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TOPICS INCLUDE: Chinese New Year; Maritime Silk Road; Chinese religions; Graves of deceased; Song dishes in Hangzhou; Seal scripts; A belt and a donut; Feeding parents with an incurable disease; Hasma recipe

by Jacqueline M. Newman

Letters to the Editor

Spring Volume: 2016 Issue: 23(1) page(s): 5-6, 15, and 18


FROM HORACE in MAINE:
Have heard that Chinese New Year is now celebrated by one-sixth of the people in the wold. Is that true, and can you share something about it?
HORACE: Called Nong LI Nian, the Chinese call this holiday 'Spring Festival.' It starts on the first day of the Lunar New Year, a year lasting three hundred fifty-four days. Every few years they need to insert an intercalary month to keep it lined up with the Gregorian calendar that is used in the western world. This holiday, said to have begun during the Shang Dynasty (circa 1600 - 1100 BCE), is such that want it to more closely match with the Gregorian calendar, but it fails to do that. One thing worth knowing, it never starts before January 21st nor after February 19th. A Chinese calendar or place on the web shows exactly when it begins. It used to be a fifteen-day holiday, but the Chinese government now only gives their workers seven days off.

Before the Lunar New Year, often on the eighth day of the last month of the old year, many make and eat laba, a special porridge that includes sweet rice, millet, berries, seeds, beans, longans, and similar foods. There is a recipe for it in this magazine’s index for those who want to prepare it.

On the 24th day of the last month in the old year, families smear the mouth of the Kitchen God with a sweet substance such as molasses, and burn his image sending him to heaven to report to the Jade Emperor saying sweet things about them. He is sent off with firecrackers; they sound like horses hooves, to report about them. Some send him with sweet rice cakes or Eight Treasure Pudding made with nuts and/or other sweet foods such as candied seeds and honeyed fruits. The Kitchen God returns on the last day of the old Lunar Year. On the next day, they put a new picture of the Kitchen God on their hearth; and then they have a family Reunion Dinner.

Many families make hundreds of jiaozi. These are dumplings shaped like gold or silver ingots wishing farewell to the old year and welcoming in the new one. They share these jaozi with visitors until Lantern Festival, fifteen days later. These dumplings wish good fortune to all.

Some families make a New Year Cake instead; it is called Niangao, and it symbolizes reaching higher and higher. Most eat these during the first fifteen days of the New Lunar Year, they give gifts, share sweets, and give money in red envelopes to children, the elderly, and their employees. Everyone stays home New Year’s Eve to welcome the God of Wealth; and during Chinese New Year, no one uses knives as they might cut their luck, and ar this Reunion Dinner, many families eat no animal food to enhance their longevity.

Families offer them and sweets to guests from then until Lantern Festival. They are kept in an eight-section tray called 'The Tray of Togetherness.' It is filled with red melon seeds for happiness, sweetened coconut pieces for togetherness, lotus seeds for many children, dried pieces of bamboo so that all will go well in the coming year, kumquats for prosperity, candied melon pieces for good health, and other sweet items. We know of one family whose tray has nine sections, the extra one, their wishes for wealth for themselves and their guests. Years ago, there were also seven section trays.

On the first day of the New Year, many Chinese eat jao, an eighteen item dish prepared with no animal foods. Some will have yusheng, an eighteen-item cold or hot vegetable dish made with gingko nuts to wish for lots of silver, facai for other items of wealth, dried bean curd for happiness, bamboo shoots for good health, etc.

Incidentally, the family with the nine-section Tray of Togetherness serves chicken, fish, and bean curd on this first day as they are called ji, yu, and doufu. They are wishes for auspicious things in the coming year including abundance and richness. The upcoming year is the Monkey Year; it begins on February 8, 2016. You can check upcoming Chinese Lunar Year dates at: www.chinesenewyears.info where you can read about other this and other New Year traditions. If you are lucky enough to be invited to a Chinese family for this holiday, bring oranges or tangerines because they are wishes for their prosperity.

From MARTY in OREGON:
Just heard there was a maritime silk road. When did it start; and did it feed the Chinese army or navy with rice and other foods?
MARTY: This was not a new travel route. Some boat traffic did exist as early as the Han Dynasty (221 - BCE - 220 CE), but the amount was small. It provided some economic growth from China to further afield, did not traverse any large ocean, but did cross the Indian Ocean, use the Persian Gulf, and go as far as Africa and Europe. These were smaller travel routes, and some of the boats that used them did carry silk as a popular cargo item, as was porcelain.

Recently, Chinese rulers have proposed a 21st century Maritime Silk Road to upgrade the ASEAN-China relationship crossing the South China Sea and reaching Southeast Asia, North Africa, and some countries in Europe via the Yellow and East China Seas and the Sea of Japan. It would connect North and South Korea, Japan, and Eastern Russia and increase commerce to those countries. From this magazine’s perspective, nothing has been said about foods that its ships might carry, or when it might start up. We will keep on top of any news and keep you posted.

FROM LUCKY via e-mail:
Can you tell us about Chinese religions. We know their Lunar New Year is very important, is their God of Creation, too. Is there a holiday to share for this God? What about his totems?
LUCKY: The three most prominent religions in China are Taoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism. Yes, there is a God of Creation called Pangu. Some believe he originated in Central China during the Three Kingdoms period (222 - 280 CE); but not all his followers agree as to who or what he was other than his name. Some say he is a myth, other Chinese worship Yi, the Archer, the Eight Immortals, the Silkworm Goddess, the Monkey King, the Dragon, or some other deities. Some say he has or had a totem, ate special foods for man to grow on, etc. What he was, when, or where is not clear. His early influences may have begun with Shamanism, Animism, or Taoism. China’s earliest religion was probably Taoism. Though its earliest date is not known, we can place Confucianism in the sixth century BCE, and Buddhism in about the first century CE. These are assumed dates, but no one knows for sure.

While some say Pangu is a myth, others believe he was real, grew huge in an egg which eventually cracked its shell and he emerged. We read that he looked like a snake with a dragon head, a man with a furry dog’s head with horns on top, or maybe a rhinoceros. Do you have any idea about what he looked like, or when and where he first appeared? We once read that was in North or South America; and that he got there via an Asian Trans-Pacific route. If you have any ideas about where he first appeared, share them and tell us where you first heard or read this?

To NEWMAN via e-mail:
Can you discuss visiting graves of the deceased and foods eaten when at them?
ABOUT THIS QUESTION: We are withholding your name as requested, though we do not know why. The Chinese usually visit graves on three annual festivals, Qing Ming, the fifteenth day of the seventh month, and the ninth day of the ninth month. When going there to respect ones parents, there is a taboo on sexual intercourse during their long mourning period which is usually three years. During them, women do not use powder or rouge, men do not shave. In the past, there were eight stages of mourning: To acknowledge friends, parents, ancestors, and gods. They did bow slightly and raise clasped hands, bow and let their clasped hands fall to their knees, bend their knees as if to kneel, kneel to the ground, kowtow and touch their head to the ground once, then do it again three times, then twice, and lastly do this three more times touching the ground with their head three times each. As to different foods brought to the grave site, it is because the edibles are brought for the deceased on these three annual visits and they are the very foods loved by the deceased.

FROM HELEN SUE via e-mail:
We did read about a famous restaurant in Hangzhou that served Song-style dishes during Linan times. What was its name, where was it, and were these dishes real or not? One last question, does anyone have a recipe from that eatery?
HELEN SUE: Linan was the capital of the South Song Dynasty for one hundred and thirty years. The entire Song Dynasty was from 960 - 1279 CE. One recipe we read was by Xu Hairong, published by China Food Press in 1988, and eaten in those times. Here is a picture of Sng men preparing some food. The booklet ih this food item was titled: Imitation Song-style Dishes in Bagualou Restaurant in Hangzhou. One from there, we did make some adjustments to years ago. It may have been called “Meng Liang Lu” and below is our rewrite scribbled down the side of our photocopy of this dish.

FROM LION:
What are seal scripts?
LIONA These are ancient Chinese characters in words used when making a name on an item, picture, etc.

FROM WARREN via e-mail:
Heard about a belt and a doughnut from China; and that they were thousands of years old. Was the doughnut edible? Can you enlighten us about one or both?
WARREN: Believe the Nanjing Belt, as it is called, was found in a tomb below a Middle School in Yixing City in 1952. Thought to be aluminum, it turned out to be silver, and that of Zhou Chu, a nobleman. As to the doughnut, that was probably an anchor, made of shale, probably associated with Chinese immigrants in California, in the 19th century.

FROM JOAN via e-mail:
Can you tell us about foods made or written about by Li Qingzhao, AKA Yian Jushi?
JOAN: The only person, a lady, we could locate by that name was a literary figure and poet (1084 - 1151 CE) in the Song Dynasty. Yours is the fourth request about her; we know not why. We have not located anything culinary, but did learn that in her early life she lived in Jinan, married Zhao Mingceng who later worked for the government. He became prominent as an antiquarian, studied ritual practices, bronzes, and ceramics, none were food vessels. Due to years of war and problems with the Jurchens, she moved often, and spent her last years in Jinhua with her brother, in whose home she died at age fifty-seven. In later life, she did write about antiques, but none were in the culinary realm.

FROM APRIL via e-mail
Read that some Chinese believe that is a parent suffers from an incurable disease, one of their children will cut off some flesh from their own body, cook it, and feed it to the ill parent. Is that really true?
APRIL: Hundreds or more years ago, maybe; and we do mean maybe. We once read that, too, but it surely is not true today, and it probably never was for educated people.

FROM LENA:
Enjoyed reading the Summer issue. Your magazine is not just recipes but culture and what people really do.
LENA: Thanks for your letter and your renewal. As to your question in that same issue about the recipe titled: Casserole of Hasma and Watermelon; yes, it was so written in a Chinese cookbook. Did you try it or does the idea bother you? Must confess, we have not but will this next week or whenever we get to Flushing.

Many people react negatively before tasting; we sometimes do, too. However, we try to be more open-minded, and sometimes succeed. This recipe does taste good. Actually, some years back we would have agreed with you, but watermelon is used in so many more ways these days, bet many folk will like it, actually several have already said they do when they tasted a sample.
Scallop Custard
Ingredients:
6 large scallops, soaked and stripped thin
I small onion, peeled
1 small chicken, about a pound and a half, cut in quarters
1/2 small duck, cut in quarters
10 large Chinese black mushrooms, soaked in one cup warm water
1 pound peeled bamboo shoots, sliced
˝ pound bean sprouts, tails removed
1 pig’s backbone, washed clean
2 Tablespoons Chinese rice wine
2 Tablespoons peeled sliced fresh ginger
1 scallion, knotted
2 Tablespoons Chinese rice wine
2 to 3 Tablespoons cornstarch
1 teaspoon ginger juice
˝ teaspoon salt
3 eggs, beaten well
Preparation:
1. Soak scallops in a bowl in cold water, then drain them before adding two cups of cold water, the scallion, ginger, and the wine. Steam them for ninety minutes. Then remove the onion and ginger and discard, and pour the liquid into another pot. Tear the scallops apart into thin strips and put them in another pot with all the other ingredients.
2. In a large pot, add eight cups of water, the liquid from the other pot, the chicken and duck pieces, soaked mushrooms and the soaking water, pig bones, bean sprouts, bamboo shoots, wine, and boil for a few minutes, then skim anything on the surface, reduce the heat, and simmer for ninety minutes. Cool the meat, discard the bones, and tear the meat and the scallops into thin strips.
3. Strain the liquid through several layers of fine gauze, bring back to the boil, add the cornstarch, ginger juice, scallop, chicken and duck pieces, then the other ingredients except the eggs. Bring to a low boil and reduce the liquid to about one cup, then thicken with the cornstarch, add the eggs, and let set, then serve.

                                                                                                                                                       
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