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Recipe Requests - Foods for New Year

by Jacqueline M. Newman

Holidays and Celebrations

Winter Volume: 1998 Issue: 5(4) page(s): 8 and 20

The upcoming Chinese New Year is the Year of the Rabbit; you may have also seen it as the Year of the Hare. This holiday, known as Chinese Lunar New Year, is a time for reunion and renewal of spirit. It is also the time to clear up all business obligations, pay all debts, clean the house, and prepare foods with which to celebrate. When the holiday arrives, cease work and get on with the business of enjoying family. It is important to end indebtedness and make appropriate preparedness for allowing for success in the coming year.

This most widely celebrated holiday has been known by a plethora of names including: Time of Beginning (Yuan Chen), Beginning of the First Month (Yuan Shuo), and First Morning of the Year (Yuan Dan). It is also known as Spring Festival (Chun Jie). The latter name saves confusion now that the Gregorian calendar has been officially adopted in both China and Taiwan.

Days before the actual holiday, shops stock new fabrics for making new clothes and new garments, as well as new shoes and fabulous food items, calendars, couplets, large strips of red paper, red envelopes, images of the Kitchen God and other deities, and favorite allegoric or symbolic figures such as Guardians of the Door, well-fed children, the Gods of Longevity, Money, and more.

Children delight in shopping for new clothes, some adults do too. Strips of red paper are prepared with couplets and hung on doorways and the hearth. They can be poetic or just a wish for riches. They might say simply or in a more fanciful manner: 'Be prosperous,' 'May you be Successful,' 'Ten-thousand Generations,' and the like.

Red envelopes are prepared with money for the children and the servants, and the Kitchen God has his lips were smeared with sugar so that when he reaches heaven, he shares sweet things about the household in the past year.

New Year's Eve is reserved for family. It is not uncommon for small gifts to be exchanged among family members. On New Year's day there is considerable feasting. The days just after are for visits made to family elders, other family members, dear friends, and sometimes special work colleagues, in that order.

Firecrackers are important components of the holiday. Their purpose is to scare away evil spirits. In many homes, they also help the chariot for the Kitchen God as this deity wends its way to heaven. Special foods are important, too. Many have multiple seeds in them as wishes for progeny, preferably male. New Year Cakes are popular in many regions, some more complex than others. Jaozi are also popular, particularly in Northern China. These meat-filled dumplings are wrapped in a thin layer of dough and made literally by the hundreds to be consumed on New Year's eve. Traditionally, a few were stuffed with coins of copper, silver, or gold, sometimes with precious stones. The inclusion of these items were a wish for a prosperous year. Peanuts might also be included as the word for this nut, sheng, is a homonym for the word for life. Dates and chestnuts might be used by those who wanted a son as the word for dates, zao, and the word for chestnut, lizi, sound similar to zaozi, or early son.

In South China, New Year is also the time special fruits. Grapes, Buddha's hand (see the article about this food item in this issue), wintermelon, persimmons, peaches, and Chinese pumpkin are popular as are special pastries, some quite sweet. In and around Ningpo in the Zheijiang Province, their pastries are salty and often made from red or black rice with pine nuts, walnuts and sweet osmanthus in them.

During the Ming Dynasty (1368 - 1644 CE) and the Qing Dynasty (1644 - 1911 CE), the court gave special banquets in the Imperial Hall. One report about one such banquet speaks of ninety tables set for ranking officials loaded with wine and many dishes. Music was provided during the repast as was other entertainment in a huge hall (probably in the Forbidden Palace's Hall of Preserving Harmony). The room was decorated with four special flowers, camellia, lotus, narcissus, and those of Buddha's hand plant. The reason for these four is that they symbolize springtime, many progeny, good fortune and prosperity, and happiness and longevity, respectively.

Telling fortunes is popular during the New Year and at other times. Use of the eight characters known as bazi, or the combination of heaven and earth, is used. One needs to know one's birth date to determine one's destiny.

Shops close for several days, so intense preparations are necessary for this holiday. Wealthy people give and receive special silks, rare teas, live poultry, even prepared foods. Today, in China, this holiday may be the only one when one does not to go to work. To travel home for those who live or work away from family is a very special treat and at times such as this, foods are transported from one region to another.

Traditionally, Lantern Festival, on the 15th day of the first Lunar month of the year, ended New Year festivities. As most people only get five to ten days off, this holiday of Taoist origins or earlier ones has taken on lesser importance. In earlier days, Lanterns made from wood, bamboo, paper, even sesame seeds were made and lit to honor Tung Fan Shuo's saving of condemned maidens. Others say the lanterns are to guide wandering ghosts home. Actually, it was during the Tang Dynasty (618 - 960 CE) that this festival took on the name of Lantern Festival. Then and in earlier times, families made very decorative lanterns, had parades with them in the evenings, and celebrated with music, dances, even hobby horse contests.

Nowadays, families are not off from work to cook especially for and celebrate this holiday. Some cities and towns still do celebrate the Lantern Festival. Those that do may find their special lanterns travelling to other areas, sort of carnival-like on other occasions. Beijing sometimes has a week-long showing of the more complex ones. Some of them look like stationary floats or stages telling classic tales, all made with lights or things with lights within them. The foods for Lantern Festival include jiaoze and dishes such as Steamed Peppers Stuffed Beancurd Sheet and Shrimp that look like lanterns. At these large festivals, all manner of candies, nuts, ice cream, freshly made lollipops of heated sugar that look like animals and special gods, and other goodies are available for purchase.
Steamed New Year Cake
1/3 pound sugar cubes, ground coarsely
1/3 pound Chinese brown sugar slabs, ground
1 pound glutinous rice flour
1/3 pound ground rice flour
10 sheets of rice paper
2 foot square of very loosely woven white fabric (or three sheets of gauze fabric
1. Soak a ten- or eleven-inch bamboo steaming basket in cool water for one to two hours.
2. Mix sugars well, then add three cups of tepid water and the rice flours.
3. Remove the steamer from the water and drain.
4. Rinse the fabric and gently wring it out. The put fabric in the steamer basket and cover it with several layers of rice paper.
5. Pour in sugar and rice mixture, cover, and steam for fifteen minutes. Wet the surface of the cake and steam another fifteen minutes. Remove from steamer, cool slightly, and serve in pie-shaped wedges.
Stuffed Pepper w/ Beancurd Sheet and Shrimp
1 pound large shrimp, shelled, cleaned and cut into ten large pieces 1 Tablespoon corn oil
3 Tablespoons green peas
3 Tablespoons diced carrots
3 Tablespoons diced soaked black mushrooms
3 Tablespoons rice wine
1/4 teaspoon chili sauce with garlic
1 teaspoon light soy sauce
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1 Tablespoon cornstarch
1 teaspoon sesame oil
dash of ground white pepper
3 bean curd sheets
6 strips of celery to use to tie peppers (or use string)
6 large bell peppers
1 teaspoon corn oil
1/2 cup chicken stock
salt and pepper to taste
1 teaspoon water chestnut flour
1. Saute diced shrimp in oil for one minute, then drain and set aside.
2. Simmer peas, carrots, and mushrooms for two minutes, then drain and mix with the shrimp.
3. Mix chili sauce, light soy sauce, sugar, cornstarch, sesame oil and white pepper.
4. Cut the top off each pepper in a zig-zag fashion, remove seeds and pith from both and set aside.
5. Cut each beancurd sheet in half and shape each into a circle. Then stuff each into a pepper and put one-sixth of the filling into it. Tie with celery strip or string; cover with the top of the pepper and put it on lightly greased dish.
6. Steam for eight minutes, then set aside. If using string, cut it and discard.
7. Mix stock, salt and pepper, and water chestnut flour and bring to the boil. Pour over the peppers and serve.

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