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Winter Solstice Festival

by (Margaret) Marr, Lau-Kee

Holidays and Celebrations

Spring Volume: 2000 Issue: 7(1) page(s): 11 and 12

Chinese festivals originally were religious and ritualistic in character. These important holiday events kept the spirit of the rituals alive as they honored gods, ghosts, and ancestors throughout the year.

In America, early Chinese who were Cantonese referred to Christmas as Gaw Dung. Observance of this Christian holiday came some days after the Winter Solstice, called Dong Zhi. The latter falls on the 15th day of the 11th moon.

According to the western calendar, December 22nd is the shortest day of the year. This winter day and others close to it are marked by many cultural observances around the world. Universally, the Winter Solstice was regarded as the beginning of the annual reawakening of nature. Days would grow longer and the nights shorter. For the Chinese, the Winter Solstice celebrated the beginning of the triumph of yang over yin. It was their holiday to celebrate near Christmas.

Many people would offer incense the morning of Dong Zhi. Some would take a break from work. But most would use the evening of the solstice as the time for a ceremony performed at the family altar. There was incense, candles, and offerings of prayers of thanksgiving. These were made to Heaven and Earth, the household gods, and to the spirits of the ancestors. Following the ceremony, families assembled for a sumptuous dinner celebrating the arrival of winter and the lengthening of the days. In the early Southern Song Dynasty (1127 - 1279 CE) villagers beat drums and donned masks to chase out epidemics and other disasters culminating a festival of exorcism and renewal. Then and now, they made a very thick porridge called Laba and they make it on December 8th. This gruel consists of various whole grains and rice with fruits and nuts such as dates, longans, raisins, chestnuts, peanuts, and pine seeds. It is often made at the break of dawn at major Buddhist temples. Monks believe that eating it, they will be protected by the spirit of Buddha. They make it December 8th because on that day of the lunar calendar, Sakyamuni became Buddha.

According to Chinese custom, every year on that day, people make this sweet congee as an offering to Buddha and/or their ancestors. The recipe for Laba varies considerably from province to province and region to region. Some people make Laba for the Winter Solstice Festival. Last year this holiday was on December 22nd, next year celebrate it with be on December 21st. Personally, I like to celebrate the Winter Solstice by including some of the following foods at mealtime: Rice Congee (juk) and Glutinous Rice Dumpling Balls in Broth(tang yuan). Tang stands for reunion and yuan means round or complete. I make my tang yuan with meat and vegetables or stuffed with a sweet filling. I serve them in a sweetened broth. I also like to make a thick soup with ground raw rice, almonds, walnuts, peanuts, and/or other items. In addition to these, I make a steamed glutinous rice pudding called ba bo fon for this holiday. This latter item has many of the ingredients of the Laba made in earlier times; it reminds me of it.

Eating tang yuan is symbolic of family unity and harmony. At a recent meeting of the Association of Chinese Cooking Teachers, I discussed this holiday and made most of these items for them. Allow me to share some of the recipes with you. At that meeting, and in my house, tong yuen are served in a light chicken broth. They can also be served in a chicken or meat broth with vegetables, in a soup made with only brown sugar and water, or in a chrysanthemum leaf soup with meat and vegetables on the side, and in the ways indicated below.
Margaret Lau-Kee Marr, a retired elementary school teacher, is still teaching about Chinese culture and cuisine. This article began as a presentation and demonstration about this holiday at a recent meeting of the Chinese cooking Teachers Association in California.
Plain Tong Yuen
2 cups glutinous rice flour
3/4 cup hot water (approximately)
1. Put the flour in a large bowl and using chopsticks, mix the hot water in a little at a time.
2. Knead the dough in the bowl until it is soft and smooth. If it feels a little dry, wet your hands and knead again. Then put the dough into a plastic bag and let it rest for a short time.
3. Remove one quarter of the dough and break off gum-ball size pieces about one-inch in diameter. Repeat with the rest of the dough.
4. Put them one by one into twelve cups of rapidly boiling water, stir a few times to prevent sticking, and boil for seven to eight minutes until they float; then cook one more minute, drain and serve in a light soup.
Pork-filled Tong Yuen
1/2 pound chopped or ground pork
1 teaspoon dark soy sauce
1/2 teaspoon sesame oil
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1 teaspoon cornstarch
2 Tablespoons minced sauteed shallots or salted turnips
1 recipe plain Tong Yuen dough
1. Mix all ingredients except the dough.
2. Make round balls from the entire dough mix that are about one and three-quarter inches in diameter and make each of them cup-shaped in your hand.
3. Fill each with a teaspoon of filling and using thumb and forefinger, push the dough up and around the meat mixture to seal it completely with dough. Then gently roll each ball until smooth and round.
4. Boil as in the recipe above, or any soup, then drain. Serve these in a light soup, the Black Sesame Soup recipe below, or any soup you choose.
Tong Yuen with Black Sesame Seed Paste
1 and 1/2 cups black sesame seeds
1 and 1/2 cups confectioners sugar
1/2 cup solid shortening
1. Put the sesame seeds in a large bowl with water, stir then scoop out only those that float (sand and other debris usually sinks during this process).
2. Spread them out onto a cookie sheet, preferably one with sides, and bake for thirty minutes in a preheated oven set at 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Stir them a few times while they are baking; and when done cool then.
3. Put about one-quarter of them in a blender and blend until they are powder-like. Repeat until done.
4. Mix with sugar and knead this mixture with the shortening until a well-mixed paste has been made. Refrigerate until hard (This can be made ahead until this point, and the paste can be kept in the refrigerator for several months).
5. Fill using the Plain Tong Yuen recipe or put this filling in another dough. Boil them for seven to eight minutes until they float, then cook an addtional minute, drain, and put them in a light soup, the Black Sesame Soup recipe, or a soup of your choice.
Black Sesame Soup Concentrate
1/2 pound black sesame seeds
1 cup rice, soaked for at least one hour, then drained well
1. Soak the seeds in a large bowl with water, then scoop out only those that float.
2. Put them in a 200 degree Fahrenheit oven, then raise the temperature to 400 degrees. Mix frequently and bake until fragrant, then cool.
3. Put sesame seeds and rice into a blender and add enough water to reach the three and a half cup mark. Blend first on low speed then on high until smooth. If needed add additional water one or two tablespoons at a time. Now add two and a half cups more water (divide into two or more batches if you have a small blender) and blend for an additional minute. Store in refrigerator or freeze in one cup batches until needed. This yields six cups of concentrate.
Black Sesame Soup
1 cup sesame seed soup concentrate
3 cups water
1/2 cup sugar
1. Mix the above and boil slowly for five minutes. If it gets too thick, add a little boiling water and boil for five minutes more.
2. Add cooked Tong Yuen with Black Sesame Paste or other black sesame balls and serve.

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