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More About Chinese Symbols: Cultural Fives

by Jacqueline M. Newman

Foods and Symbolism

Summer Volume: 1997 Issue: 4(4) page(s): 11, 14, and 19

As we close this year of publication and prepare for our fifth, it seems appropriate to look at the role of the number five. To the Chinese, this uneven number is thought of as male and one of the most portentious in Chinese numerology. It, as a symbol, is a cryptic form of communication stressing the notability of things to which it is attached. Important thoughts or emphases are given to groups of five such as things about flora, fauna, and food; even items of a fixed nature such as minerals are singled out in groups of five, telling people which are the most important.

The significance of the number five is not new. Throughout history, one sees things discussed in groups of five, be they good or bad. Early on, no less than five families were held responsible for any offense or crime committed in their neighborhood. Also archaic, five is associated with Chinese directions; equivalent to north, south, east, west, and middle. The word for China is the Middle Kingdom. It was so named as it's rulers saw their empires at the core or center of the world.

Five enters all areas of thought. Buddhists had and still have five prohibitions, including: Do not eat meat, Do not kill, Do not drink wine, Do not steal, and Do not lust. Other ancient uses of five can be seen in matter as five elements: Earth, Fire, Metal, Water, and Wood. There are also in the Five Pures: Bamboo, Moon, Pine trees, Plum trees, and Water; and in five relationships which Confucius said were directional. These include: Father to Son, Husband to wife, Elder brother to younger brother, Ruler to servant, and Friend to friend. There are five wishes for: Good health, Long Life, Quiet, Riches, and Virtue; and even five classics, translated as the: Book of Ceremonies, Book of Changes, Book of Documents, Book of Rites, and the Book of Songs.

In animal families of five, there are five philosophic animals including the: Dragon, Man, Phoenix, Tortoise, and the Unicorn. They represent the essences of scaly, naked, feathered, shell, and furry creatures, respectively. Most people say that there are five domestic animals: Dog, Hen, Ox, Pig, and Sheep; though some say there are six and include the horse. There are also five noxious creatures roaming the earth. These include: Centipedes, Lizards, Scorpions, Snakes, and Toads.

Continuing with fives, there are five themes available for use in paintings, including: Animals, Clouds, Green things (trees and grass), Rocks, and Water. One finds five moral qualities in: Ceremonial behavior, Humanity, Reliability, Sense of duty, and Wisdom. Lastly among these listings, but not the last in Chinese cultural heritage, are five important customs to adhere to: Festivals, Funerals, Hospitality, Military, and Wishes, good ones we can assume.

For my good wishes, I think of the five tastes. They are familiar to all Chinese people and are: Sweet, Salt, Sour, Bitter, and Spicy. Allow me to end this year offering five recipes, one for each of these tastes. May they bring in a fifth year that is auspicious for Flavor and Fortune. I hope that your Kitchen God goes off to heaven with five layers of sweets reporting only good about your family. Let Tsao Wang Yeh, as he is called in Guangzhou, return to your homes and hearth with powers to give you Health, Happiness, Vigor, Longevity, and many fine foods to grace your table.

Almond Tea
1 cup almond powder
1 large can evaporated skim milk
1 cup sugar
4 tablespoons cornstarch
1. Mix the first three ingredients with one cup of cold water and stir until you've made a thick paste with no lumps.
2. Put this mixture and seven more cups of water and the cornstarch in the top of a double boiler and cook until thick. Serve in bowls and sip from the bowl or eat with a spoon.
Note: You can substitue one cup of ground almonds, but add two to four tablespoons of ground glutinous rice when doing so.
Chinese Omelet
2 Tablespoons corn oil
1/2 cup celery, diced
1/2 cup bamboo shoots, diced
1/2 cup water chestnuts, diced
1 teaspoon salt
1 Tablespoon light soy sauce
1 teaspoon sugar
1/4 teaspoon ground white pepper
1/2 cup scallions, slivered
6 eggs, beaten well
1 Tablespoon cornstarch
1/2 cup ham, jullienned
2 to 4 Tablespoons corn oil
1. Heat oil in a wok or deep fry pan and add celery, bamboo shoots, and water chestnuts and stir-fry them for one minute. Drain and set aside to cool.
2. Mix salt, soy sauce, sugar, pepper, and scallions. Add the eggs, cornstarch, and ham and mix well.
3. Heat two tablespoons oil and fry the omelet until brown, then turn and fry on the other side also until brown. The serve.
Note: You can fry half this mixture first and then use the addtional oil to fry the second half. Doing so makes for a firmer omelet.
Sweet and Sour Chicken Livers
6 chicken livers, cut each in thirds
2 Tablespoons thin soy sauce
1 Tablespoon dry sherry
1/2 cup flour
2 Tablespoons corn oil
1 carrot, jullienned
1 scallion, sliced thin
2 Tablespoons sugar
1 Tablespoon black vinegar
2 Tablespoons corn starch
1. Marinate chicken livers with the next three ingredients, for half an hour.
2. Heat oil and fry the liver mixture in a wok or fry pan for one to two minutes. Remove the livers and set them aside.
3. Put half cup cold water into the same wok or fry pan and add the carrots and onions. Bring to the boil and boil for one minute.
4. Add the livers and all the remaining ingredients and stir-fry just one more minute, then serve.
Bitter Melon Stuffed with Mock Pork
8 water chestnuts, minced
6 scallions, cut in half-inch pieces
1 and 1/2 cups ground pork
1 Tablespoon dry sherry
3 Tablespoons thin soy sauce
1/4 teaspoon ground pepper
6 bitter melons, cut in half the long way and seeded
For the sauce mixture:
2 Tablespoons dry sherry
1 Tablespoon dark soy sauce
2 Tablespoons cornstarch
1. Mix all ingredients except the bitter melon then stuff one-twelfth of the mixture into each half of the bitter melon.
2. In a large diameter fry pan or pot, bring two cups of water to the boil and add the sauce mixture, then carefully put in the bitter melon pieces, stuffed side up, and simmer covered for thirty minutes. Then serve.
Spiced Lily Bud Duck
1/4 cup sliced garlic soaked with two tablespoons warm water for half hour
1/4 cup fresh ginger soaked with two tablespoons warm water for twenty minutes
2 teaspoons sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup dark soy sauce
3 Tablespoons dry sherry
1/2 cup lily buds, soaked in half cup warm water for thirty minutes, then drained
1/2 cup cloud ear mushrooms soaked in one and a half cups warm water for thirty minutes, then drained
1/2 cup fresh shiitake mushrooms, sliced thin
1 cup corn oil
1 duck, quartered
2 Tablespoons chili paste with garlic
1. Put garlic and ginger in a blender and mix for one minute. Then put the mixture in a strainer and reserve the juice.
2. Mix sugar, salt, soy sauce, and sherry with reserved juice and rub the duck inside and out. Set aside for half an hour. Save any extra liquid.
3. Heat oil in a wok and fry the duck pieces until well-browned. Drain well, set oil aside, and clean the wok.
4. Add five tablespoons of the reserved oil to the wok and stir-fry the lily buds and both mushrooms for two minutes.
5. Add remaining duck marinade, the chili paste, the extra liquid, and the duck and simmer until tender, stirring every two or three minutes.

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