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Chinese Zodiac

by Irving Beilin Chang

Foods and Symbolism

Winter Volume: 1995 Issue: 2(4) page(s): 16, 17, and 21

There are two Chinese calendars, the official one which is the Julian calendar, and the old one, the lunar calendar. The lunar calendar is based upon the moon cycles and it is the one that everyone celebrates and lives by. The zodiac is based on the old calendar and Chinese New Year and all other festivals are derived from it.

The Chinese zodiac use a twelve animal rotation and it follows this order: Rat, ox, tiger, hare, dragon, snake, horse, goat, monkey, rooster, dog, and boar. For instance, 1996 is the Year of the Rat, 1997 the Year of the Ox, 1998, the tiger, 1999 the hare, etc.

There is a story about the order of these animals. On New Year's day, the Jade Emperor of Heaven asked the twelve animals to come to see him. The ox got up early and arrived first at the heavenly gate, the others trailed after him. The rat arrived second, but he jumped over the head of the ox and saw the emperor first. This is how it became the first on the list.

Around Chinese New Year, many Chinese restaurants use place mats that have the zodiac years and the characteristics of those born in those years printed on them. For instance, one place mat reads: '1995 is the Year of the Boar. Those born in boar years are noble and chivalrous and their friends are life-long, yet they are prone to marital strife. Avoid other boars.' It also says that '1996 is the Year of the Rat. Those born in that year are charming and attractive to the opposite sex. They also are ambitious, honest, sincere, generous, and able to maintain self-control, but often find it difficult to maintain lasting friendships. Those born in rat years are more compatible with dragon, monkey, and ox year people.

People are known by the year they are born in. If you were born in 1932, you'd be known as a monkey. Your characteristics would be such that people expect certain things. Thus, matchmakers, who in China are always looking for successful pairings have as one of their important considerations, the year that each person they are trying to mate is born in. For instance, they will say that you should not marry a dog to a dragon, or a snake to a boar, because they are deadly enemies. So, if you find married life a little tough, maybe you and your spouse were born in the wrong years!

In China, old age is looked upon with honor. If you want to find out how old a person is, without being rude, you can ask an elderly friend or family member: 'What is your honorable age,' and they would not hesitate to tell you their age. Of course, this exchange should take place under very respectable circumstances. However, after living in America for many years, we hesitate to ask so directly. Instead, we occasionally ask, 'Which animal were you born in?' With this information, you can narrow the person's age to a twelve year period and that generally is adequate to accurately estimate the person's age.

This Chinese New Year will be on February 19, 1996. It is a joyous time for the family. Most Chinese who are living away from home always like to return for a visit. For those travelling through China on business, they should avoid the first two weeks of any New Year. If they don't, more often than not, they will find the chef on vacation, businesses often closed, and families busy with each other.

They will also find a traditional snack, Tong Yuan, often served during those same two weeks. It is very popular in all regions of China. For your pleasure, as you may not be so lucky to be there, I have included two variations of this snack. This snack is a sweet soup with stuffed sweet rice balls floating in it. So Tong Yuan is its descriptive name. However, a slight twist of the tongue and one could say Tuan Yuan which means Harmonious Reunion. In family-get-togethers, what could be more perfect than that!

These sweet dumplings can be made without any filling, or filled with sweet black bean paste, or even with chunky peanut butter mixed with toasted sesame seeds and brown sugar. During Chinese New Year, most families, rich or poor, like to make holiday snacks. Probably because of their color, which is golden brown, that they look like a tangerine and are very tasty; the Glutinous Rice-Sesame Balls lead to good luck and prosperity. Nian nian jian dwei, ren vu wo yu translates to 'Every year Gulinous Rice Balls, we all have it' and there is nothing more important than starting the year right. Jian Dwei is the Cantonese name for Glutinous Rice Sesame Balls.

There are many variations of these recipes, most important is that you have a Happy New Year!
Tong Yuan--New Year Sweet Dumplings
2 cups glutinous (sweet) rice flour
1 cup cold water
1/2 cup sweet black bean paste
1. Combine flour and water and mix until you have a smooth dough. Then divide it into thirty balls, about one-inch in diameter.
2. Flatten each ball into a two-inch circle with your hand and place 1 teaspoon of bean paste in the middle of the circle. Fold dough over and seal and reroll into circles.
3. Boil six cups of water, add dumplings and stir them to prevent sticking. When they float, simmer for five minutes, strain and serve.
4. Best to put four of them into a bowl and add brown sugar to taste.
This recipe serves six.

Tong Yuan with Sweet Rice wine
To the Tong Yuan recipe in the 'Chinese Zodiac' article, add two tablespoons sweet rice wine made with fermented rice to the water. This can be purchased, or better yet, see Flavor and Fortune's July 1995 issue where the recipe is on page 9.

Tong Yuan with Peanut Butter
1 cup chunky peanut butter
3 Tablespoons brown sugar
1 Tablespoon toasted seeds (optional)
Use in the Chinese New year Tong Yuan recipe substituting the sweet black bean paste with this filling.

Jian Wei are Glutinous Rice-Seame Balls
2 cups rice flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
6 Tablespoons sugar
1 cup water
1 cup sweet bean paste (do sa)
4 to 6 Tablespoons white sesame seeds
2 cups vegetable oil
1. Combine flour, baking powder and sugar and sift.
2. Add water and mix until dough is smooth; then divide it into sixteen equal portions.
3. Rub a little oil on your hands then roll each portion into a ball. Flatten the ball into a pancake about two-and-a-half inches in diameter.
4. Place one teaspoon of filling on the center and roll it into a ball.
5. Dip the balls in water and then roll them in sesame seeds.
6. Heat oil to 325 degrees F. Put eight balls into the oil and stir them for about eight minutes; they will expand and turn golden brow. Drain on paper towels and serve.
Note #1:I like to make extras and reheat them in a 375 degree F toaster-oven for about twelve minutes. They can go in a microwave for about thirty seconds. But I must advise the editor of this magazine does not like them or any starch product made in a microwave oven as they get too chewy.
Note #2: These are very similar to Wonona Chang's Happy Face Balls, also in this issue. Try hers or these and enjoy one of them for your Chinese New Year.

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