1989 / 2月
Chen Kwe-fang /photos courtesy of Arthur Cheng and Vincent Chang /tr. by Phil Newell
That Chinese pay acute attention to food is well known. Every holiday has its own special fare: On the Lantern Festival it's small rice-flour dumplings named after the day, while for Dragon Boat Festival its tzung-tzu--rice wrapped in bamboo leaves, "moon cakes" for Mid-Autumn Festival, "flower cakes" for the Double Nine Festival . . . and all abundant with unique sentiments. On the Chinese (lunar) New Year, besides glutinous rice cakes, salted and dried meat, sausage, smoked fish, dry breezed chicken and other foods suitable for the occasion, each region also has its own special New Year's victuals: People from Yangchow do up mixed vegetables and "lion's head" meatballs; folks down Chenchiang way indulge in spicy pork; those from Hupei go for "pearl meat balls"; Manchurian natives prefer boiled pork. . . . And naturally no home can be without the huokuo ("hot pot"--a boiling pot hosting a myriad of ingredients). Taiwan, too, has its culinary specialties for the New Year.
In Fukienese there is a saying: "head of the new year, tail of the old," to describe the most important day in the Chinese lunar year.
Every home, rich or poor, becomes a bustle of activity. The New Year's meal,in particular, is the focus of special attention.
If the passing year is short, then the 29th is taken as the New Year's Eve, as is the case this year. On this day all families will make their devotions to the gods and ancestors with food symbolically offered; the food is then set on the table, with the hot pot at the center, and the family in a circle around it. This is the best chance in the year to bring the whole family together--young and old, male and female, and especially those working or studying in some far off place.
The family circle symbolizes a hope that the new year will see the family maintain wholeness. Therefore, the foods also mostly carries symbolism: of long life, wealth, rising fortunes, and togetherness, to give the new year an auspicious start.
The common name of mustard plant is "long years plant," so it is often prepared as a symbol of long-term wealth and position. It has to be prepared in long strips, which are not to be cut.
New Year's food certainly includes fish. Fish (yu) has the same sound as the word for "surplus," so it stands for a surplus of good fortune. The sound of the words for carp (li) and for silver carp (lien) are similar to those for "profit" and "year" and are deemed good omens. In preparation, the fish should be kept intact, and the head and tail should be left when the fish is eaten.
Ordinarily it is not permitted to use a knife from New Year's Eve to the fifth day of the New Year (for the more meticulous in the past, this could extend to the 15th or 22nd). Therefore it is necessary to prepare everything in advance and to prepare things that can be reheated. A big piece of pork, a whole chicken, pig's knuckles, dried beancurd, eggs, and so on are stewed in soy sauce, becoming convenient foods for use during the holiday.
In the agricultural society of the past, life was difficult, and people rarely ate chicken except at New Year's. The head, wings, behind, and feet of the chicken or duck were "the four points of gold," which had to be left until the fifth day of the new year before being consumed.
The center of holiday eating is the hot pot. Its ingredients come from the food symbolically offered on New Year's Eve, including green vegetables, fish balls, shrimp, cabbage, squash, or bamboo. These things are scalded prior to the offering ceremony, then afterwards plunged into chicken broth to create an "anything you wish" dish.
In the past there were of course no hotplates or gas flames; a charcoal fire was used. While mother prepared the food in the kitchen, the kids would start up the charcoal fire. The charcoal would be brought in ouly when it was red hot and had stopped smoking. Before the hot pot was placed on the hot charcoal, a circle of coins would be placed under it. These could not be removed until the fifth day.
The auspicious New Year's nienkao (glutinous rice cakes) play a central role, and everyone must partake. They are the best treats to offer guests and promise promotion and prosperity.
There is a folk song sketching the New Year; from it we get a glimpse of how important the New Year's meal is to Chinese. It goes: On the 23rd, send the hearth god off to heaven; on the 24th, write New Year's couplets (auspicious phrases on red strips of paper to be pasted by the door); on the 25th prepare nienkao; on the 26th, slaughter the pig; on the 27th, kill the chicken; on the 28th, prepare dumplings; on the 29th fry the foods; and on the 30th, eat all this auspicious food, gaining in position and wealth to your heart's desire!
And the song doesn't forget to remind us--don't go to sleep for the whole day!
Celebrating Luck in Surplus
Ingredients: 1 pomfret, 5 cups frying oil, 2t pepper, 1t salt.
Method: 1. After cleaning, slice fish as shown, rub with salt and strain dry. Fry whole in pot of heated oil for 3-4 min., then remove oil. 2. Add salt and pepper and fry for 3 min. 3. When eating, dip fish in salt and pepper, leaving the head and tail for after the 5th.
Wealth and Honor Through the Years
Ingredients: 5 large mustard plants, 3t salt, 1t MSG, 1 pot broth.
Method: 1. Peel mustard plants into long stems and leaves (don't cut them) and scald in boiling water, adding 1t salt. Remove immediately and rinse in cold water. Then place in boiling broth, adding 2t salt and 1t MSG. Done when soft. 2. Can be reheated for serving later.
Year After Year of Luck
Ingredients: 1 chicken, 1 pig's knuckle, 10 eggs, 1 1b. dried tofu, 1 bottle soy sauce, 3 heads dry garlic, 2t sugar, 5 fresh garlics, 2 packs Japanese star anise, 1t salt.
Method: 1. Boil eggs in water with salt, douse in cold water, peel, and set aside. 2. Place 5 bowls of water, 1 bottle soy sauce, 2 packs star anise, 3 heads dry garlic, and 2t sugar in a pot and heat, adding chicken, pig's knuckle, dried tofu, and eggs and cook until chicken meat can be torn. 3. Add fresh garlic cut into 5 cm. lengths and cook for 5 min. 4. When eating, leave the chicken's head, wings, posterior, and feet for after the 5th.
Winter Sausage with Garlic
Ingredients: 10 sausages, 3 fresh garlics, 2 bowls frying oil, 1t soy sauce.
Method: 1. Place frying oil and sausages in pot and fry for 5 min. Remove when skins are transparent. 2. Strain off oil, cool, and slice as shown. 3. Eat with thin slices of garlic, dipping in soy sauce.
"As You Like It" Sundry Pot
Ingredients: 1 1b. green vegetables, 1 cabbage, 4 cubes tofu, 1 cuttlefish, 6 fish balls, 6 pieces tempura, 10 shrimp dumplings, 1 1b. lily flowers, 5 fresh mushrooms, 1/2 1b. shrimp, 1/2 1b. oysters, 2 crabs, 1 tomato, 6 eggs . . . 6 bowls broth.
Method: 1. The hot pot can be filled with whatever ingredients the family likes. Some of the above ingredients will already have been boiled in making ancestral offerings so they can be eaten after scalding in broth. 2. Especially tasty when dipped in a mixture of egg and sh'a-ch'a sauce.
Step by Step on the Way UP
Ingredients: 1 sticky rice cake (nien-kao), 1 turnip cake (lo-po kao), 2 fermented rice cakes (fa-kuo), 4 red turtle rice cakes (hung-kuei kuo), 1 head dry garlic, 2t soy sauce, 3t flour, 1 egg.
Method: 1. Nien-kao, fa-kuo, and hung-kuei kuo can be eaten cold. 2. lo-po kao, fa-kuo, and hung-kuei kuo can be fried. Lo-po kao, in particular, is a tasty New Year's treat when fried soft and dipped in soy sauce with garlic strips. 3. Nien-kao can be dipped in a mixture of egg and flour and fried in oil until it turns a golden brown.