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Celebrating Baby Beginnings

by Stella Fong

Holidays and Celebrations

Spring Volume: 2001 Issue: 8(1) page(s): 13 and 14


Associating my first tastes of ginger with the birth of my sister, I recall when her whimpers and shrieks filled our house along with the aromas of ginger, wine, and vinegar. At that time, Fourth Auntie scurried around our kitchen throwing a chicken into one pot and pigís feet into another. She splashed rice wine on top of the chicken and sweet black vinegar on the pigís feet. Chunks of ginger went into both. Then for a month, simmering bubbles tapped against metal and the air was permeated with spicy, sweet, and sour.

As my mother slept, I wondered if she thought about my grandmother. I wondered if she was glad she lived in modern times and not during my grandmotherís lifetime when a womanís life was ruled by tradition, when her fate was determined by a son, when she had to present her husband a male heir. A daughter would bring her disgrace. She would be blamed for not producing a son. Because of her husbandís displeasure, he could well replace her with another woman, a concubine. Then she would lose her power and status as number one wife.

Such a woman savored the moments of her pregnancy. Her husband has given her attention. She has been allowed to rest and provided with the best food and nourishment for she shoulders her husbandís hopes for the future. A son would produce more children. A son would carry on the family name. A son would marry a wife to take care of them in their old age. Only a son could inherit their land and money.

In traditional times, children represented wealth. The more children a family had, the richer they were. In this patriarchal society, boys were valued over girls. A male could receive an education or get a job. He had a chance to take a place in society. Only he could hold a government position. Families dreamed of their son taking a government exam and honoring them by qualifying for a seat of power and influence. When the woman was in labor, the midwife, mother, and mother-in-law were present. The name of the new child was chosen by the paternal grandparents. The birth of a baby girl was celebrated but hopes were of greater importance for the birth of a boy next time.

The mother was encouraged to rest the first month of confinement. After the birth, during a period varying from two weeks to forty days, she was not to take a bath or wash her hair. It was believed that she would be chilled and become sick. Ginger peelings were saved and dried, boiled with water and wine, and used in the motherís first bath water. This concoction was believed to be best for killing germs.

In southern China, a mother ate a special mixture of ginger, pigís feet, and boiled eggs in black vinegar. To make this concoction called geung cho, the pigís feet were first boiled in water to keep them from toughening when cooked with vinegar. A pot simmered on the stove top and the aromas of sweet and sour filled the house. The calcium extracted from the cooking of the pigís feet helped replenish the motherís strength, while the sweet and sour flavors stimulated her appetite. The ginger helped in digestion while dispelling chills-wind or feng. And if the mother blew on the babyís head after eating ginger it would, the belief goes, ensure a round-shaped head.

In the south, pickled ginger and roast pork were brought by friends and family; while in northern China, the motherís family sent gifts of wheat flour or wheat flour noodles, some chickens and a basket of eggs. Friends also sent stalks of ripe grain and special plain steamed buns or mantou called Ďshare the pain.í The new mother was encouraged to have at least one poached egg a day. At her other meals, she ate chicken or chicken soup. Pigís stomach soup was considered the best for motherís milk. A variety of other internal animal parts such as liver, kidney, brain, stomach, and intestines were also valued foods for the mother and new child. The new fatherís family dyed hard-boiled eggs red. This color symbolizes luck and happiness. He passed them out to relatives, neighbors, and friends to announce the birth of the baby. This is not unlike the American tradition of distributing cigars.

Throughout history, the egg has represented fertility and rebirth. To the Chinese, it is a sign of good luck and happiness. The egg embodies the symbol of yin and yang, with yin representing the negative forces of the earth, the moon, darkness, and the female. Yang represents the positive forces of the sun, light, and the male. The yolk is likened to darkness and the white to light. The roundness of the egg symbolizes well-being, its smoothness with no corners represents tranquility. In Chinese, eggs derive their name from their likeness to a coin purse. The egg white represents the purse, the yolk within the golden coin.

In the past, gifts were mainly brought for the mother. No gifts were given to the baby for the first month because many babies did not live past this point. At the ceremonial first bathing of the infant, fruit and garlic were placed in the bath water. As soon as the jububes (tsao-tzu) or dried Chinese dates were put in the tub, the women present would compete to gather them, insuring themselves a son.

When the baby reached one month, it was time for celebration. A big feast would take place. Most often, appetizers of boiled red dyed eggs and pickled ginger began the meal. Then noodles, representing long life, would be served at this and all future birthday celebrations. Because roast pork was traditionally delivered to relatives and friends as an announcement of a babyís birth, this was sometimes served.

For a month, relatives and friends came and went. That tradition continued in our family, as visitors excitedly cuddled, poked, and squeezed my new baby sister. Each took turns staring at her and predicting her future. Long ear lobes signified a long life, while small lobes indicated intelligence. Large round eyes signified curiosity and alertness. Long fingers predicted talent; small hands meant wealth. A round head signified beauty and a small rosebud mouth, grace.

As each visitor was invited to sit down and enjoy Wine Chicken Soup and Pickled Pigís Feet, my mother told me that at age three I was too young to eat either one. After much begging and whining, I was finally allowed a taste of the soup. Unfortunately, my young taste buds rejected the robust flavors of the soup. After that, I was more than content to eat the winter melon seeds, representing fertility, that my mother shelled for me.

Before taking their leave, the visitors left their good wishes in red envelopes. Those lai sees, filled with money remained tucked around my sister as she slept. Gold bracelets and chains rested on her wrists and neck, guaranteeing good luck and wealth in her future. Pieces of jade, especially a green color heart-shaped one blessed her with a kind and calming heart. Had she been a boy, the gift would have been a fish-shaped jade piece, signifying abundance and wealth. For girl or boy, a round piece, representing wholeness and completeness could also be a gift.

Whenever I taste ginger, I think of the birth of my sister. Its flavor remains as spicy and pungent as ever, even though the Chinese traditions associated with it have mellowed from my grandmotherís day to the present. But like gingerís constancy, we continue to celebrate the birth of all babies. We use the recipes below.
_____
Stella Fong teaches Chinese and Asian-style cooking classes to both adults and children in Southern California and Montana.
Wine Chicken Soup
Ingredients:
1 ounce wood ears
6 dried black mushrooms
1 three to five pound chicken, cut into two-inch pieces
12 jujubes (Chinese red dates)
1 three-inch piece of ginger, peeled and cut into half-inch slices
10 cups water
2 cups rice wine
2 teaspoons salt or to taste
Preparation:
1. In a small bowl, cover the wood ears with boiling water. Let them soak for twenty minutes or until softened. Remove hard ends and discard. Slice into half-inch pieces and set aside.
2. In a small bowl, cover the black mushrooms with boiling water. Let them soak for twenty minutes or until softened, then remove the stems and slice them in half. Set aside.
3. In a large pot, add chicken, wood ears, mushrooms, jujubes, ginger, water, wine and salt and bring to a boil. Then reduce heat to a simmer. As needed, skim off any foam and fat. Cook for one hour or until the chicken is tender. Serve the chicken and broth in bowls.
Serves 10
Roast Pork
Ingredients:
2 pounds pork loin with ribs, if possible
1 teaspoon five-spice powder
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon honey
1/4 cup water
Preparation:
1. Clean and remove hair on surface of skin, if necessary. Then with a paring knife, prick the surface of the meat, about one-quarter to one-half inch deep.
2. In a small bowl, mix together five spice powder, sugar and salt and rub this mixture on to the meatís surface. Let sit in refrigerator for at least an hour and up to one day.
3. Preheat oven to 375-degrees F. Roast pork with meat side down and skin side submerged in a quarter of an inch of water for half an hour.
4. In a small bowl, combine honey with water. Then carefully turn skin side up and brush with honey mixture, then roast the pork for an hour or hour and a half more. The skin surface should be golden brown and crispy and the internal temperature 165 degrees F.
5. Let the meat sit for about five minutes before slicing it into half inch pieces.
Serves 10.
Pigís Feet with Ginger and Sweet Black Vinegar
Ingredients:
3 pounds pigís feet, split and cut into two-inch lengths
1 pound ginger, peeled and cut into 1-inch chunks
1 twenty-one-ounce bottle Chinese sweetened black vinegar
1 tablespoon dark soy sauce
2 teaspoons salt or to taste
6 to 8 eggs, hard-boiled, in their shells
Preparation:
1. Rinse the pigís feet and put them in a large, heavy pot. Cover the feet with cold water and bring to a boil. Quickly drain and rinse well and then with a paring knife and a pair of tweezers, remove any hair or discoloration.
2. Cover the pigís feet with water and bring to a boil again. Reduce heat to a simmer, cover, and cook for forty-five minutes.
3. Remove the cover, and add the ginger, vinegar, soy sauce, and salt. Bring to a boil again and reduce the heat to a simmer and cook for two hours, stirring occasionally.
4. Add the eggs during the last half hour of cooking. There should be about two cups of thick syrupy sauce.
5. Allow the pigís feet to cool for about an hour in the pot, then cover and refrigerate overnight, allowing the flavors to meld and mellow.
6. Before serving, skim off and discard hardened fat and reheat them. Spoon them into individual bowls and serve with a little vinegar and ginger sauce.

                                                                                                                                                       
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