the moon. This Autumnal Equinox day began at least during the Tang Dynasty, though it may have begun earlier as an agricultural festival. Moon cakes come in various flavors from different regions; many have their own specialties, and often they are given to relatives and friends to wish them a long and happy life. Some, such as Mongolians, chase the moon, while Dong people steal vegetables or fruits on this day. There are those who make their moon cakes square and they say this way they symbolize family unity.

DOUBLE NINTH is celebrated on the 9th day of 9th month. Some carry a dogwood or a chrysanthemum branch on this day. They eat chrysanthemum cakes also known as the Nine-layer Cake. These are different in different regions of China, and the only uniform thing is that they are made with rice flour. This tells the Chinese they wish to gain new heights. They also drink chrysanthemum wine. Some of Their cakes are also made with chestnuts, gingko and pine nuts, and with pomegranate seeds. These have been popular since Zhou Dynasty times. While some do purchase theirs, quite a few elders did tell us they make them because few bakeries carry them these days. On this day, many hike into the mountains to increase their health and provide happiness being outdoors and doing something for themselves.

SENDING WINTER CLOTHES is an ancient holiday when many used to burn paper clothes to keep their ancestors warm during the winter. Some say they celebrate this time on the 1st day of 10th lunar month, but not every one agrees, nor does everyone even know about this festival any more.

ONGZHI is a festival that comes six weeks before Chinese New Year. When it does, tangyuan are enjoyed and said to promote family unity and prosperity. It is also to be a reminder that Chinese New Year is coming very soon.

OVERALL, most holidays are remembered by many as days to clean ones home, think about paying one’s debts, make special dishes, and celebrate the day in a special way eating special foods. On many of them, seeds and candied fruits, are offered to guests in those trays with the eight compartments. Called ‘togetherness trays,’ they are special throughout the year, and special markets and other stores do sell items for them. They can include candied melon seeds wishing health or many offspring, peanuts for longevity, sugared longan and other fruits for many sons, pieces of sweetened coconut for togetherness, Chinese dates to attain ones goals, lotus seeds for fertility, etc. There are those who believe that eating these sweets will make their wishes come true sooner than if they did not have them. Others share them with those that visit. These sweets are for those wanting to bring their wishes to fruition. Holidays are important because they inspire family to stay together, and though celebrated less and less, they are times do get together, go out for dinner, and simply enjoy good Chinese food when they do.
Niangao for the Chinese New Year
Ingredients:
12 ounces Chinese brown sugar pieces
3/4 cup cornstarch
3 to 3˝ cups glutinous rice flour
dash of salt
2 Tablespoons vegetable oil
8 pitted Chinese red dates
Preparation:
1. Mix sugar and one to one and a quarter cups cold water in a saucepan, and bring to the boil slowly, dissolving the sugar. Then remove the pan from the heat and allow the liquid to cool.
2. Next, mix the cornstarch, glutinous rice flour, and the salt, and make a well in its center and pour in the sugar water and half of the oil.
3. Brush a nine-inch round cake pan with the rest of the oil, and add the flour mixture to it.
4. Steam this for three hours over boiling water, checking with a cake tester or a nail until it comes out clean. Then put one or more dates in its center, and remove the pan and its contents from the steamer and allow it to cool before cutting it into pieces and serving.
Tangyuan for Lantern Festival
Ingredients:
1 and 1/4 cups glutinous rice flour
˝ pound black sesame seeds, toasted then ground
1 cup confectioners sugar
5 Tablespoons lard, melted
1 Tablespoon sesame oil
Preparation:
1. Mix glutinous flour in a small bowl with two-thirds if a cup of water that is a mite warmer than room temperature. Mix to make a dough, then make a long sausage-shaped roll, and cut it into twenty pieces.
2. Mix well-ground seeds with the sugar, then very slowly, add the lard and make this into twenty pieces and put one into every rice flour dough and completely sealing it in.
3. In a medium-size pot, bring one quart of water to the boil, then put the stuffed balls in one at a time. Boil them for three minutes then add half cup of cold water and return that to the boil and when it does, add another half cup of cold water and again return it to the boil.
4. Put half cup of the boiling water into each of ten soup-type bowls with two steamed balls of dough, and serve.
Cold Bean Soup for the Cold Foods Festival
Ingredients:
1 pound green mung beans, cooked for half an hour or until soft
1 Tablespoons tapioca flour
˝ cup granulated sugar
˝ cup cream
1/4 cup more cream or coconut milk
10 goji berries, cooked for five minutes
Preparation:
1. Make sure the mung beans are soft, then mash them or put them into a blender with the cream or the coconut milk and the sugar. Now cool to room temperature.
2. Serve the additional cream of coconut milk on the side, each person adding as much as they would like. They can have one or two balls into each of their bowls.
Zongzi for Mid-Autumn Festival
Ingredients:
35 bamboo leaves, soaked in warm water for twelve hours. then drained and set aside
4 and ˝ cups short grain rice soaked overnight
2 Tablespoons thin soy sauce
2 teaspoons salt
1 pound belly pork cut coarsely, then simmered for fifteen minutes, and drained
1 teaspoon granulated sugar
2 Teaspoons Chinese rice wine
˝ teaspoon ground white pepper
1 Tablespoon vegetable oil
5 salted cooked duck egg yolks, peeled and then coarsely chopped
Preparation:
1. Gently mix soaked rice and all the other ingredients.
2. Trim ends from the leaves and using three for each zongzi, fill them folding them into triangles and tying them with some string; do so carefully but not too tightly.
3. Put them in a large pot of water, bring to the boil, and simmer for four hours, then remove and serve or refrigerate them. Reheat then when and as needed.
Moon Cakes for Mid-Autumn Festival
Ingredients for the dough:
1 wooden moon cake mold
5 Tablespoons cornstarch mixed with all purpose flour for dusting the mold
˝ cup all-purpose flour
1/4 cup Golden syrup
1 teaspoon Chinese alkaline water
1 teaspoon vegetable oil
Ingredients for the filling:
1/4 cup lotus seed paste for each moon cake
5 quail egg yolks, cooked until solid, half for each moon cake
1/2 Tablespoon rose-flavored cooking wine for each moon cake
For the egg wash for all the moon cakes:
: 1 egg yolk and 1 egg white mixed together
Preparation:
1. In a large bowl, mix the syrup, alkaline water and oil, then gently stir in the flour. Knead it, then let it rest half and hour before rolling it out thinly. Use some to line the moon cake mold, some to put on a top which will become the moon cake bottom. Then add the filling, with half a yolk, if desired and seal the top which will be the moon cake bottom when baked. Knock each one out onto a cookie sheet and then prepare the next one. They do not get cooked in the wooden mold. Cover all the moon cakes with plastic wrap and let them rest half an hour. To make the filling: soak the egg yolks with wine, wipe them off, and cut each in half, if desired. Now roll the filling paste into a long tube and cut it in ten parts or the number needed. Mix egg wash to brush on each finished moon cake before baking, and bake them for fifteen to twenty minutes in a 350 degree oven. Now cool and serve as planned. NOTE: Different regions of China use different fillings such as: lotus seed or any other pastes. Let them cool on a wire rack, and store in an air-tight container until ready to serve them; and do note they get soft the longer they sit in his storage container.
.
Moon Cakes for Mid-Autumn Festival
Ingredients for the dough:
1 wooden moon cake mold
5 Tablespoons cornstarch mixed with all purpose flour for dusting the mold
˝ cup all-purpose flour
1/4 cup Golden syrup
1 teaspoon Chinese alkaline water
1 teaspoon vegetable oil
Ingredients for the filling:
1/4 cup lotus seed paste for each moon cake
5 quail egg yolks, cooked until solid, half for each moon cake
1/2 Tablespoon rose-flavored cooking wine for each moon cake
For the egg wash for all the moon cakes:
: 1 egg yolk and 1 egg white mixed together
Preparation:
1. In a large bowl, mix the syrup, alkaline water and oil, then gently stir in the flour. Knead it, then let it rest half and hour before rolling it out thinly. Use some to line the moon cake mold, some to put on a top which will become the moon cake bottom. Then add the filling, with half a yolk, if desired and seal the top which will be the moon cake bottom when baked. Knock each one out onto a cookie sheet and then prepare the next one. They do not get cooked in the wooden mold. Cover all the moon cakes with plastic wrap and let them rest half an hour. To make the filling: soak the egg yolks with wine, wipe them off, and cut each in half, if desired. Now roll the filling paste into a long tube and cut it in ten parts or the number needed. Mix egg wash to brush on each finished moon cake before baking, and bake them for fifteen to twenty minutes in a 350 degree oven. Now cool and serve as planned. NOTE: Different regions of China use different fillings such as: lotus seed or any other pastes. Let them cool on a wire rack, and store in an air-tight container until ready to serve them; and do note they get soft the longer they sit in his storage container.
.
Qiqiao Pastries for Lovers
Ingredients:
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 cup granulated sugar
˝ teaspoon coarse salt
2 Tablespoons lard
2 Tablespoons vegetable shortening
3/4 cup mixed nuts, toasted and coarsely chopped
2 Tablespoons gingko nuts, toasted and chopped
2 Tablespoons pine nuts, toasted
2 Tablespoons raisons, coarsely minced
2 Tablespoons haw fruit, pitted and minced
1 Tablespoon Chinese red dates, minced
2 teaspoons minced dried tangerine peel
3 Tablespoons Chinese rice wine
2 teaspoons vegetable oil
Preparation:
1. Remove two tablespoons of the flour and set it aside. Then mix rest of the flour with the sugar and the salt.
2. Mix lard and shortening using two knives, and cut them into crumb-like pieces. Next mix them with the remaining flour mixture and half cup of cold water making a dough.
3. Knead this dough and then roll it out to about five by twenty-four-inches.
4. Mix the reserved flour with the chopped nuts and fruit, and the tangerine peel and wine and put this down the center of the dough, the long way, then roll it pinching the sides and the ends, and cut it into two-inch pieces, crimping them on both open sides.
5. Brush half the oil onto a long baking sheet, and brush the rest of the oil over the tops of the pastries.
6. Bake in a 375 degree oven for half a hour, then transfer them to a cooling rack. Serve them or put them into tins or plastic boxes when cool, until needed.
Xuehua Taoni for Many a Festival
Ingredients:
˝ pound stale bread, cubed and soaked in cold water for one minute, then squeezed of its excess water
4 egg whites
˝ to 3/4 cup vegetable oil
3 Tablespoons walnuts, coarsely chopped
3/4 cup melted lard
1 cup granulated sugar
2 Tablespoons candied squash, finely chopped
2 Tablespoons candied tangerine peel, finely chopped
2 Tablespoons candied Chinese dates, finely chopped
2 Tablespoons fresh Chinese green olives, pits removed, their pulp finely chopped
1 Tablespoon crystallized rose petals (optional)
Preparation:
1. Before beginning, set aside a tablespoon of the nuts and candied fruits for garnish.
2. In a large bowl, beat two egg whites until frothy, then mix them with the bread.
3. Next, heat the oil just until warm, then add the walnuts and stir-fry for one minute, then drain.
5. In a clean bowl, beat the other two egg whites until stiff and set them aside.
6. Now stir-fry the bread mixture until crisp, then add the sugar and other fruits and nuts stir-frying for one minute longer then slide this mixture onto a serving plate shaping it into a flat oval looking like a platter.
7. Spoon the stiff egg whites on top, and decor with the reserved garnish; then serve immediately cutting this into small serving pieces.

                                                                                                                                                       
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