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Chinese New Year

by Wonona Wong Chang

Holidays and Celebrations

Winter Volume: 1995 Issue: 2(4) page(s): 5, 6, and 11


China, with its five thousand years of recorded history, has many traditions and festivals. People of Chinese heritage, no matter where they live, follow these traditions and observe these special festive occasions. Although January 1st is the recognized legal New Year holiday in the United States, the Lunar Chinese New Year or Ying Li Shing Nian, which generally falls between near the end of January and early in February, is the one that is traditionally celebrated. It is the most popular and important of all Chinese festivals. Most people will celebrate this happy holiday starting the first day to the fifteenth day of the first Chinese lunar month. Deeds that are honorable and good are mentioned and emphasized during this holiday.

In Sumatra Indonesia, where I grew up, all my Chinese neighbors and friends came from Southern China. Most of the families immigrated at least three hundred years before and generally, they lived three generations under one roof. When they prepared for the New Year festival, homes were alive with activities. First, tailors would come months ahead and take measurements of everyone to make them new clothes. Our parents would then take us to shop for new socks and shoes, ribbons for the girl's hair and hats for the boys. The house would be cleaned from top to bottom, from one corner to the other, nothing overlooked. The kitchen would come alive with cooking and baking special foods. These were different from the usual daily fare. Pictures of the door gods were hung on the doors to chase away evil spirits, and couplets written on bright red paper posted on the main gate to welcome the New Year and bring the family good fortune. The festival filled its celebrants with appreciation for those moments in life when blessings can be counted and savored.

New Year's celebration started with a grand feast on New Year's eve, called Tuan Nian when all family members would gather for this happy occasion. On this evening before the New Year's Day, children were allowed to stay up and enjoy the last hours of the old year, a custom called Shou Swei, literally meaning 'guiding the year out.' This, according to old beliefs, would bring long life to their parents.

For the New Year, besides chicken, duck, pork, and fish, there were also pastries specially prepared for this festival. They were and still are called Nian Gao or 'New Year Cakes.' Those made of sweet rice were a must.

All the food and fruit displayed and served at a New Year's celebration have their own special significance. Red is the dominant color. It symbolizes life and happiness. Of course, there are a wide assortment of other colors on display, too. Tangerines are as important as the New Year Cake.

When we visit our relatives to wish them a Happy New Year, we have to bring along a Nian Gao or New Year Cake because it leads to the expression Nian Nian Gao Sun which means 'May your family be prosperous and successful every year.' We also bring along two tangerines, because they are called Gum which in Cantonese also sounds like the word for gold. They are, therefore, a good omen.

The pomegranate, which is sometimes misnamed a Chinese apple, symbolizes fertility with its many seeds. Lotus root symbolizes long life and strong family ties because even after it is cut with a knife, there can be many attached strings between the two cut pieces. Peanuts, because they grow and propagate underground and have long roots, are known as long life fruit. Water melon seeds, which people crack and eat as they sip tea, signify the expression: 'May what you say be harmonious and pleasant.' All of these can be found at New Year celebrations.

In Northern China, the most popular food enjoyed by rich and poor alike is Jiaozi or Dumplings. These have a shrimp, beef, or pork stuffing cooked in a wheat dough-skin wrapping. Often the meats are used in combination and with a vegetable such as Chinese cabbage. They can also be mixed with Chinese chives or even zucchini.

Vegetarian Jiaozi can be stuffed with mushrooms, bamboo shoots, and cellophane noodles. All New Year Jiaozi are folded in the form of a Chinese gold or silver ingot and symbolize wealth and good fortune.

On New Year's day, the first thing that is done is to set off firecrackers and burn incense. The firecrackers are supposed to chase away evil spirits and bring peace and happiness to the family. After that, the family welcomes the deities back from their visit to the spirit world where they reported on the old year, and then they pay respect to their ancestors.

On that day, everybody, men and women, young and old, put on new clothes and go to visit relatives and friends to exchange greetings. In doing so, when I was young we would hold our hands together, bow to them, and say: Gung Shi Fa Tsai and mean: Congratulations! May you become rich; or Do Fu Do Shou which means: May you be blessed with happiness and long life; also Fu Ru Dung Hai, Shou Bi Nan San which means: May your happiness be as great as the Eastern Sea and longevity be like the Southern Mountains.

Next, the younger generations would greet their elders by kow-towing to them. The elders would give each youngster a hung bao or red envelope with money inside. The children would have a great time spending the money for whatever they wanted such as using it for sweets, fruit, or even firecrackers. This of course, would be one of the happiest days of their lives. When I was a child, we always looked forward to Chinese New Year; Chinese children still do.

During the day itself, the dragon dances to the clanging of the gong and cymbals, the beating drums, and the startling sound of the exploding firecrackers. This is a prelude for ushering in a year of good health, happiness, and prosperity.

Although New Year celebrations may differ slightly from region to region, or even adopted differently from country to adopted country, they always remain the most part of a joyful time and the happiest festival of the year.

With the New Year coming on February 19, 1996, I send greetings to you. May your year of 4694 be a year of good health, one with much happiness, and may you have prosperity, and long life.

May you also enjoy some of the foods I serve to guests during Chinese New Year. A few of them follow, including Spring Rolls and Egg Rolls, whose names are used interchangeably. The name spring comes from the fact that spring comes shortly after Chinese New Year. It is a way of welcoming the coming season and receiving its blessings.
Spring Rolls II
Ingredients:
1 boneless chicken breast, about six ounces
1 ounce package cellophane noodles
1/4 cup cloud ear mushrooms (optional)
2 carrots, peeled and grated
2 scallions, chopped
4 ounces frozen shrimp, minced
1/2 pound bean sprouts
1 egg
1 teaspoon salt, or to taste
16 Shanghai-style egg roll wrappers
vegetable oil for frying
Preparation:
1. Cut the chicken into thin slices, then mince it.
2. Soak the noodles in hot water for a half hour. Then cut them into one-inch segments.
3. Soak cloud ear mushrooms in hot water until soft. Then wash them thoroughly and chop them into small pieces.
4. Combine chicken, noodles, mushrooms, carrots, scallions, shrimp, bean sprouts, and the egg and mix well.
5. Take two Tablespoons of the chicken mixture and shape it in a long-round pile in the middle of a wrapper. With a corner towards you, fold wrapper over the filling and tuck the ends in to the middle before rolling the rest of the way. The juice form the filling will seal it.
6. Heat oil to 375 degrees F. Deep fry until lightly browned, turning once if necessary.
Note: Serve immediately after frying if you like them crispy.
_____
Approximate nutrient analysis,
per spring roll, assuming each one absorbs two teaspoons of oil:
Calories 126kc
Carbohydrate 12 g
Protein 6 g
Sodium 254 mg
Total Fat 6 g
Saturated Fat 1 g
Cholesterol 26 mg
_____
New Year Cake II
Ingredients:
20 pitted red Chinese dates
1 pound glutinous rice flour
1 cup brown sugar, or less, to taste
2 teaspoons sweet-scented osmanthus
1 teaspoon oil
Preparation:
1. Place dates in a bowl and cover with just enough water as needed. Soften them for about five minutes. Drain, cut each one in four pieces.
2. Mix flour, sugar and water and knead until smooth. Now mix in the dates and osmanthus paste. (Alternately, they can be saved and brushed on top before steaming.)
3. Put into an oil-greased loaf pan (5 x 8 inch) and with wet hands, spread evenly.
4. Steam for one hour over boiling water. Then remove from heat and cool.
5. Cut into half-inch slices and brown on both sides in a non-stick pan or dip in a slightly beaten egg and brown in a lightly oiled fry pan. Serve hot. Note:Be advised that this cake keeps well in the refrigerator or in the freezer; refrigerated for several weeks, frozen for several months.
Note: Osmanthus or gui hwa jiang is available in small jars in Asian markets. If you can not obtain any, use light corn syrup instead.
_____
Approximate nutrient analysis,
per single slice, assuming 12 slices per recipe:
Calories 240 Kc
Carbohydrate 57 g
Protein 3 g
Sodium 10 mg
Total Fat 2 g
Saturated fat 1/2 g
Cholesterol none
_____
Happy Face Balls II
Ingredients:
1 cup sugar, or less to taste
2 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 Tablespoon vegetable oil
1 egg
1/4 cup white sesame seeds for coating
2 cups vegetable oil
Preparation:
1. Sift first five ingredients.
2. Beat oil and egg and water and pour it over flour mixture and knead until dough is smooth. Divide dough into four portions.
3. Roll one portion and divide into six equal pieces, shaping each into a ball.
4. Dip ball into sesame seeds until coated and let stand ten minutes.
5. Heat oil to 325 degrees F. and deep fry eight balls at a time until they expand, develop cracks, and turn golden. Drain on paper towels and allow to cool. Serve when cool, or refrigerate of freeze to use at a later time.
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